Why Does Madonna’s Hometown Hate Her?
One Writer's Search for the True Madonnaland
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.
* * * *
Bay City wasn’t always doggedly indifferent to Madonna. Back in the summer of 1985, the mayor even offered her the key to the city.3 At the time, Madonna was riding a swell of critical and popular acclaim for both her role in the film Desperately Seeking Susan and the decade-defining Like a Virgin. But this wasn’t just a gesture of goodwill on behalf of then-mayor Timothy G. Sullivan (a Republican who didn’t exactly fit the Madonna-fan demographic). Sullivan was canny enough to see the boon Madonna’s business could bring to Bay City. He was openly quoted in the papers expressing his hopes for a Madonna “homecoming” show; Madonna’s grandmother claimed that Sullivan contacted her at least seven times asking for help in persuading the singer to come to Bay City. But just days after his announcement, news leaked that nude photos Madonna had posed for during her early years in New York City were about to be published in Playboy. Suddenly, Sullivan had a change of heart.
“The key represents the citizens of the community,” Sullivan told the Bay City Times, and “it would no longer be in good taste” to bestow such an honor on Madonna. The only other key Sullivan had presented during his short tenure had gone to a nun in her late eighties who was retiring from the local parish of St. Hyacinth. Sullivan made a big deal of the contrast between the two, which is weird because even before Madonna was featured in Playboy mysteriously petting a kitten shirtless, she had already built an entire career around being pretty much the opposite of a nun.
Whereas no one, perhaps not even Madonna herself, seemed to notice she had been offered the key to Bay City, the taking-back-of-the-key made national headlines. Sullivan managed to inject his frantic backpeddling with some measure of humor; the day after reneging on the key, he offered Madonna the city’s second-highest honor. “A nice gold pin,” he told the press, presuming she had “something to pin it onto.”
To the surprise of no one, Madonna didn’t drop by city hall to pick up her pin when she played the Pontiac Silverdome two years later. But a few days before that concert, she did refer to her birthplace for the first time on national television. In an interview with Jane Pauley for The Today Show, she called Bay City “a little smelly town.”4
Her quip did not go over well.
Now there are those in Bay City who maintain there is a causal connection between these two events; the mayor’s grandstanding precipitated the star’s rudeness, generating enough local antipathy to power a grudge well into the next century. But it’s doubtful that Madonna’s comment was meant as any kind of tit-for-tat, especially given her very public (and rather unMadonnalike) apology later that week. “I do not think Bay City is a stinky city,” she told the crowd of more than fifty-six thousand fans who showed up at her Silverdome concert in Pontiac. “I said it smells bad. I didn’t say that about the people.” Madonna explained that when she called her hometown smelly, she’d meant it literally, referring to the Dow petrochemical and cracking plants located downwind of her grandmother’s home.
One problem with the apology was that, well, Madonna was not known for being sincere. The other problem was that her slip-up was the most famous reference to Bay City ever made on national television (one that remains enshrined on the city’s Wikipedia page to this day). It left a simmering swathe of the local public feeling reactant and ill-used. Like Madonna had dropped a stink bomb on Bay City from her Learjet, leaving them to clear the air with their tiny paper fans.
Strangely, Madonna’s “smelly town” comment struck the opposite chord with the mayor who replaced Tim Sullivan; when I called up Mike Buda to discuss the scandal and its aftermath, his first words regarding Bay City’s alleged odor were, “Madonna was absolutely right.”
Nobody wanted to listen to her, Buda told me. Air pollution from the gas refinery and a neighboring beet sugar plant was in fact so bad that the EPA forced the industries involved to pay a cash settlement to families, like those of Madonna’s grandmother Elsie Fortin, with homes in the Banks neighborhood. Whether it was a gesture in support of Madonna’s budding role as environmental activist or simply an effort to dispel the bad juju generated by the Sullivan feud, Buda decided to re-offer Madonna the key shortly after he took office in 1991. And he decided the best way to do so would be privately and quietly. Remarkably, the original key Sullivan had intended to give Madonna was still kicking around city hall. Eight inches long with a gold finish, the key had a clover-shaped head and Madonna’s name engraved on the flattened stem. Alas, it wasn’t to be; Madonna’s publicist never responded to Buda’s email.
It would be another seventeen years before Madonna would again be offered the key. Charles M. Brunner became the third mayor to offer Madonna the key to Bay City, and the second to have his offer make national headlines. But unlike either Sullivan or Buda, Brunner was a musician himself and a genuine fanboy. “I remember the first time that I saw you,” Brunner rhapsodized in his letter to Madonna. “It was on a program that ran on Saturday evenings and you were singing ‘Like a Virgin.'” He worked all the angles, telling Madonna he was a musician himself, a drummer, and that he and his wife had been married at Visitation Catholic Church, just like her parents. Airbrushing over the bitter op-editorializing of the Sullivan regime, Brunner informed Madonna that Bay City had always been proud of her achievements and expressed his deep desire to mark her accomplishments with Bay City’s highest honor.
Offering Madonna the key to the city was just one of the efforts to commemorate the star put forth by Bay City politicians that year. Not to be outdone, Guy Greve, president of the Bay Arts Council, announced he wanted to commission a sculpture of Madonna striking one of her iconic poses, while City Commissioner Chris Shannon (himself the frontman of a local band, the Swaggering Rogues) pledged to create a Madonna tribute album. One would be forgiven for thinking Bay City Hall had turned into a gay disco, but this was 2008 and 2008 was Madonna’s year. She was being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was turning fifty. She was tongue-kissing Justin Timberlake in her video for her top-ten Billboard hit “4 Minutes.” She was shooting her tenth cover for Vanity Fair, cradling Earth in her hands. She’d become, quite simply, a thing—to dislike her now seemed almost churlish. And as the only hometown listed in her Hall of Fame bio, Bay City was receiving a groundswell of positive attention. For a moment, it actually seemed possible that Madonna might do for Bay City what Elvis did for Tupelo, Mississippi.
When Madonna’s father, Silvio Ciccone, promised Brunner he would pass the mayor’s letter along to Madonna, hopes were running high. The New York Times even ran an article with the headline, “Bay City to Madonna: Come Home.” And then…? Nothing. After a few months of silence from the Madonna end, all talk of homecoming concerts, crotch-grabbing statues, and tribute albums vanished like so many fanciful chalk drawings after a hard summer rain, and the Bay City Times resumed its mournful vigil over landmarks unnamed and tourist dollars lost.
* * * *
Of course, the real question you might be asking isn’t why Bay City lacks a Madonna sign, but why I can’t seem to get unstuck from what most writers would consider, at best, a throw-away anecdote one might use to dress up a more impressive paragraph full of revelatory facts and insights that bring new heft to Madonna’s biography. I tried to justify my inefficiency by telling myself that gaining an in-depth understanding of Bay City would help me better understand the impetus behind the rebellion that drove Madonna to leave Michigan and launch her epoch-defining career. Or that the Bay City signage controversy was just a reflection, writ small, of America’s own divided views on Madonna.
But these are the lies I told myself to forestall the truth. And the truth was—I was failing.
What I needed was an inroad. A miraculously overlooked acupuncture point that would respond in some unique way to my touch alone. I’d been approached to write this book because I had once been a singer myself. Like Madonna, I was a girl who grew up lonely and alienated in the suburbs before winding up in New York, where I struggled for years, played bottom-rung clubs, and hustled for the same dignity-eroding “opportunities” advertised in the back of the Village Voice. It made sense to think I could use this slim cord of empathy and shared experience, if not to scale the Madonna Matterhorn, then to at least gain a foothold.
Only it didn’t make sense because my career, such that it was, had mostly been defined by failure; my albums sold in the low four digits. More than that, I was, by nature, a lover of failure. A cherisher of the small and the daunted. A flame-holder for sad, ignominious efforts, doomed by the disinterest of the masses, but cherished by a handful of lonely men and women with coffee-stained teeth who still read books on paper. Quite simply, it was not possible for me to un-ironically put myself in the shoes of a superstar/sex symbol/cultural icon/billionaire entrepreneur named after the mother of Christ.
By contrast, I could relate to the people of Bay City. They had regular jobs and hobbies. They had last names. They picked up the phone when I called. And they were facing a tacit choice, which was whether or not they wanted Madonna to represent them. Whether they wanted to become, in effect, Madonnaland.
Bay City has known boom times. In the mid-nineteenth century it developed a thriving lumber industry, with an estimated fifty mills. A hundred years later, it had grown into a shipbuilding hub, providing warships and freighters to the US Navy during World War II. But with every boom came a bust, and Bay City emerged from the recent global financial crisis, and the collapse of the automobile manufacturing industry in nearby Saginaw, with a median income well below both the state and the national average. In a time of economic uncertainty, it made sense that some locals were beginning to take stock of their hometown’s less conventional resources, and to wonder if Madonna might just be the thing to save them.
Gary Johnson was one of those people.
Gary has a different theory about the Madonna logjam. He believes Bay City, at its core, is a conservative place and that a silent but influential majority has worked the invisible levers of power to ensure nothing ever got done on the Madonna commemoration front. Whether this is true or not, the perceived anti-Madonna vibe has worked a weird kind of geomagnetic reversal in Bay City, forcing supporters of the superstar underground, like members of some kind of radical resistance movement, to set up their shrines in distant malls and car shops.
Gary Johnson, known locally as “Dr. J.,” is the unofficial leader of the pro-Madonna faction, an oft-cited figure in the various Bay City Times articles on the signage issue. A former public schoolteacher and lifelong resident of Bay City and nearby Essexville, Gary is also the founder and self-appointed head of the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame.5 The MRRLHF display on the wall of Bay City Motors, a vintage car dealership, includes a copy of Like a Virgin and an accompanying 8 x 10 glossy photo of Madonna; it is one of only two places where you will find any mention of the star in her birthplace.
It’s hard to overstate the depth of Gary’s passion on the Madonna-commemoration issue, a passion he has channeled to large degree into exhaustive historical research. His article “Madonna Misconstrued” on the Michigan Legends website is by far the most elaborate account of the Sullivan-key-flap and its aftermath. To wit: in 2008, after an unnamed official made a side comment to Gary about Madonna being undeserving of Mayor Brunner’s offer of the key to Bay City, he went to city hall and unearthed the modest spiral notebook where the city’s key recipients had for years been documented. In a blog post titled “Madonna—We Have Her Key,” Johnson explodes the myth that the key to Bay City was an honor reserved exclusively for hospice workers, policemen wounded in the line of fire, and elderly nuns. “The St. Patrick’s Day Queen gets a key each year, as does each year’s Miss Bay County,” Johnson wrote. “So did the Polish Dance Team in 1997. The winners of various boat races in town have also been so honored.” Author Mickey Spillane got a key to Bay City when he visited in the 1990s, Gary went on, as did his sexy sidekick, the busty actress Lee Meredith, better known as “The Doll.” This dismal accounting made even Madonna’s passive contribution of increasing Bay City’s number of Google hits worth contemplating.
Gary looks back at the key debacle of 1985 as a missed opportunity of epic proportions—Bay City’s Waterloo. “I believe Madonna would have relished the chance to shine here, a place that held many of her childhood memories,” he writes in “Madonna Misconstrued.” “Instead, when Madonna was catching flak from all sides regarding the nude photos and probably feeling more than a little threatened, her hometown, through the actions of its mayor, turned its back on her.”
As a symbolic gesture, Gary and his wife Lynn decided to make the four-hour drive to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in March of 2008 to watch Madonna’s induction ceremony on a closed-circuit TV, so that “someone was there to represent Madonna’s hometown.” On his blog, he describes the thrill of seeing “Bay City” flash up on the screen beneath Madonna’s name and expresses the hope that his gesture on behalf of Bay City might “lead to other positive events.”
When we first spoke in the summer of 2013, that hope had yet to be realized.
* * * *
Gypsies Metaphysical Superstore is the only other place in town 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.6 “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 so happens that 1985 was also the year Saginaw awarded Stevie Wonder with a key to the city. Detroit had presented Wonder with a key one year earlier, and Wonder would also go on to earn a key from the city of Lansing, Michigan, where he attended high school. (At this point the singer can basically unlock most of south-central Michigan.)
4. She actually referred to Bay City as a “little smelly town in northern Michigan,” although Bay City is in central Michigan.
5. In 2005, when Johnson first got the idea for the Hall, he sent a note thanking Terry Stuart, CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, for the inspiration. Stuart promptly wrote back to say if he didn’t change the name, Gary would be sued. To prove he was serious, Stuart told him he was already in the midst of suing another website, the Jewish Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for trademark infringement. (Demonstrating an almost staggering lack of humor, Stuart pressed on with the suit even after the defendants offered to change the site’s name to the Jewish Rock and Roll Challah of Fame. They were forced to settle and the site is now called Jews Who Rock.) Thus the mouthsome acronym MRRLHoF was born.
6. It didn’t–Taylor died in a poorhouse in Lockport after unsuccessfully trying to make a living off her Niagara acclaim.
From MADONNALAND. Used with permission of University of Texas Press. Copyright © 2016 by Alina Simone.