Friday, April 15, 2016

Mapping Madonnaland

Alina Simone is a singer-turned-writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Wall Street Journal and the Guardian Long Read. She has authored two other books: the "vibrant, taut and humorous" You Must Go and Win (Kirkus Review), and the "wisecracking, mordantly observant, wide-awake" Note to Self (O Magazine). She's the daughter of political refugees from Soviet-controlled Ukraine (her father refused recruitment into the KGB) and happens to be hilarious.

When Simone agreed to write a book about Madonna for UT Press, she thought it might provide an interesting excuse to indulge her own eighties nostalgia. Wrong. While writing Madonnaland: And Other Detours into Fame and Fandomshe discovered not only an endless torrent of information on Madonna and her own ambivalence/jealousy of the Material Girl’s overwhelming commercial success, but also some quirky detours through the backroads of celebrity and fandom in America.

We put together the infographic below to illustrate some of the strange, compelling detours Alina Simone followed on her quest to write Madonnaland. Simone wrestles with Madonna's sexual politics and the "anti-Madonna" Sinead O'Connor. She delves into another Bay City, Michigan, musical act—the all-Latino Question Mark and the Mysterians of "96 Tears" fame. She excavates a black classic rock band whose mystery and rare vinyl cred rivals that of the guys from A Band Called Death. We've also excerpted a portion of the book below and thrown in a Madonnaland-themed Spotify playlist.

Enter to win a copy of Madonnaland on Goodreads!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Madonnaland by Alina Simone


by Alina Simone

Giveaway ends April 30, 2016.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
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The first thing you see as you enter Bay City, Michigan, heading down M-25 West, is a sign commemorating the 2008 state championship win of the All Saints High School’s bowling, baseball, and softball teams. Further down M-25, beyond a historic district lined with the nineteenth-century homes of lumber barons, a sign celebrates the sister cities of Ansbach, Germany (capital of Middle Franconia), and Goderich, Ontario (home to the world’s largest undergound salt mine). Yet a third sign, located a few blocks north, announces Bay City as the hometown of Katie Lynn Laroche, Miss Michigan 2010. None of these signs are unusual for a quiet city of thirty-five thousand tucked between the Mitten State’s thumb and forefinger, but their subject matter does tell you a few things: that Bay City isn’t above a little self-congratulation, that you don’t have to be Helen Keller or Martin Luther King to have your name immortalized in painted metal on either end of M-25, and that Bay City doesn’t necessarily have a surplus of sign-worthy things to say about itself. Insofar as the third point goes, that turns out not to be true. The top-selling female artist in history and one of the most famous women alive, Madonna Louise Veronica Ciccone, was born in Bay City on August 16, 1958. A fact commemorated by the city exactly nowhere.

I’d been commissioned to write a book about Madonna, a project I’d taken on with enthusiasm, even bluster. After all, I still had my original copy of Like a Virgin on vinyl, an archive of back issues of Teen Beat magazine, and a Slinky’s worth of calcified black rubber bracelets in my parents’ closet back home. I’d spent more than half my life surfing the sine waves of Madonna’s career and could casually rattle off details both intimate and frighteningly banal about her sex life, her workout regime, her stance on the gifting of hydrangeas, and the unfortunate rodent problem she’d experienced of late at her $32 million compound on East Eighty-First Street, where a rat had been glimpsed scurrying into the bathroom while she discussed the possibility of collaborating again with Britney Spears during a video chat with the online radio show Saturday Night with Romeo.

Looking back, these qualifications were perhaps less than PhD-strength.

The logistics of writing a new book about Madonna, I soon discovered, were crushing. Google Madonna’s name and the mother of Jesus is nowhere in sight. There is just a tide of accomplishments and accompanying pop-culture analysis waterfalling endlessly through more than 34,100,000 websites, a nearly forty-page Wikipedia entry, thousands of magazine and newspaper articles, and a half-dozen biographies and documentary films to eventually ciphon through a vast network of social media sites, flooding your feeds and blocking your every social-media orifice until you find yourself scrambling for the lifeline of an “unfollow” or an “unlike” button lest you wake up one morning screaming with Madonna factoids oozing from the palms of your hands like weeping stigmata. [1] 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.

Getting people close to Madonna to talk to me was also no easy task. She is a powerful woman and most of her friends would prefer to remain that way. (One potential interviewee right away stated bluntly: “I am very expensive.”) As for those who were willing to talk, the problem, I soon learned, was that they had been talking for a very, very long time, and their recollections had long since crystallized into sound bites that ricocheted dispiritingly through the web.

So I began my research in Bay City partly out of journalistic duty, partly out of desperation. Knowing one would basically need a DNA kit to link Madonna to her remaining kin in Bay City by this point, I maintained hope of finding some tiny stone left unturned in the giant gravel pit of Madonna studies. Instead, I learned that I was just the latest in a long line of confused pilgrims to arrive here only to find no sign of Madonna. Not at her grandmother’s former home on Smith Street, which attracts fans from as far away as Japan; not at the Calvary cemetery where Madonna famously treated her mother’s grave like a yoga mat in her filmic tour diary Truth or Dare; nor at any of the other local landmarks carefully enumerated by sixty-nine-year-old retiree Edward Sierras when he went before the Bay City Commission to propose a Madonna museum and hometown bus tour back in 2008—a proposal that was politely shelved.

The local media haven’t failed to notice the lack of Madonna signage, and have in fact made something of a beat out of its absence. Last year, the Bay City Times published a story about an Argentine film crew who arrived to gather footage for a Madonna documentary but found so little to film that, in a kind of self-negating feedback loop, they ended up interviewing the very Bay City Times journalist assigned to cover them. Another story describes the local melee on Madonna’s fiftieth birthday, when reporters from both Ukraine’s Inter TV and German public radio arrived in Bay City expecting a big celebration, but instead found two guys pounding out an acoustic cover of “Like a Virgin” in a local bar. The Bay City Times went so far as to dispatch a video crew to capture the German journalist’s doomed effort to scrape together a story: his awkward phone chat with Madonna’s ninety-six-year-old grandmother, Elsie, during which Madonna was seemingly never mentioned; his live interview with Madonna’s fourth cousin, who may or may not have ever shared a sofa with Madonna. The Times also recorded the German’s bewilderment over the fact that nothing had been done locally to commemorate the most famous female performer of all time. His interview with the Bay City Times eventually morphed into a mournful PSA addressed to the people of Bay City to please “make more about the fact that she was from here.”

Cruising down Smith Street, it’s easy to see what all the fuss isn’t about. The former home of Madonna’s grandmother, Elsie Fortin, has been converted into an eldercare center by its current owners, but aside from the addition of a wheelchair ramp, remains much the same; 1204 Smith Street gives off that woozy suburban ennui. I could practically feel the bored, endless tattoo of a basketball vibrating through the soles of my shoes. It is a single-story ranch house with a brown-shingled roof that sits on the corner of the most normal-looking street in America. I stare at it, trying to will Madonna to life. But of course, it wasn’t Madonna who lived here, but “Nonni” Ciccone, as her family called her.

And there are locals who insist she didn’t live here at all.

Bay City is where Madonna’s grandmother grew up, where her mother, Madonna Louise, was born, and where her parents were married, yet Madonna’s parents never made their family home in Bay City. At the time of Madonna’s birth, her father, Silvio Ciccone, and her mother (who was also named Madonna) were living in the Detroit exurb of Pontiac. Later they moved to the nearby city of Rochester, where Madonna attended high school.

Still, Madonna’s family roots in Bay City ran deep. Madonna’s grandfather, Willard Fortin, was a manager at one of Bay City’s oldest businesses, H. Hirschfield Sons Co. Together, he and his wife Elsie raised eight children at their modest home on Smith Street. When Madonna’s mother died of breast cancer at the age of thirty, she left six children behind—Madonna and her five siblings—Martin, Anthony, Paula, Christopher, and Melanie. Elsie Fortin stepped in to help them. Christopher Ciccone describes their grandmother as “a second mother” and the house on Smith Street as a “haven” from the strict household presided over by Silvio Ciccone and their stepmother, Joan (the former housekeeper, whom the children promptly cast in the role of Voldemort when she married their father). The Ciccone children, Madonna included, spent many summers and holidays in Bay City, and Madonna quietly helped support her grandmother up until her death in 2011. She returned numerous times over the years to visit, making stops at the old home on Smith Street and at St. Laurent Brothers, a candy shop that was one of her favorite childhood hangs. When Elsie Fortin died, at age ninety-nine, Madonna brought her four children to Bay City to attend the vigil service.

According to her family, Bay City also has sentimental significance for Madonna. Five years ago, Madonna’s older brother Martin told the Bay City Times, “Bay City holds a real personal place in her heart, I know that for sure,” going on to describe the summers they spent bridge-jumping into the Kawkawlin River and “smelt dipping” with their uncles. (For this image of a young Madonna in thigh-high waders, shining a flashlight into a shallow stream with a heart full of hope for fish, I would like to thank Martin Ciccone.) According to Martin, Bay City has found its way into many of Madonna’s lyrics, and parts of the video for “Oh Father” were filmed in the local cemetery where their mother is buried. In an interview shortly before her death with the Bay City Times, Elsie Fortin said she also believed Madonna had a special feeling for Bay City, but couldn’t help adding, “I don’t think she thought that Bay City liked her too well.”

It’s true that not every town or city with a famous native daughter throws up a congratulatory sign or plaque, but the fact that Bay City hadn’t done so—and the ongoing, very public, process of community introspection on this topic—was something I’d begun to find more intriguing than the ordinary details of Madonna’s childhood summers there. A feeling that only intensified when I found out about Stevie Wonder.

Wonder, who is eight years Madonna’s senior, was born only fourteen miles away in the neighboring city of Saginaw. Not only is there a monument marking the place where his childhood home once stood, but three years ago Saginaw launched Wonderfest, [2] an annual celebration in the singer’s honor. Stevie Wonder left Saginaw for Detroit with his family when he was only four. Nonetheless, go to the City of Saginaw’s website and it will tell you Stevie was born there. Go to Bay City’s website, and it will tell you a national barbeque contest named the “Pig Gig” was born there. So why is Stevie (who has yet to attend a single Wonderfest) celebrated in Saginaw, while Bay City remains mute on Madonna? The answer, as any local conspiracy theorist will tell you, has its genesis in a controversy nearly thirty years old.

* * * *

Gypsies Metaphysical Superstore is the only other place in [Bay City] to promote the Madonna connection. Four years ago, Marianna Super, the owner of Gypsies (then called Mavericks), held a customer vote to decide whether she should name her new Brazillian blend “Smelly Lil Town Coffee.” Despite other alluring options, like “Espresso Yourself,” Smelly Town won. In addition to the coffee, Gypsies displays a four-by-five-foot photograph of Madonna framed in gold behind the espresso machine, and a ten-foot drawing of Madonna’s astrological chart which takes up an entire wall. It is no mere decoration; Marianna, who was born at Mercy Hospital, just like Madonna, and who is also slender, blonde, and impossibly energetic, spoke like a seasoned sommelier on the topic of Madonna’s cosmology.

“Madonna is a Leo and Leos love being on stage,” Marianna told me. “She’s Virgo-rising which signals perfection, criticalness, precision, and she also has Saturn in the fourth home and mother, which means she never had a childhood, never had a mother. That’s why she’s independent and cares about other families.” I asked Marianna whether Gypsies’ Madonna displays had garnered any negative response. It’s exactly the other way around, she insisted. “People say, ‘Oh my Gosh, was Madonna born here?’ and I say ‘Yes, that’s why she is perfect!'”

But according to Marianna this enthusiasm doesn’t extend far beyond Gypsies’ walls. She agrees with Gary’s theory that a mysterious core of well-placed haters are responsible for the signage stonewall. “Why doesn’t Bay City recognize her as a powerful, rich, grassroots person and why don’t they do anything about it? Because the older stuffy people have all to say in this town,” Marianna told me, “and they don’t want change.”

But who were these Madonna minimizers and what were their motives? Absent any hard evidence that such a conservative forcefield actually existed, I could only remain skeptical. Then Gary told me to talk to Ron Bloomfield, author of a 2012 book called Legendary Locals of Bay City. A book that did not include Madonna. Since this did seem like an odd, and undoubtedly deliberate, omission, I looked up Ron, who was also the Director of Operations and Chief Historian at the Bay County Historical Museum (another Madonna-free zone). Ron turned out to be eminently reasonable when I asked him why neither the museum nor his book mentioned Bay City’s most famous export. Madonna did make the shortlist for his book, Ron explained, “but the shortlist turned out to be four pages long.” Forced to toughen his criteria, the issue of Madonna’s exclusion came down to the difference between “born” and “raised.” In Ron’s view, even though Madonna was born in Bay City, she was raised in the Detroit suburbs of Pontiac and Rochester Hills—cities that properly deserved the hometown crown. I got off the phone feeling vaguely chastened for implying Madonna’s Bay City connection was greater than it was. Legendary Locals of Bay City, I imagined, was filled with stories of bonafide, born-and-bred, library-card-carrying, local Chamber of Commerce types who had helped grow their community from a humble cluster of log cabins on the east banks of the Saginaw River into a thriving city with nothing more than sweat and ingenuity. Just to make myself feel worse for insinuating Madonna belonged in this group, I clicked over to Arcadia Publishing’s web page for Legendary Locals. In the descriptive blurb, I found only one example of a “legendary local” from the book: Annie Edson Taylor, who at age sixty-three became the first person to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel and survive.

A quick Google search yielded the following supplementary information: Taylor didn’t actually move to Bay City until she was fifty-nine years old (by this definition of “raised,” Madonna, who is only fifty-seven, has yet to be raised), and the few years Taylor spent in Bay City were mostly notable for her many attempts to move elsewhere (Sault Ste. Marie, San Antonio, Mexico City), which she finally succeeded in doing—a mere three years after she arrived. Worse, the sixty-three-year-old was only driven to toss her cork-encased body into a 188-foot hydro-canyon out of financial desperation; she couldn’t make a living in Bay City and hoped the stunt would provide a windfall that would keep her out of the poorhouse. [3] “I might as well be dead as to remain in my present condition,” she told a reporter en route to Niagara Falls.

I sensed the real reason Ron excluded Madonna from Legendary Locals wasn’t about semantics, or even politically conservative qualms over her controversial oeuvre; he simply loved characters like Annie Edson: flawed, ordinary people whose stories would end up remaindered if it weren’t for the careful stewardship of historians like him. Madonna didn’t need his help, whereas Annie Edson Taylor did. But for Gary Johnson, there was something galling about the glossing-over of Madonna’s roots in Bay City. He knew too much.

Madonna loved the jolt in her stomach when her father zoomed over the Marquette Avenue viaduct driving into town, and the long summers she spent watching the mysterious freighters unload along the Saginaw River. And it bothered Gary that no one else knew these things too.

But whether damned or lauded by its mayors, ignored or exalted by its citizens, Madonna has nonetheless never been forgotten here; Bay City orbits Madonna like a lonely Teflon moon. Will her underground supporters prevail in their quest to commemorate her, I wondered, or will the state of suspended animation continue as Bay Citians await a different sign—one of acknowledgment and reconciliation from Madonna herself?

Or perhaps Bay City would simply hold fast to its lost histories, becoming in the process a symbol, not of Madonna, but her direct opposite, an alternative with its own humble glory.

Perhaps Bay City would become known as the city that shunned fame.

1. “The complete [Madonna) press file would probably yield enough recyclable pulp to keep what’s left of the Amazon rain forest from the saw for several months.” This declaration was made in the introduction to The Immaculate Collection, back in 1990.

2. Saginaw’s Wonderfest is not to be confused with Wonder Festival, the world’s largest collectibles festival, held in Japan.
3. It didn’t–Taylor died in a poorhouse in Lockport after unsuccessfully trying to make a living off her Niagara acclaim.

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