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Nearly a week after Madonna released her 14th studio album, Madame X — which is expected to debut at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 200 chart — the pop superstar took the stage at New York’s iHeartRadio Theater on Thursday night to talk with an intimate group of fans and media about the genesis of her latest body of work.
In a conversation moderated by co-hosts Cubby Bryant and Christine Nagy from iHeartRadio’s 106.7 Lite FM, Her Madgesty offered more insight into her creative process while waxing nostalgic about beloved hits such as “Vogue” and “Like a Virgin.”
But music wasn’t the only topic on the table. A lively, warm and candid Madonna, 60 — fueled by rosé champagne and dressed in a sparkling blazer, bustier, silk shorts and her signature Madame X eye patch — spoke about using art as activism in 2019’s divisive sociopolitical climate and joked about the possibility of running for president. However, the performer did her best not to bring up current POTUS Donald Trump, whom she has publicly criticized in the past. “Let’s not go there,” she said at one point when his name slipped out of her mouth.
Here, The Hollywood Reporter rounds up the highlights from the wide-ranging discussion — which also included interesting commentary about Madonna’s relocation from the U.S. to Portugal, her relationship with social media, collaborating with Latin artists and her role as a mother of six.
Finding inspiration in Lisbon
Madonna admitted that she didn’t think she would record another album after 2015’s Rebel Heart — but she changed her mind after moving to Portugal’s capital nearly two years ago. She originally settled in Lisbon so her 13-year-old son, David Banda, could pursue his dreams of becoming a soccer player, but she unexpectedly found her creative juices flowing again in the scenic coastal city.
“I never in a million years would have imagined that I would live in Lisbon. But it really was about supporting my son’s passion for soccer and wanting to have an adventure and to get outside of America for a minute,” said Madonna, who has homes in New York and London. “So I did go there. And it was a confusing, crazy experience for me, specifically in the beginning, because I didn’t know anybody. And the culture is very different. It’s very much slower than New York.”
After the initial culture shock, the entertainer found herself connecting with local musicians who helped her lay the foundation for Madame X. “In my moments of loneliness and not having a friend, which reminded me of my early days in New York, I met a few people who led me to meeting other people, who introduced me to amazing musicians who invited me to parties and small bars and clubs. I was truly, truly inspired. I had no intention of recording another album, but somehow it just happened.”
Still, while recording Madame X, Madonna made sure to never miss one of David’s soccer games — often wearing “sneakers, you know, normal-type clothes. Maybe designed by Gucci? I don’t know.”
Paying tribute to Martha Graham
Asked how she named her new album, Madonna said that “Madame X” is the nickname modern dance pioneer Martha Graham gave her decades ago when she was a student in New York.
“[Graham’s dance school] had a very strict dress code,” she said. ”I, of course, couldn’t help myself, I broke all the rules. I refused to dress like everybody else. Shocker. And I kept getting called into [Graham’s] office.”
During one of those meetings, Madonna said that her teacher — who died at age 96 in April 1991 — “was not having” her sartorial deviancy but was impressed nonetheless. The Grammy winner continued, “[Graham] said, ‘I’m going to have a new name for you,’ and I said, ‘What’s that?’ And she said, ‘Madame X…Madame X is the name of a spy, a secret agent. That’s what you are — because every time you come here, I don’t recognize you. You look like someone else.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, cool.'”
Madonna said that when her friend the fashion designer Jeremy Scott came to visit her in Lisbon, it dawned on her that she should name her album Madame X. “I told him the story,” she said. “And he said, ‘That’s the name of this record!’ So thank you, Jeremy.”
Madonna went on to say that her reputation as the queen of reinvention owes much to the seed that Graham planted. “You can blame Martha Graham,” she joked, referencing the distinctly different looks and sounds she has introduced in each era of her lengthy career.
Taking a few trips down memory lane
In between listening to tracks from Madame X, co-hosts Cubby and Christine played a few gems from Madonna’s ascent to stardom, including “Vogue,” “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Material Girl.”
Minutes before dancing in her seat to 1990’s “Vogue” — which has recently found new life in the season two narrative of FX’s groundbreaking series Pose — Madonna recounted the moment she first witnessed the legendary House of Xtravaganza voguing at a Manhattan nightclub, which ultimately prompted her to record the song and bring New York’s LGBTQ ballroom community into the mainstream. “It was just the most amazing thing,” she said.
While she moved along to “Vogue” and “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna seemed less enthused to listen to her iconic tune “Material Girl.” Taking a sip from her champagne glass, she shrugged and laughed, saying, “I don’t even know how to dance to this.”
Involving her kids in her craft
Asked about the emotional lyrics of the Madame X cut “Come Alive,” Madonna said the song was inspired by her children. “[I wanted] to instill in them the idea that they never have to stand in the back, and that they are important human beings — and that each and every one of us matters equally,” she said. “That’s why it was also important for me to have a children’s choir singing on it.”
Madonna also said her kids’ “excellent taste” in music has influenced her current sound — “They’ve turned me on to a lot of things I probably wouldn’t have heard if it weren’t for them” — and revealed that some of them were even involved in recording Madame X. For instance, her 6-year-old twin daughters, Stelle and Estere, offered their talents to “Dark Ballet.” She explained, “[The sound of] someone blowing on the flames, that’s my daughters. So somehow [my children are] always involved in some way or another.”
Her favorite songs from Madame X
Though Madonna said that every Madame X track feels like her “baby,” she did mention a couple standouts when asked to name her favorite. “It’s a toss-up between ‘Extreme Occident’ and ‘God Control,'” she said, later detailing why “Extreme Occident’s” lyrics are particularly meaningful to her. “I say, ‘I guess I’m lost, I had to pay the cost/The thing that hurt me most, was that I wasn’t lost.’ That doesn’t make sense, right? But it really does to me, because I spent my entire life listening to the noise and people’s commenting, ideas, judgments, criticisms and advice, what I should do and what I shouldn’t do, and that’s such a waste of time.”
She added, “I realized that I should have always paid attention to my own intuition. To thine self be true. I realized all that time, I wasn’t lost.”
Her struggle with social media
Sharing her thoughts about Instagram, Madonna said she enjoys posting a “shameless selfie” here and there but is happy she grew into her fame at a time when cell phones didn’t even exist.
“Instagram is great, but it’s a lie. It’s not reality,” she said of what she considers a “confusing” social media trend. “I didn’t grow up with a phone. I didn’t grow up as an artist with social media. So I feel really lucky to have been able to develop as an artist without having to feel like I had to be like somebody else, look like somebody else or dress like somebody else. I was allowed to develop and be my own person and be unique. That’s a privilege that a lot of kids don’t have now. They don’t even know it, like my own kids.”
Creating fire with Latin artists
On Madame X, Madonna has several collaborations, including with Latin artists like Colombian heartthrob Maluma (“Medellin,” “Bitch I’m Loca”) and Brazilian songstress Anitta (“Faz Gostoso”). Next, she hopes to get into the recording studio with Spanish pop princess and flamenco singer Rosalia.
“I’m very intrigued,” Madonna said. “I would like to say that I heard about her about a year and a half ago, and I tried to get her to perform at my birthday party. And she was not well known at the time … I love flamenco. I was really moved by her, but it didn’t happen. But now she’s huge. I think she’s a very unique and very outspoken, strong woman. I love her style. And I love how she has managed to take the folk music of Spain and bring it into the pop arena.”
Playing theaters instead of stadiums and arenas
Last month, Madonna announced a residency-like Madame X tour that will see her playing small venues across multiple dates in big cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Of her decision to forgo arenas and stadiums for this set of shows, she said, “I want to be close to people. I want to look into people’s eyes … I want people to really focus on the music, and I want people to focus on the lyrics. I want to present it in a theatrical way, so you really do pay attention to the words and music and intimacy and humanity.”
Reliving her messy but memorable “Like a Virgin” performance at the 1984 VMAs
Toward the end of the event, Madonna played a game that involved her picking random items out of a box that each sparked a memory. One of the items was a white high heel that resembled the one she lost onstage while performing “Like a Virgin” at the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards.
As fans will remember, Madonna bounced back from the shoe snafu by writhing around on the floor — no footwear required! — but accidentally flashed her undergarments to the audience, one of the first of many controversies throughout her career. Recalling the number, Madonna said that her manager at the time told her that the mishap had “ruined” her career. “But f— him,” she said with a dismissive wave of her hand. Madonna took another swig of champagne as the crowd cheered loudly and a few fans shouted, “Yas, queen!”
Activism through art
The listening party closed out with Madonna’s powerful Madame X anthem “I Rise,” which she wrote in response to today’s divisive sociopolitical climate. On Thursday, she dropped an accompanying music video that does not feature the star herself but instead weaves together footage of the survivors of the Parkland shooting, supporters of LGBTQ equality, Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman’s testimony about sexual abuse, first responders to natural disasters and more pushes for social justice across the globe.
“This song is really about feeling responsible and/or connected to all marginalized people who have been discriminated against in any way, shape or form,” she said of the song and its visual counterpart. “They’re really stories about resiliency. I’m really attracted to the idea that people can rise no matter what happens, rise up against all odds and say, ‘I will not be afraid. I do not bow down to fear and I will survive. I will do more than survive. I will rise.'”
Madonna for president?
As Madonna spoke about the political undertones of “I Rise,” one galvanized fan exclaimed, “Madonna for president!”
But she responded, “Oh God, you don’t want me in the White House. I really feel like being the president is not a good way to get things done. And you have to be so diplomatic that you can’t actually — I mean, maybe I would change all that. People don’t want to offend anyone that they just, I guess, no, no, Donald Trump hasn’t really thought about that.”
Curtailing herself, Madonna ended the night by saying, “Let’s not go there.”
Madonna’s Madame X listening party is available to stream on LiveXLive.com on Friday evening, starting at 6:30 p.m. ET. iHeartRadio’s AC and Hot AC stations will air special radio broadcasts of the event at the same time.
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