Books

Madonna Isn’t That Interesting, But Alina Simone Is

Madonnaland is not the end-cap of Simone's existential musings; it's an intense jewel in the already sparkly crown of a consistently perceptive critic.


Madonnaland

Publisher: University of Texas Press
Length: 138 pages
Author: Alina Simone
Price: $16.95
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2016-03
Amazon

As a critic, my main job is to convey a clear sense of what is at stake with any particular art object by delivering a fully formed opinion about it to readers who have yet to encounter that object themselves. As a process, criticism gets more complicated when the object of this opinion is a book that itself treats another separate art object. This type of criticism can spawn a stream of tangents for one to follow ad infinitum. The tricky bit is knowing which rabbit holes are worth pursuing and then how deep to fall down into them before they bottom out.

When criticism bottoms out on a really profound sidebar, that often means it can't get back in touch with its art object and thusly can't conclude with an opinion that properly alerts readers as to what they should do next. Most critics consider this type of writing to be a failure. But not me. And not Alina Simone. So let me say right now: Alina Simone's Madonnaland is a totally excellent book, and if you don't bother to read it, you will be missing something significant in the development of modern cultural criticism. Simone did not set out to write criticism; she set out to write a biographical account of Madonna.

But she couldn't. She failed at that. Most writers do, because come on; it's Madonna: a living legend of popular culture whose daily media references are generated at such a rate that it's simply impossible either to say you have read all there is on the subject of her or to say you have something so fresh to add to the slush pile that it's worth publishing a book. There's no shortage of crap books about Madonna's life and work.

It's to Simone's credit that she wanted to dive in to such an intimidating mess and even more to her credit that she chose to bail on it in favor of this project, which is essentially a catalogue of her failure to write the greatest Madonna book ever. As a result, she actually did succeed in writing the greatest Madonna book ever, because the focal point of it is Alina Simone, not Madonna.

Simone herself had grand music ambitions upon a time, and indeed did very well for herself at the high tide of college rock in the '90s. But her band didn't gather enough momentum to stay on top, so despite her skills and savvy, Simone now enjoys a somewhat more low key existence as a smart cultural commentator with a nice backstory to vouch for her ample musical street cred. She's plainly self-aware of her own jealousy of Madonna's success. She isn't a Madonna super fan, a nut job memorabilia hoarder, or sporting any full-back tattoos of the pop star's face. She does, however, meet all those people.

She also meets a Madonna-specific fortune teller in an encounter I won't spoil for you by trying to describe it any further. There are a lot of weird people in the Madonna orbit, and Simone's taxonomy of all these characters is delightful through and through. The king of the heap is GaryJohnson, who also doesn't even adore Madonna that much. Johnson is like a real life version of the Gilmore Girls character of Taylor Doose, a fervent town hall meeting guy with a profound knack for the kind of researched bureaucracy that makes him a blustery thorn in the side of many local politicians. Johnson wants a sign outside the town of Bay City, Michigan, acknowledging it as the birthplace of Madonna.

Simone goes to Bay City to research Madonna's early years, and is dumbstruck by the total lack of information available. Instead, there is Johnson and his quest for signage. I say "quest", because apparently this has been something of a raging municipal battle for decades now. Then there's the ancillary problem of the town's official song, which may or may not be racist. Then there's this whole thing about multiple, giant, engraved keys to the city.

Then it turns out that Bay City is also the birthplace of Question Mark and the Mysterians! Then there's a chapter on Flying Wedge! Flying Wedge is a mythic, astoundingly excellent black classic rock band about whom nobody beyond the most serious vinyl hunter knows. They had one single and three fans; now they're gone and Death, an equally good band working in a similar vein, got its long-overdue documentary treatment first.

These developments result in an interesting foray into the question of who first smuggled the word "masturbate" onto the Billboard Top 100. Also important, the word "mondegreen": noun, a misinterpreted word or phrase resulting from misheard song lyrics. Simone will give you an education, just not really about Madonna.

These are great tangents! They are so great they become central.

Does the world need one more half-baked biographical update on Madonna? No, it does not. What the world does need is Simone's productively clear-eyed assessment of her own musical and journalistic failures, told with deep affection for the detours unavoidably provoked by fame and fandom. Madonnaland is not the end-cap of Simone's existential musings; it's an intense jewel in the already sparkly crown of a consistently perceptive critic. I find myself jealous of her.

7
Music
Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Books
Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Books

The American Robot: A Cultural History [By the Book]

In The American Robot, Dustin A. Abnet explores how robots have not only conceptually connected but literally embodied some of the most critical questions in modern culture, as seen in this excerpt from chapter 5 "Building the Slaves of Tomorrow", courtesy of University of Chicago Press.

Dustin A. Abnet
Film
Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Film

'The Serpent's Egg' Marks One of Ingmar Bergman's Strangest Efforts

The Serpent's Egg bares many of the Bergman's trademark features – the suffocating auras of despair and an underdog's sense of triumph over tragedy – but falls short of a more intelligent rendering of human drama.

Recent
Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Music

Weeks Island's 'Droste' Is a New High Water Mark in Ambient Steel (EP stream) (premiere)

Lost Bayou Ramblers' Jonny Campos turns up as Weeks Island with Brian Eno/Cluster-inspired music straight from the bayou. Hear Droste in full ahead of its release on Friday.

Music

Ireland's Junk Drawer Share New Krautrock Meets Post-Punk Song, "Temporary Day" (premiere)

Junk Drawer's "Temporary Day" is a simple yet compelling video for a gripping song that shows why the band have earned such acclaim in their native Ireland.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Music

Miranda Lambert - "Bluebird" (Singles Going Steady)

Miranda Lambert sings her blues the way an artist paints with them on her latest single, "Bluebird".

Music

'Stone Crush' Proves (Again) That Memphis Is Ground Zero for Soul and R&B

Stone Crush shines a light on the forgotten -- or never known -- artists that passed through the doors of Memphis' most storied studios in an attempt at just one fleeting moment of fame.

Music

Circles Around the Sun Shoot for the Stars on New Album

Jamrockers Circles Around the Sun's self-titled third album finds the band transcending darkness after losing their founder in 2019 to chart a groovy new course.

Music

Jazz's Kandace Springs Pays Tribute to 'The Women Who Raised Me'

Singer and pianist Kandace Springs tackles a dozen songs associated with her jazz vocal heroes, and the combination of simplicity and sincerity is winning.

Music

Coronavirus Tunes: A Brief Playlist for Our Times of Self-Isolation

As coronavirus spreads throughout the world and many of us hunker down with online media, we offer eight songs that share our feeling of seclusion.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.