Your onstage stamina is incredible. I particularly enjoyed "Get Into the Groove," which you sang while jumping rope on the Sticky & Sweet Tour. How do you stay in such good shape?
I have two different workouts. I have a show-day workout, which really just gets my body warmed up and ready, and I have off-day workouts that involve everything. The kind of training I do incorporates everything from ballet to Pilates to running relays, jumping rope, jumping on trampolines, gymnastics... using all the muscle groups I use to do the show. Keeping my cardiovascular endurance is the most important. At the beginning of the last tour I was roller-skating. Then I ended up getting off the roller skates, because I kept flying off the runway and crashing into the crash-mats.
Do you cry often onstage?
[On the Sticky & Sweet Tour] there's a moment right before I sing "You Must Love Me," which is such a sad song, when I'm not linked up to time-coded video, when I take a moment to talk to the audience. On this leg of the tour, I cried when I was making a speech about the two men who worked for the scaffolding company that were building my stage in Marseilles [who died in a collapse]. I cried when I found out Michael Jackson had died.
You and Michael were born in the same month, August of 1958. What was it like to witness a kid your age do what he did?
I was madly in love with him, totally smitten. He was mind-bogglingly talented. The songs he sang were not childlike at all.
When did you first meet him?
I met him in the early Eighties, when I first started working with my manager, Freddy DeMann, who at the time was managing Michael Jackson. I saw him play at Madison Square Garden, and I was blown away. He was flawless. There was a party at the Helmsley Palace Hotel. He was very shy, but it was a thrill for me.
Were you jealous of him?
In a good way. I'd wished I'd written "Billie Jean" and "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'." What song didn't I love?
Ten years later there was talk of you recording together, and you went to the Oscars with him.
There was a period of time when we hung out. He wanted to work with me, I think he wanted to get to know me, and I wanted to do the same. When you write with somebody, it's a weird experience, you feel vulnerable and shy. When I worked with Justin Timberlake I felt that way. To write songs together is a very intimate experience, like getting tossed into a juggernaut. "On your mark, get set, create!" You have to get past these hurdles, which are, "I want to impress this person, but will they think my ideas are stupid? What if their ideas are stupid? Can I be honest with them? Will they be offended?" You end up talking and gabbing and socializing, and you have to do that in order to get to the next level, to be creative. So that's what we were doing: watching movies, having dinner, hanging out, going to the Oscars, being silly, seeing if we could work. He got relaxed. He took off his sunglasses, had a glass of wine, I got him to laugh.
You're the only other entertainer in the world who can relate to enduring that level of scrutiny. Why did it destroy him?
All I have are my opinions, I wasn't very close to him. It's good to have a good childhood and a sense of yourself in the world before people start telling you who they think your are. Where you can make mistakes and have a sense of innocence. It gives you a sense of confidence. I don't think he started off that way. Did he have any sense of himself outside of the world of being adored and famous? It's hard to survive like that. I think he felt insecure about the attention he got, and had a love-hate relationship with his job. He didn't seem to have any close friends. And in the last decade, everybody abandoned him, or wrote him off as crazy. People have said so many things about me that aren't true, and I never once had a second thought that the accusations against him might be true. But he didn't seem to have a way to deal with that, publicly or privately, and it can destroy you. When he died, everyone was saying what a great genius he was, but it's important to appreciate things before you lose them. It's a great tragedy.
Britney Spears was featured in a video clip during "Human Nature" in your Sticky & Sweet show. She's stuck in an elevator and starts to go crazy. Is that how you analogize what's happened in her career?
Yes. Didn't that explain what I thought? "I'm not your ***CENSORED***, don't hang your shit on me." I just think people should mind their own business and let her grow up. I think everyone goes off the deep end at one time or another, and she, like Michael Jackson, didn't really have a childhood, so there are some inherent problems in that scenario. I have a lot of compassion for her, and I hope that she can find balance in her life. I don't know how bad her meltdown was. One can't believe everything one reads.
You've spoken about music as a vehicle for transcending misery. When did you first realize that music had a healing power?
Well, everybody knows that music can lift you up and take you away and save you, and even if you're not aware or conscious of it, it's happening. I don't know anyone who hasn't said, "This song saved my life," "This song got me through a summer," "This song got me through a breakup."
From the beginning, you were described as a one-hit wonder. At what point were you able to use those derisive opinions as motivation? I thought that the turning point may have been when the nude photos of you appeared in Playboy and Penthouse, and you famously said, "I'm not ashamed."
It was something I did that was totally taken out of context, since the photos were taken when I was modeling for photography classes. It just seemed so unfair. Somebody was obviously taking advantage of the fact that I'd become famous and sold the photos. That's how I made my living when I first came to New York. I modeled for art classes: painting, photography, drawing. I was a dancer, so I could hold poses for a long time and you could see the muscles in my body. It's a perfectly respectable job. Everybody tried to make me feel ashamed, and it just seemed ludicrous. I won't say that from that point on, none of the things people said about me ever bothered my, but I was able to use them as a springboard to, as you say, motivate me. It has the opposite effect. If you say I can't do it, I'm going to do it. It's like anything in life. The more resistance we have, the heavier our weight is, the bigger our muscles grow. It's possibly the reason I still have a career. My whole career I've been met with resistance.
Do you think that some of the statements you've made, or provocative things you've done, have interfered with the quality of your music?
Possibly, but everything has happened as it should have happened. I am the sum total of everything I've said and done. I remember when I was making my documentary, I Am Because We Are, and I entered it into competition at Sundance, a woman said to me, "You have to decide whether you want to be an artist or an activist." I said, "Why can't I be both?" That's how I've always felt.
In 1989, nobody mentioned that you might not want to dance and sing in front of burning crosses in your "Like A Prayer" video?
Actually, not that many people were against that. They were afterwards, obviously, but I didn't care. Sometimes I've just stood up. I think religious fragmentation, or bigots who claim to do things in the name of God but actually bring pain to peoples lives is something that need to be stood up against, and I felt that was a part of what I was doing. And when I performed "Live to Tell" on a cross [on the Confessions Tour] I was supporting Jesus, paying homage to his message, which is to love your neighbor as yourself, to treat people with dignity. The Christians didn't like that very much.
Who would you consider a musical genius? How do you define genius?
Genius can mean so many different things. It can be about poetry, or the melody, or the timbre of the voice when it hits a certain note. Whether it's Cole Porter, Elvis Costello, Joe Henry, Stevie Wonder, Cat Stevens, David Bowie, Lou Reed, Chrissie Hynde, Joni Mitchell, Iggy Pop, Elton John, John Lennon or Chris Martin.
You sang "Imagine" on your Re-invention Tour. Where were you when John Lennon was murdered?
I was actually on the Upper East Side. I remember getting off the subway train on 72nd Street a couple of hours after it happened, and there were crowds and police cars, it was crazy. Everybody was devastated. The violence of it was particularly disturbing, it can make you really paranoid. The Princess Diana car crash, and the tragic event that occurred with Michael Jackson, it just makes you pause. Every time I performed "Imagine" I could see the front rows would always cry. It's uplifting. John Lennon could awaken that.
Can you attach certain inspirations to certain albums you've made?
There are so many inspiring people, artists and philosophers. I'm inspired by people who stick their necks out, like Martin Luther King, Al Gore and Ghandi. I have more obscure heroes like Frida Kahlo, Martha Graham and Eleanor Roosevelt. For American Life, I would say Michael Moore and Che Guevara. I've always been inspired by people who aren't afraid to express their opinions, and speak about sexual politics and provocation and what's right and what's wrong, what's correct and what isn't a correct way for a male and female to behave, and playing with those boundaries. It's obvious to me that if I had been a man and done many of the things that I've done, I would not have had that much attention paid to me. That reality has not escaped me.
Some of your best songs — "Live to Tell," "Like a Prayer," "Cherish" — are collaborations with songwriter/producer Patrick Leonard. Why has that relationship been so successful?
We're both from the Midwest, and deep down at our core, we're both geeks. He's melancholic, and he is a classically trained musician with an incredible sense of melody. We just hit it off from the start. We always come up with something interesting. We usually don't write frivolous songs, although we've done that, too. There's something magical about our writing.
From a lyrical perspective, what are your favorite lines that you've written over the years?
I like the words to songs that aren't very popular. "Miles Away" and "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You." They're more personal and less accessible. I love the lyrics to "Like It or Not." [Sings] "I'll be the garden, you be the snake, all of my fruit is yours to take, better the devil that you know, your love will surely grow." And I love "Paradise (Not For Me)." [Sings] "I can't remember when I was young, I can't explain if it was wrong."
How important are hit songs to you?
Well... It's important, I'm not going to lie. I want my music to be accessible and reach people all around the world.
Who turns you on to music?
I listen to music all the time. I have a lot of friends who are DJs, I get stuff from A&R people, my managers. Or I'll go to a nightclub or listen to the radio. People always bring music to workouts, and I look on iTunes every Tuesday. One of my drivers in New York DJs part-time, and another has incredible taste in music. They're always playing stuff for me. I don't live my life in a bubble.
Does your oldest daughter, Lourdes, introduce you to new music?
She turned me on to the Ting Tings. There's a band she loves called Disco ***CENSORED***. She's into My Chemical Romance, and she's outgrown the Jonas Brothers. She loves Lady Gaga, Ciara, Rihanna, T.I. and Justin. She lives with the iPod in her ears.
Does she critique you?
Oh, yeah. My shows, my music, definitely. She's brutally honest, not just with me, but everyone, about what you're wearing, who you're dating, the music you listen to, every choice that you make. She wears the same sizes as me now, so she steals my clothes, my shoes, she's constantly in my closets. And she's working on the show now. Now, we feel more like friends, and we fight every other minute. A normal mother-daughter relationship, going through puberty.
Is it unusual for you to be confronted with such honest opinions? I'd assume there's a lot of people walking on eggshells in your presence.
I think I'm a pretty good judge of who's blowing smoke up my ass. I'd like to think I have friends who tell me the truth, and people I work with who tell me the things I don't want to hear. I have those people in my life, and I feel lucky to have them.
What is Lourdes' role on tour?
She dresses the dancers backstage. She's really into hair and make-up, so she does a lot of experimenting. She's very talented. She could absolutely design her own line of clothes, she's got great style. Everyone asks her what she thinks of their outfit. Her, not me.
What do you consider prized possessions?
I have tons and tons of notebooks that I've written and drawn in over the decades. The other things are more motherly: the first pair of shoes my daughter wore, her first lump of hair.
Is it a bittersweet feeling, parting with Warner Bros. after spending your entire career there?
I don't know. The record business as we know it doesn't exist anymore. The way people make, market and sell music is so different now. It's just natural evolution. In many ways, it's better, because kids have the chance now to get themselves out there without the middle man and all the bureaucracy and administrative bullshit that you have to endure. On the other hand, there isn't somebody nurturing these kids along. I don't know what the solution is. I'm sure it will all come around full circle again. It just feels like time to move on. I'm OK with it.
At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you summed up your speech by saying, "It all comes down to the music." Do you think about your legacy, or 100 years from now, how you'll be remembered?
Not necessarily. But when I do my shows and see how music transports people, what I'm aware of more than anything when I see people crying, or ecstatic, is how music affects people, and the power it has, over every other art form. I'm so moved and transported by other peoples music — I'm a human being like everyone else. We must all share that same connection, so I'm privileged and blessed to be a channel for music. At the end of the day, are they going to think about how I dove for my shoe at the VMAs or that I was naked in the newspapers, or are they going to remember "Live To Tell"? I think that at the end of the day, people remember authenticity. They remember what's true, and the rest falls by the wayside. They'll remember what comes from someone's heart.