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.