Madonna Biographer Mary Gabriel and Mel Ottenberg Go Deep on the Queen of Pop
Madge disciple Mel Ottenberg calls up Mary Gabriel, esteemed biographer and the author of Madonna: A Rebel Life, a new 800-page tome on the queen of pop, to talk album art, tabloid drama, and the revolutionary power of Sex.
MARY GABRIEL: Hi, Mel. How are you?
MEL OTTENBERG: I’m great and psyched to talk to you. So Mary, why Madonna?
GABRIEL: Well, my last book was about five women artists. When I left that story, I was excited about how women artists change society, as all art does. So I wanted to continue writing about them, but I thought if I wrote about visual artists again, I’d just repeat myself. I wasn’t a Madonna fan, I was a journalist. I knew about her, of course, it’s impossible not to have known about her. And people I worked with, women I really respected who worked on battlefields as foreign correspondents, liked Madonna and went to her concerts, so I took note. Also, the artists I wrote about were active during the cusp of the social, sexual, and cultural revolution that lasted from the ’60s until the early 2000s, when it started to turn sour. And Madonna’s work and life embodies that period.
OTTENBERG: Why did it turn sour?
GABRIEL: After September 11th, society started to become more conservative. It had started in the ’90s as a reaction to Clinton. But in 2001, the attack and that cultural crisis gave the right wing an excuse to clamp down on women, to clamp down on gays and lesbians, to clamp down on broader freedoms. So Madonna’s work after that became a reaction to that counterrevolution. When I started the book, I thought of her as this liberating force. And she was.
OTTENBERG: It’s interesting that you’re not coming at her from a fan perspective. As a lifelong mega-fan, I can tell you where she lost me.
GABRIEL: Yeah, I’m not personally involved, but I don’t think anybody can honestly examine her life and not come out a fan. There may have been moments you might disagree with, but my god, what a powerful woman. When you look at our time and ask, “Who has had a bigger global impact?” I think you’d be hard-pressed to come up with three other artists who did.
OTTENBERG: Even in her prime, she was still taking risks and being crucified by the press. But through it all, you have to say, “Goddamnit, this woman is an artist.”
GABRIEL: It’s really appropriate that my first interview about this book is with Interview magazine because this was Madonna’s artistic birthplace. One of the things I wanted to do is rewind the tape on her life and say, “Okay, Madonna has been described as this pop star who emerged as a mega-commodity, as a self-promoter. But if you look at where she really came from, it was that little nucleus in New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the rebirth of pop art and the whole Warhol scene. And that’s where I wanted to tell her story from. To say, “Okay, we never really understood where she came from, who she was, and the foundation of the artistic culture she arose out of.” She’s an artist. She’s a pop culture figure, but she’s not just a pop star. She’s so much more.
OTTENBERG: Andy Warhol changed my life and so did Madonna. But you mention that conservative change in society, away from feminism, and that’s when American Life came out and Madonna’s artistic expression was no longer working within the zeitgeist.
GABRIEL: The ’80s were her decade. Then, in the early ’90s, Sex and Erotica and Body of Evidence and Dangerous Games and Bedtime Stories, which, to me, is an absolutely fantastic album, came out. She had a rough patch there, too. And then she came back and everyone loved Ray of Light. But when you think about 2000, that’s when she moved to Europe. She was always an international figure, but she started working with European producers and her work was much broader and more pointedly political. The earlier stuff was political, but it was done in a way that was understated. American Life was so pointedly political and it was so offensive to so many people. Why?
OTTENBERG: Why do you think?
GABRIEL: One of the things that’s always annoyed people about her is that she seems to criticize the world that she’s benefiting from. She criticizes the sexualization of women and yet she’s one of the sex goddesses of the second half of the 20th century. She criticizes materialism and yet she’s a zillionaire fashion icon and she’s dripping in the material things that she appears to be criticizing. So I think people never understand that, really, with the sex stuff, she’s saying, “I’m taking the power that you’ve had over women for myself. And I’m telling other women to do it too.” With the materialism, she’s saying, “I never wanted this stuff. And I can tell you from having experienced the very best that the world has to offer that it is absolutely meaningless.”
GABRIEL: And at the time she was saying that, there was so much turmoil in the world. There was the war in Afghanistan and the beginning of the Iraq War, and the hysterical political response to everything as if prior to 2001, there had been no threat. Everyone was so terrified at that time and they started clinging to merchandise, and the commodification of everything went through the roof. People started watching reality shows because reality itself was too scary. And she was saying at that moment, “Stop. None of this means anything. If you want peace in your life, if you want love in your life, you have to go inside and look for something deeper.” It corresponded with her spiritual reawakening through kabbalah. She’s saying “This modern life is not for me. It’s not real.” But people didn’t want to hear it. It was part of that old disrespect of anything Madonna said—they didn’t trust the messenger. She’s a woman, she’s blonde, she’s rich, so I think that was the first real breaking point for her, artistically and culturally, with the American audience. The rest of the world loved it and loved her, and they were right on board. Then by the time she got to Hard Candy—I can see what you mean because, to me, that was a real nadir in her artistic output.
OTTENBERG: I love how you wrote about it in the book. She wasn’t focused.
GABRIEL: She had a million things going on.
OTTENBERG: And then she went into the studio with all these big stars. To paraphrase how you describe it, for the first time, it was not really a Madonna production. It’s the era of “Rock Your Body” by Justin Timberlake and “Milkshake” by Kelis. But for her it didn’t work. I remember when the album cover dropped. She was trying too hard for me.
GABRIEL: That cover seems to be the least favorite among Madonna’s fans. But you know what, that happens. A painter might paint 50 paintings and only one is a masterpiece. When you look at Madonna’s career, how many times can you say an album failed? Maybe once.
OTTENBERG: We have to talk about Madonna in the ’80s, because it’s the best thing ever. Like when she goes on American Bandstand and tells Dick Clark, “I want to rule the world.” What’s so exciting about Madonna is that she means it. She’s from a working-class family in Michigan, one of six. She had a hard life, but she was determined and she understood what her talents were and she knew how to speak to the people and what they wanted.
GABRIEL: She’s a little bit like a film director or a curator in those early years. She said, “Maybe some people are smart enough to be geniuses sitting alone in a room, but I like to have people around me.” An artist brings all their tools to create the thing they want to do. And maybe those tools are paintbrushes, or maybe they’re a guitar and a piano, or maybe they’re a bunch of producers that are really great and you get them all together. Her genius is that she can take all of these influences no matter how massive they are: like Nile Rodgers, just coming off of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance.” And here she’s some nobody kid, saying, “I want to work with him.” And he says, “Yes.” And they create this unbelievable album together, and it sounds like her, not like him. That’s how strong her vision was and how powerful she is as an artist. Madonna has been doing this for 40 years and she has been consistently the vision and the voice that comes out of it. And if it fails or it succeeds, it’s really because of her. And she will always be the first person to take the fall. She rarely, throughout her career, ever blamed anyone else if something didn’t work.
OTTENBERG: Was Ray of Light a comeback? That was really big.
GABRIEL: It was. She had a baby and it was literally a rebirth for her and for her fans because she had shed the darkness of the early ’90s. It’s a great album, but I think part of the reason it was so heralded by critics was that it was so nonthreatening to the mostly heterosexual white male music critics at that time. It was all love.
OTTENBERG: I also want to talk about some production specifics. There were songs that she wrote all on her own. Like she would sit down and write, “If I ran away, they’d never find the strength to go very far. How will they hear the beating of my heart?” I don’t know.
GABRIEL: Most of them were that way. She’s very disciplined. When she was doing the Like a Prayer album, Pat Leonard said she’d come over at about 11 in the morning. He’d have written some music, maybe just a couple notes. She would come up with a melody or change it around. Then she’d sit down and write the lyrics. And he said that all of the songs on that album, which was re- ally her first major, major artistic statement, were written in about an hour. He said “Like a Prayer” came out of her like an explosion, and they had the feeling when she had finished that it had already existed and they couldn’t touch it because it was so perfect.
GABRIEL: Then there was the earlier thing where she was doing the song “Into the Groove” with Stephen Bray. Stephen Bray had a studio in his Brooklyn apartment, which was hardly a studio at all because you could hear all the ambient noises from the street. And they were writing it. And Erika Belle, her friend, said he was really stuck on a bridge. And Madonna just opened her mouth and out came the phrase, “Live out your fantasies here with me,” which is just so fantastic. It really sums up what her message was to her audiences in the early ’80s.
OTTENBERG: I have to find Erika Belle again. I used to know her. Did you talk to her?
GABRIEL: She didn’t want to speak. That was a problem. A lot of these people have told the Madonna story so many times and understandably they don’t want to tell it again. But I like to use quotes that were given at the time, because the memories are fresh and the emotions are real. If I talked to Erika Belle now, which I would’ve been thrilled to do, she would be remembering through many layers of influence. She knows who Madonna is now. She’s seen the arc of her career. What she would say about her today would be vastly different than what she said in the ’80s when she was recalling what was happening at that time because nobody had any idea what Madonna was going to become.
GABRIEL: Madonna herself is the best example. Some of the interviews she gave in the early ’80s, she’s so candid and so open. She’s a refreshingly young kid, wild, new on the scene, and had no guardrails up whatsoever. As opposed to a person who’s now interviewed by 20 people in one day, gives them each ten minutes, and says pretty much the same thing to everyone.
OTTENBERG: The world can turn on you at the drop of a hat. I understand why celebrities have handlers, but I hate the reality that you can’t just get on the phone and say what you actually want to say. But it’s like everyone learned that lesson on Madonna’s back.
GABRIEL: Yeah. And the funny thing is, she is just courageous enough that, even though she causes heartburn for everybody around her and is criticized in really cruel and scary ways, she continues. Where does that strength come from? I don’t know if you remember this anecdote, but when she was a teenager and she first got a car—she had a Mustang convertible—she got in a fight with some biker girls in Michigan and came home all beat up. Her brother, Christopher, said he looked at her and she’s got a black eye, and she’s bruised and she’s bloodied. And she’s not at all upset by it. He looked at her at that moment and said, “My god, the resilience of this woman.” And that’s really a description of her career and who she is. She’s been knocked down more times than she’s been on top, and she keeps going. That’s because she’s not an entertainer. She’s an artist.
OTTENBERG: I still remember when True Blue came out, she had this whole new look and the Madonna wannabe look was instantly obsolete.
GABRIEL: It’s funny because for her first album, the Madonna look was short hair, kind of “tough street kid.” Then, for her Like a Virgin album, she was saucy and sexy, but still tough, still very New York.
OTTENBERG: I feel like she loved the experience of doing Like a Virgin, but then she became more muscular in her powers with True Blue.
GABRIEL: True Blue was really the first Madonna album because that was the first one she did with Steve Bray and Pat Leonard. It was basically just three kids playing. The first one was with Reggie Lucas, he was a well-known producer. Second one, Nile Rodgers, mega-well known producer. The third one, Madonna could dictate her terms by that point and she said, “I’ll just do it with Pat Bray and Steve Leonard.”
OTTENBERG: It is by far the best Madonna album.
GABRIEL: It’s so up and so wonderful. There’s the kind of person that says, “You don’t need to know what’s happening in the artist’s life. You should only look at the product.” But I don’t believe that. I think you need to know what’s happening in the artist’s life because if you look at True Blue, she had just married Sean Penn.
GABRIEL: She is completely in love. Her life has come together in a way she could have never dreamed of. It’s a pure statement of joy. And yet, it happened at a moment when her world was falling apart because people she loved were dying of AIDS. Think about “Open Your Heart.” What does that video mean? It’s confusing. There’s that end shot with her running off with a little boy into the sunset and you find out that Martin Burgoyne, her best friend who she used to dress like that with, is dying. I mean, it changes everything. Or when she does the video “Cherish” with Herb Ritts, who’s just found out he’s HIV positive. Or when she does Like a Prayer, her marriage is falling apart. It’s this beautiful construction she’s made. Then you get to Blond Ambition— and I wonder if you agree with this. I quote Valerie Steele who said it was the moment when fashion and pop music were joined forever.
OTTENBERG: Madonna changed my life. I mean it in a really profound way. And going to the Blond Ambition World Tour and seeing the fashion, and seeing also how organized it was. Before I was at Interview, I was Rihanna’s stylist for seven years, and I was always like, “I would never put Madonna once on the mood board.” Because Madonna is god and I’m not going to copy god. But I’m going to always have that dedication to, “Could we do something different? We should remix it.” And all of those things come from Madonna moments.
OTTENBERG: Then there was Sex and Erotica. As a 15-year-old looking at Sex in study hall I thought Sex and Erotica was the greatest album rollout moment ever. [Laughs] But reading your book I was like, “Oh, it really wasn’t.” The book eclipsed the album.
GABRIEL: That’s right.
OTTENBERG: I just loved how it was like, “I’m nasty, I’ve fucked up, I’ll do whatever the fuck I want.” Sex is the coolest thing to people of my generation. We worship Sex. Anyone that is in their 40s worships Sex beyond or you’re a fucking Republican.
GABRIEL: The fact that the Sex pictures are coming back and being auctioned, I’m so thrilled because they are so beautiful on top of everything else.
OTTENBERG: I understand, after reading the book, that Sex and Erotica really unmoored her because she lost confidence and her innate ability to do what she wants to do and get away with it.
GABRIEL: She didn’t get away with it.
OTTENBERG: She became insecure. She overexposed herself and it wasn’t worth it for her.
GABRIEL: I don’t think she was ashamed. I think it was the amount of hate that came her way. She couldn’t have picked a worse moment to do that book, because culturally, sex was the battlefield. It still is, but that’s when it really erupted. And she threw herself right into the middle of it and did it the way she always does, which is, “Hey, this is what I’m going to say. You can like it or not, I don’t care.” But the blowback was enormous. But you are a living example of the lives she touched and people she changed. It was hell for her, but it was great for the people who found it and found themselves in it.
OTTENBERG: We’ve talked for an hour and I haven’t even looked at my talking points yet.
GABRIEL: Now you know why I wrote an 800-page book. [Laughs]
OTTENBERG: One thing I noticed is you didn’t write about her cosmetic changes.
GABRIEL: I don’t know why I didn’t talk about it. I talked about aging. I talked about that great moment, when she showed her butt at an award show in 2015 and said, “This is what a 60-year-old ass looks like.” But I don’t know why I didn’t get into the surgeries. Maybe I’ll have to write a sequel.
OTTENBERG: We also didn’t touch on one of the best comebacks ever, which is Confessions on a Dancefloor.
GABRIEL: Talk about age appropriate. I mean, that wasn’t age appropriate, but it worked as part of that package.
OTTENBERG: She was 47. And I’m the same age. I watched those videos again when I was reading the book. And I was like, “Okay, age appropriate or not she’s doing crazy contortion and she looks so perfect in that look from The Way We Wore, or when she’s playing with the Saturday Night Fever sleazy vibe in “Hung Up.” Then she starts to go under the knife more and starts to aggressively try to be more hip.
GABRIEL: I don’t even know if I want to say this, but the end of her marriage seems like a real moment of vulnerability for her, where she needed to look and be more youthful. She talked about how during her marriage to Guy Ritchie, she felt that she was really constrained and wasn’t allowed to be the person she was. And so she came bursting out of that with Confessions. What you saw there was just the force of her personality in the music, in the choreography, in the videos. She was Madonna again. But I think one of the reasons why her plastic surgery is so disturbing to her fans is that Madonna’s great appeal is her honesty, her accessibility, and her vulnerability. She’s there for you and you feel part of her. And as soon as she started changing her look surgically, she became less real. And so there’s a distance that was created between you and her as a fan.
GABRIEL: It’s almost like you’re abandoned or betrayed. But she was saying, “This is what I need to do. I’m an entertainer. I get paid to look good. And I’m criticized.” She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t. If she went out there with lines on her face and, god forbid, wrinkles on her hands, she would be criticized. So she goes to the opposite extreme. She does what she can to look good and, if that requires surgery, fine.
OTTENBERG: My favorite is when she was called the “Degenerate Queen of Sleaze” on the cover of The New York Post. And that was for Truth or Dare. Do you think she’s got another hit in her?
GABRIEL: Oh, yeah. I think “God Control” from Madame X was absolutely brilliant. But that concert tour was absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, she had physical issues and that overshadowed it. I think this new tour is going to be really exciting because she’s working with Stuart Price again. She’s back in arenas. Let’s see what she does.
OTTENBERG: Okay. What is your favorite Madonna video ever? For me it’s “Justify My Love.”
GABRIEL: Oh yeah. “Justify My Love” is one that I go back to over and over again. Another one I really love is “Human Nature,” and “Secret,” which was shot in Harlem.
OTTENBERG: I assisted Brigitte Echols in 2004. She was saying that she had an $1,800 budget for the entire video.
GABRIEL: Are you kidding?
OTTENBERG: I know that the slip dress is from Illisa’s Vintage, which is this bustier and corset place in the Chelsea antique market that I am obsessed with. And she got Madonna’s nameplate necklace at the Slauson swap meet, which is in L.A. When she showed it to her Madonna was like, “Oh my god, I love it so much. Do you think you can make it again, but a little bit bigger?”
GABRIEL: That video is another example of how radical she was. That came out during the O.J. [Simpson] trial. She injected herself into that dialogue by performing as a white woman with a Black boyfriend and a Black child in Harlem living happily, wonderfully in love. It’s the opposite story of what was happening in America at that time. That’s the perfection of Madonna.