A review of Madonnaland: And Other Detours Into Fame and Fandom

Madonna was an easy way to determine friendship in the 1980s in America. Disco-haters, run-ofthe-mill misogynists, defenders of the throne of classic rock and those queasy with any hint of gayness in music, quickly determined that any lover of Madonna was no friend, and more likely an enemy. Alina Simone’s new book, Madonnaland: And Other Detours Into Fame and Fandom, explores this cultural divide, but does so with the complication of her own doubts, desires and opinions about Madonna.

Sex sells. And whether it’s Mick Jagger’s bulge or Beyonce’s backside, music stars have used their perceived sexual power as a private cash register. Madonna, often explicitly, used her considerable sexual power to help drive her career, which is also what drove critics to disparage her talent. We’re supposed to view Madonna cynically, to see her use of sex as an example of a talentless woman inauthentically garnering fame.

Alina Simone argues otherwise, though not simply. As a critic coming of age in the 80s, she considered Sinead O’Connor’s authenticity and adamantly “anti-beauty” feminism as an antidote to Madonna’s embrace of a normative sexual role for women in music. But her book takes another look; she grows to realize that Madonna’s “art is highly sexualized because she is highly sexualized.” Madonna’s straightforward love of sex was actually the least cynical stance imaginable–it was an authentic representation of her life (and Simone knows that the indie rock insistence on “authenticity” is troubling and often a shorthand reduction of dance music and other less “cerebral” genres*). Madonna’s refusal to be demure about her sexuality eventually turns into a feminist stance all its own. Simone also looks into Madonna’s considerable classical dance training and finds her first mention in the press in a 1978 review of a Dance Festival in the Charlotte Observer: “In many ways, Madonna is what the American Dance Festival is all about.” Madonna was never a creation of a publicity machine; she was uniquely talented, ambitious and obsessive about her career.

But for all I’ve said, Madonnaland is really more about Bay City, Michigan–the birthplace of Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone. Simone exposes Bay City’s refusal to embrace Madonna as a daughter of the city as a backlash against her sexual openness. The double standard is obvious (there is a sign that acknowledges Bay City as the home of 2010 Miss Michigan, Katie Lynn Laroche), but this small central Michigan town continues to refuse the idea of a Madonnaland, or even a Madonna sign, despite being home to perhaps the most famous woman in rock history.

And rock history is surprisingly rich in Bay City, which happens to also be the home of the not-quite forgotten Question Mark and the Mysterians. Simone makes an argument for their 1966 hit “96 Tears” as the first rising of a punk rock sensibility, and she takes some time to consider the possibility of “96 Tears” becoming the Official Song of Bay City. You can guess the result. Another chapter explores the truly forgotten Michigan band, Flying Wedge. Described as a “Black Stooges,” Simone’s research into Flying Wedge is an attempt to dig into the mythology of “the great lost band” that would have changed rock music forever if only…. The chapters on Question Mark and the Mysterians and Flying Wedge make me long for a Greensboro book on “lost” locals Henry Flynt and Inez and Charlie Foxx.

The entire book is great fun for any lover of music history, and Simone always supplies contrary and complicating thinking about her own opinions. There is an overused device in the structure of the book. Simone relies on the pretense of her inability to find a way to write about Madonna as a narrative progression in Madonnaland. “Failed books are generally buried like the sad, literary stillbirths that they are,” she writes in a moment of self-doubt, but this state of mind is true, I suspect, of every book ever written and just gets in the way of the good, interesting analysis otherwise presented.

Madonnaland is another fine book on contemporary music from the University of Texas Press, following up on last year’s Don’t Suck, Don’t Die–Kristin Hersh’s memoir of life with Vic Chesnutt, which is a finalist for the ABA’s best non-fiction award for 2015. Let’s hope for more.

I love Simone’s questioning of what it means for Madonna to have covered Elliot Smith’s “Between the Bars,” especially to lovers of Elliott Smith. Simone is also fond of footnotes, which makes the digressive in me happy. !

BRIAN LAMPKIN, a member of the avant garde/ spiritual trio, The Difficulties, has an MA in Creative Writing from ECU and is co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Downtown Greensboro.