Rock and Roll Book Club: Alina Simone's 'Madonnaland: And Other Detours into Fame and Fandom'

Cecilia Johnson with Alina Simone's 'Madonnaland'
Cecilia Johnson with Alina Simone's 'Madonnaland' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

The first thing I did after opening Alina Simone's Madonnaland: And Other Detours into Fame and Fandom was close it. I'm not harsh enough a critic to give up on a book on the first page -- but I had to fix something. I grabbed my headphones from my backpack, cued up Madge's greatest-hits album The Immaculate Collection, and resettled into my bus seat.

Madonnaland's opening conceit, and one that endures throughout the book, is the author's series of journeys to Bay City, Mich., the 35,000-person town where Madonna was born. You'd think her hometown would honor the Material Girl, maybe throwing up a sign or some memorabilia in the local museum. But no. When Simone first pulled into town, she couldn't find a trace of Madonna's legacy.

Madonna's on the cover, but Bay City almost becomes the main character of the book, as Simone presents the mayor, local Madonna fans and haters, and one Gary Johnson, a resident who "will crush you with the brute force of his archival research." The first four chapters of this 125-page book may feature Madonna, but the next two take off on other Michigan phenoms: Question Mark and the Mysterians (those one-hit wonders who made "96 Tears") and mysterious rock band Flying Wedge. These titular "Other Detours into Fame and Fandom" hooked me on the cobwebby corners of Michigan music.

Of course, Madonna gets her share of pagetime. Simone does some astute cultural analysis on Madonna's sex-positive attitude and self-marketing expertise. For example, she writes, "I suspect that more than any qualms we may have about Madonna's music or nip-slips, or her treatment of religious icons or choice of men, her bombastic and self-prophetic confidence is what most accounts for the animus against her." She also combs through Madonna minutiae, but the "Here's what Madonna said when she did a Reddit AMA" kind, not, "Madonna was born in 1958."

One caveat: the author's "I struggled to write this book" subplot struck me as indulgent. She starts out trying to dredge up a Madonna biography; halfway through, she says she quit and returned her book advance. She doesn't touch that topic again until the epilogue, but just by virtue of having the book in our hands, we know that she transformed the project into more of an essay and finished the project. Much more on topic: the stories she shares about struggling to become a successful musician.

Other than that, Madonnaland gets points for brevity. It's only 125 pages, and if lots of books paint you pictures, this one cuts in the paint, energetic and often funny. "There, of course, was Madonna," the author writes about the tension between '80s pop and more experimental music, "at the top of the shrink-wrapped heap, putting the 'M' in Monoculture."

Listening to The Immaculate Collection was a good idea, but ultimately, the music didn't mesh well with the book. As much as I love "Into The Groove" and the other hits, their schmaltz and Simone's honesty mismatched. Eventually, I switched to something darker (well, Lady Gaga's "Alejandro" remixes. I had to stay tangentially connected to Madonna).

What I took that to mean: you don't have to be a superfan to enjoy Madonnaland. In fact, although I will get into a fight defending "Like A Prayer," neither I nor the author are devotees. It's more about the ride here, so pick up Madonnaland if you enjoy a creative structure, quick wit, and musical quests.