Why write a book about a singer whose music you hate and whom you don’t even respect? For singer-turned-writer Alina Simone, it’s because she was commissioned to do so, but the task ends up more rewarding than she initially anticipated.
In Madonnaland, and Other Detours Into Fame and Fandom, Simone travels to Madonna’s birthplace—Bay City, Michigan—from her New York City home. She documents the Material Girl’s career: from humble beginnings as an aspiring dancer outside Detroit to her time as a scenester on the New York dance-club circuit to her meteoric rise to fame. The writer contrasts that ascent with her own decade-plus effort as an indie singer-songwriter, which brings up a lot of her unresolved frustrations about the music career she eventually abandoned. She resents Madonna for her undisguised ambition, while questioning the quality and authenticity of her music. None of Simone’s indie-rock friends are Madonna fans either.
It turns out that there’s much to discover in Bay City. Simone meets Gary Johnson, a schoolteacher and self-appointed leader of a mission to compel the town to give Madonna a commemorative sign. Johnson is also not much of a fan of her music, but he is opposed to the conservative local government, which canceled a plan to give Madonna the key to the city after nude photos of her were leaked to the press in the 80s. Johnson has a secondary cause: to make Question Mark and the Mysterians’ “96 Tears” the town’s official song. All the members of that one-hit-wonder band grew up in the area, so Simone sets about tracking them down and learning their history. After achieving some success in the mid-60s the band members have been wandering in the shadows and backwaters of showbiz for decades. Simone repeatedly asks why one talented person succeeds while another falters.
Once she spends some time with a hard-core fan—a suburban New Jersey man who has a tattoo of nearly every Madonna album cover—Simone has a revelation. Unlike herself and her sad-sack, overly serious music-snob friends, the people who love Madonna’s music love it simply because it makes them happy. And she can’t think of anyone she idolizes the way this man idolizes Madonna.
Though Madonnaland seems to be about other musicians, at heart it’s a meditation on the author’s own career, which provides a convenient entry point for readers. Going in, I had even less interest in Madonna and her music than Simone did. But this is not a book for Madonna fans, nor is it a book for music nerds— it’s a meditation on success and failure and an attempt to come to some sort of peace with one’s place in the world. v