Madon­na­land: And Other De­tours Into Fame and Fandom by Alina Simone; and Win­dow Left Open by Jen­nifer Grotz

by Alina Simone, Univer­sity of Texas Press, 138 pages

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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. — Jen­nifer Levin

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