‘I don’t think much about me in the past, to tell you the truth. I’m too busy looking forward.’ So says Madonna Louise Ciccone, officially the world’s top-selling female recording artist of all time, with more than 300 million record sales under her Boy Toy belt buckle. If we’re honest, were we in Madonna’s five-inch heels, we’d spend quite a while looking back over our meteoric rise to international superstardom – meandering along the way to marvel at our success in retaining such influence over three entire decades.
But then that’s us. We haven’t sold out an Abu Dhabi tour date in less than an hour (with ticket prices for the June gig starting from a lofty Dhs495), to then quickly follow it with a second now-sold-out night. Indeed, we’re not just about to play the Madonna 2012 world tour, kicking off with 28 dates throughout the Middle East and Europe, before completing 26 shows in North America and then heading off to South America and Australia. We also didn’t just put together the most-watched Super Bowl half-time show in history, with 114 million viewers tuning in to watch the Cirque Du Soleil- and Jamie King-visualised performance, starring guests LMFAO, Nicki Minaj, Cee Lo Green and finger-flicking M.I.A (okay – a few viewers may have already been watching the football). And we certainly haven’t just released our 12th studio album, MDNA, which has topped the iTunes charts in 50 countries to become the largest one day pre-order of any album in iTunes history. Yes, tot up the world records and she’s almost on a par with our beloved Dubai. But no, Madonna is just not the type to look backwards, or even sit still for very long. ‘Right now, my manager won’t even allow me to have a veg-out Sunday,’ she revealed during her exclusive interview on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon in March.
But not everything the 53-year-old American touches turns to gold. Her forward-looking opening comment was made about her 2011 pet project, W.E, a film she both co-wrote and directed, centred on 1930s English king Edward VIII’s abdication from the throne in order to marry a divorcee, American Wallis Simpson. ‘Of course I’m nervous,’ Madonna said as W.E. opened in cinemas in February. ‘I think being nervous means you care about something, and you want the outcome to be good. I come to the art of filmmaking with great humility, I respect it immensely as an art form, and I know I have a lot to learn.’
Unfortunately, it appears the critics – and the cinema-going public – agree with her. At time of going to press, W.E. had failed to gross US$1 million of its estimated US$28.2 million budget. It had also been splattered with a mere 12 per cent rating by online critic-survey rottentomatoes.com, and received a lukewarm two out of five star rating in Time Out.
But we shouldn’t write off her film industry capabilities altogether. Not only has she won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for her leading role in 1990 musical-drama Evita (in which she wore 370 different costumes, earning her a Guinness World Record for the most costume changes in a film, no less), but she has also been praised for smaller roles – in 1990 pulp action film Dick Tracy and 1985’s comedy-drama Desperately Seeking Susan. It’s just the directing bit she’s not getting the hang of.
‘I was completely intimidated to become a director,’ Madonna says in hindsight. ‘I was married to a director [Brit Guy Ritchie, from 2000-2008] and I thought, “oh, who am I?”, but eventually, obviously, I found the courage to do it.’ It seems odd to hear Madonna, a woman who’s most iconic stage outfit involves a cone bra, who has published a book entitled simply Sex, a woman who has upset the Pope, talk about her nerves and search for courage. And it seems while she very clearly believes in herself, she never believes she’s done enough: she’s even considering another film project already. ‘I’m thinking about a new movie,’ she says. ‘But it’s in the back, in the nether regions of my cerebral cortex.’ Nevertheless – it’s there.
But should we be surprised? Madge is not one to let a little commercial failure get in her way. Just look at 2003’s American Life album, for example. It may have shot to number one in the UK and US and been nominated for two Grammys, but two of the singles subsequently released off the back of the album failed to make the American Billboard Hot 100. The top 100! That must have stung for our favourite over-achiever.
Her answer? Sharpen her headhunting skills and persuade the latest talent to collaborate with her. After Brit producer William Orbit’s magic touch with the Ray of Light record back in 1998, fellow Brit (and her three-time tour musical director) Stuart Price was given a turn, producing 2005’s Confessions on a Dance Floor. The result – apart from giving Madonna the opportunity to do a lot of lunges in hot pants – was a’70s- and ’80s-inspired disco-driven record that bounced all the way to number one in 40 countries. Nice rebound. As for Price, the Madonna Midas touch has helped him go on to work with The Killers, Pet Shop Boys, Kylie, Miike Snow and Take That, among others, rendering him among the highest-profile songwriters and producers in the UK.
For 11th album Hard Candy in 2008, Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams and Nate ‘Danja’ Hills were then invited to join the Madonna gang. Their expertise helped to ensure the disco-pop release hit the number one spot in 37 countries and garner generally good reviews, with the US’s Rolling Stone magazine stating she had allowed ‘top-shelf producers [to] make her their plaything’.
And now she’s turned to ‘bad-a** b*****’ Nicki Minaj and M.I.A for MDNA, as she described them on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (the only pre-Madonna 2012 tour interview she gave, live on Facebook, to ensure it was ‘direct to [her] fans’). ‘They’re tough girls. And they’re smart. They don’t just fall back on their sexuality. I wouldn’t mess with them,’ she smirked.
But while Madonna may have a knack for hiring the right help at just the right time, you wouldn’t call her lazy. Not to her face, anyway. ‘I haven’t just stayed in the pop world,’ she’s quick to point out. ‘I’ve written children’s books, I’ve designed clothing and I’ve moved off into lots of different areas.’ Yes, along with ’90s books Sex and The Girlie Show, Madonna has written a series of children’s books – not your typical coffee table partners by anyone’s standards. The first, 2003’s The English Roses, was released in more than 100 countries – in 30 different languages – on the same day, to become the fastest-selling book by a first-time children’s author ever, shooting straight to the top of the New York Times bestsellers list for children’s picture books.
As for designing clothing, in 2010 she collaborated with Macy’s department store to launch the ’80s-inspired Material Girl line with her daughter Lourdes. ‘My kids give me fashion ideas,’ she says. Apparently the 15-year-old has been into fashion since she was eight, and tends to steal her mum’s clothes. This was followed last year by a second label, Truth or Dare by Madonna, offering underwear, shoes and accessories. The range includes a perfume that apparently ‘smells like [her] mother,’ the singer’s namesake, who passed away when Madonna was five. ‘My oldest memory of my mother is her perfume,’ she explained at the scent’s launch. ‘I carry it with me everywhere. She always smelled like gardenias and tuberose.’
How does the woman herself describe this crossover power and ability to multi-task non-stop? ‘Everything I do influences everything I do,’ Madonna says coolly. ‘That’s life.’
She’s certainly succinct. But maybe the secret of her success is, as she says, her willingness to brazenly mix her influences and inspirations: her knack at recognising and harnessing the talent of the times to the mighty brand Madonna. But she doesn’t expect us to sum up her life, her career and her style in a few pages. ‘Stop striving for perfection, because there’s no such thing. We have to look beneath the surface. We can judge a book by its cover, [but then] you have to read the book. How do you get to know a person? You can’t expect to know who they are by reading an article in a magazine.’
Indeed. But you can learn plenty more about a person by watching them in their element: in Madonna’s case, live on stage. ‘The show’s a little under two hours, and the choreography is entirely new,’ she reveals of her upcoming shows. She also states that she’s been learning to use a slackline (a difficult-looking type of balance technique, similar to tightrope-walking) for the tour. ‘There’s a lot of violence,’ she says of the shows. ‘I work out some aggression during the first part, before it gets to the happy part.’ Well, we’re busy looking forward to it.