Madonnaland

Madonnaland: And Other Detours Into Fame and Fandom by Alina Simone, University of Texas Press, 138 pages

There is no such place as Madonnaland, but if there were, its rightful home would be in Bay City, Michigan, where the legendary pop songstress and provocateur was born. Bay City’s relationship with its most famous daughter is conflicted at best, however. The rift dates to the mid-1980s, when the mayor reneged on his offer to present Madonna with a key to the city after nude photos of her appeared in Playboy and she described Bay City as “smelly” in a subsequent television interview. The lack of public acknowledgement in Bay City of its connection to Madonna — specifically, lack of signage that tells tourists the Material Girl is a hometown girl — and the decades of lobbying and political infighting surrounding the matter are detailed with wit and grace by Alina Simone. Simone was commissioned to write a book about Madonna but failed so miserably that she had to return her advance to the publisher she had originally contracted with. Madonnaland: And Other Detours Into Fame and Fandom is the story of that failure, which includes the author’s own feelings about Madonna (and Madonna’s fame), and the Michigan-centric music history Simone learned in the process. It’s far less chaotic than it sounds, and as a tour guide, Simone is a charmer.

“The logistics of writing a new book about Madonna, I soon discovered, were crushing,” she writes. Several biographies and documentary films about the singer already exist, as well as thousands of newspaper and magazine articles; Simone’s Google search turns up 34,100,000 websites that mention her name. “Trying to ingest it all, let alone wreath it in words, feels like trying to give the population of Indonesia a hug — a task further complicated by the fact that both are simultaneously growing.” But she embarked upon the project in good faith, traveling to Bay City so that she could gather inspiration in the place it all began. Simone traces Madonna’s rise to fame in economic prose, belaboring no single point, but emphasizing that Madonna achieved worldwide recognition with calculated passion and singularity of purpose, having hustled since high school to build her skills as a dancer and perform for the public. Simone herself was a recording artist, heavily inspired by the early 1990s grunge scene, whose career fizzled. She was in elementary school when Madonna’s first album came out, so she has spent her life being aware of the differences between Madonna’s path and her own. Her musings in this area are interesting, but as Simone is well aware, the municipal signage controversy and the author’s personal feelings aren’t enough to sustain a book about the most successful female musician in history.

In an effort to dig deeper into her subject matter, she meets with a few dedicated Madonna fans — the type of people who spend several thousand dollars a year on concert tickets and memorabilia, and who have shrines to the Material Girl in their homes. Simone’s main Bay City contact, Gary Johnson, has been fighting for years for Madonna-birthplace signage and knows pretty much everything about her history in Michigan. He’s not a superfan; he just likes music and thinks Bay City is prudish and hardheaded on the topic of Madonna for no good reason. Simone becomes invested in his other pet project: getting signage acknowledging Bay City as the birthplace of the 1966 song, “96 Tears,” by Question Mark and the Mysterians. It’s in this chapter, “Mystery of the Mondegreen, or, Who was the first band to smuggle the word ‘masturbate’ onto the Billboard top 100?” that the book takes a more serious turn. Simone tracks the whereabouts of the Mysterians, a band of Latino teenagers, sons of migrant workers, who climbed the charts against the odds before disappearing from the limelight. She draws a thin parallel between Madonna and the Mysterians, in that Question Mark, the lead singer, was enigmatic, sexual, and daring with his lyrics and performance long before a leather-and-lace clad Madonna sang “Like a Virgin.”

The connection between Madonna and another obscure band, Flying Wedge, is somewhat more tenuous, but it’s in this final chapter, “Flying Wedge, or, Could a band with three fans be (another) missing link between hard rock and punk?” that Simone really finds her story, which is no longer about Madonna and has become, instead, about the idea that there were small-time nonwhite rock bands playing punk music about a decade before the genre technically existed. By the time Simone tracks down Flying Wedge, she has given up the Madonna project but has become emotionally invested in Gary Johnson’s causes and the larger topic of the forgotten music history of Michigan, where she does not live.