On a recent evening in New York City, the singer Madonna was camped out at the headquarters of the famed auction house Sotheby’s. In recent years, many masterpieces have passed through its walls–Edvard Munch’s The Scream sold there for $119.9 million in 2012, setting a world record–but with an estimated wealth of $800 million, Madonna is probably the most valuable icon to take up temporary residence there. She’s definitely the most famous. And at 56, she’s also one of the youngest. These days, it’s not often that Madonna is the youngest artist anywhere.
That hasn’t slowed her down. In a flatteringly lit studio, she’s already set out a bottle of tequila and shot glasses to play a drinking game with reporters. (The rules: You take a shot if you ask a question she thinks is bad. She takes a shot if she gives a bad answer–but she’s the judge of that.) She’s staged her very own art exhibition here for a day of interviews. The space is crowded with works of art by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol, many from her personal collection.
“This is a Keith Haring,” she says, pointing at a painting over her shoulder. “He made it for me.” Surely those pieces must have traveled by armored truck, flanked by bodyguards? She cocks her head. “No,” she says. “I just brought them in my car.”
It’s classic Madonna: fireworks set off with a “who, me?” nonchalance. But giving interviews in a space filled with priceless works created by her friends–some of the most famous artists of the 20th century–may also be a sly way of asserting her dominance. It reminds the world that while Lady Gaga pals around with Jeff Koons and Marina Abramovic, and Miley Cyrus exhibits sculptures at Art Basel, there is only one pop star still at work who rolled with Warhol.
Madonna’s new album Rebel Heart, out March 10, offers a lot of reminders of her extraordinary legacy. After two scattershot albums–the urban-leaning Hard Candy in 2008 and MDNA’s trendy dance-pop in 2012–Rebel Heart marks a return to form; it’s her best album in a decade. The in-demand hitmaker Diplo, who has produced songs for Beyoncé and Pharrell Williams, worked extensively on Rebel Heart. After clocking many hours in the studio with Madonna, Diplo remains reverent.
“No one stands this long,” he says. “All the women start with Madonna. No matter where you come from, no matter what you’re doing now–if you’re a powerful woman, the genesis is Madonna.”
Her power is palpable, but in person, she is friendlier than you might expect–there’s a warmth to her magnetism. To her, she’s an artist among artists, talking expansively about other performers and producers, both on and off her album. Likewise, the pieces she’s displaying at Sotheby’s aren’t just trophies; they’re a part of her personal history.
“The beginning of my career in New York was the convergence of graffiti art and pop culture, hip-hop and breakdancing,” she says. “Warhol and Haring and Basquiat, we all hung out together. We all supported each other. We used to have Friday-night dinners at these Japanese restaurants on the Lower East Side. Decades later, I say, ‘Where are my peers?’ Even though we’re under the illusion that we’re brought together by the Internet and social networking, we don’t have that community where artists are supporting one another.”
She’s fired up. “All art has become more commoditized. Everything has become generic and homogenized. If the majority of artists follow a formula, who’s pushing the envelope? Who’s trailblazing? Who’s being revolutionary in their thinking?” She settles back in her seat. “That’s what art is supposed to do.” After 32 years, that’s still what Madonna is trying to do too.
A day later, she’s at the midtown Manhattan offices of Interscope Records, her distribution partner since 2011, though her primary contract is through the media company Live Nation, which signed her to a 10-year multirights deal in 2007 worth a rumored $120 million. Here the walls are lined with the hit records of other artists, most of whom weren’t alive when she released her first single.
Born Madonna Louise Ciccone in Bay City, Mich., in 1958, she moved to New York City to pursue a career as a dancer, then rose to fame in the mid-’80s with hits such as “Like a Virgin” and “Papa Don’t Preach.” As her career developed, a new image and a new sensibility came with each new endeavor. She’s often called the queen of reinvention, and while that’s true, there’s more that’s stayed the same over her lengthy career–even after two marriages, four kids and dozens of creative projects. There’s a willingness to experiment with surprising musical influences, from the British electronica of Ray of Light to the disco throwback of Confessions on a Dance Floor. She’s always been passionate about social justice. As a longtime champion of gay rights, she recently rallied behind the Russian activist punk group Pussy Riot. Her flair for courting controversy, too, remains unchanged. Decades after the Vatican condemned her “Like a Prayer” video, she still makes front-page news–like at the Brit Awards on Feb. 25, when she took a nasty fall while performing, then triumphantly finished the number.
“I’m pretty consistent. Predictable, almost,” she says. “You can’t stay relevant unless you’re pushing yourself out onto the razor’s edge of life on a regular basis. Once you become comfortable, you become complacent. If you become complacent, then you don’t want to throw yourself into the icy cold water. You just want to sit in the sun.”
Though she’s always been experimental with the sound of her music, often roping in unknown producers and using sonic palettes rarely heard on Top 40 radio, never before has she needed to be so reactive with how she brings her music to the public. When 13 demos from her Rebel Heart recording sessions leaked online in December–the result of an international hack–she quickly finished several of those songs and released them on iTunes as a six-track EP available when one pre-ordered the entire album. The album was then scheduled for an official release in March. But a week later, another deluge of leaks hit the web–rough versions of every song planned for Rebel Heart and then some. Madonna took to Instagram, calling it “artistic rape.” The FBI was called, and eventually authorities arrested an Israeli man for the hack. It upended her plans.
“Aside from the violation of having something stolen from me, suddenly people were making comments on songs I had no intention of releasing,” she says. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to push myself into overdrive.’ I didn’t sleep for weeks. I didn’t see my kids. It was pandemonium, confusion, paranoia, hysteria.”
With her album circulating illegally online, she had to get creative. So for the lead single, “Living for Love,” a triumphant disco anthem with elements of ’90s house music, she chose to release the music video on the messaging app Snapchat, making her the first major artist to do so. She’s driving sales of Rebel Heart through a promotion with the gay hookup app Grindr–a cheap trick, though effective. But she’s not afraid of making headlines the old-fashioned way either. On the red carpet of this year’s Grammy Awards, wearing a provocative Givenchy bodysuit, she flashed her thonged buttocks to photographers. The photos went viral.
The Pop Marketplace has shifted countless times since the start of Madonna’s career; as always, upstarts are crowding out the veterans. Even the most recent albums by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, the heaviest hitters from the last generation of pop divas who claim Madonna as inspiration, underperformed on the charts (No. 4 and No. 7, respectively), while younger artists like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande enjoyed No. 1 albums in 2014. Madonna knows she can’t succeed purely on the basis of her icon status. Just how big a dent the hack made in her potential sales remains to be seen, but either way, she’s pulling out all the stops in the hopes that this album resonates both with adults who remember Desperately Seeking Susan and with kids who can’t remember a time before Snapchat.
As ever, she rejects wholesale the idea that she’s too old to be a pop star. To her, that’s ageist and sexist, and she’s not wrong. (The detractors who called her old and irrelevant for performing at the Grammys in a revealing ensemble piped down when Paul McCartney took the stage later in the show.) Moreover, her work is as exciting as ever, with features from Kanye West and Nicki Minaj and production from tunesmiths like Diplo and the Swedish dance-music wunderkind Avicii.
Rebel Heart has songs with shades of vulnerability, like the drug-addled “Devil Pray” and “Joan of Arc,” an emotional meditation on her fraught relationship with the media: “I don’t want to talk about it right now/ Just hold me while I cry my eyes out,” she sings plaintively.
But if there’s a mission statement, it’s the exhilarating “Bitch I’m Madonna,” a bonkers dance track that starts off candy-sweet, then drops a squelchy bass line under an infernally catchy refrain: “We go hard or we go home,/ we gon’ do this all night long/ We get freaky if you want,/ bitch I’m Madonna.” If those lyrics sound risibly juvenile, that’s why they’re so clever: it’s a song about how her adolescent antics are the stuff of legend. Later on, she sings, “Who do you think you are? You can’t miss this lucky star.” The young fans tuning in to hear Minaj rapping on the bridge might miss the reference to Madonna’s 1983 song “Lucky Star”–part of a double-sided single, with “Holiday,” that was Madonna’s first No. 1 among the 173 hits she’s notched across all Billboard charts in her career–but her grownup fans will get it. Diplo calls it his favorite song on the record. “It makes her the icon that she is,” he says.
That message comes through loud and clear. Elsewhere on the album, there’s a dissonant club thumper called “Iconic” and another called “Veni Vidi Vici.” But she’s earned the right to remind listeners of her extraordinary run. She hasn’t always gotten headlines for her artistry, but for her, it’s still about the music.
“My goal when I started this record was to focus on songwriting, without any special effects, without any musical direction, without production in my mind–just simple songwriting,” she says. “So if I wanted to, I could sit down with a piano or guitar and perform it, and it would still be just as powerful.”
She can do that if she wants. But if history is any indication, she’ll probably opt for the fireworks.
This appears in the March 09, 2015 issue of TIME.