On Friday evening March 31st, 2023, I joined scores of others to attend “Madonna 40” at the Delta College Planetarium. A sold out show, it was incredible – and a lot of fun! Designed to honor Madonna’s 40th anniversary of her first hit single “Holiday” and her always controversial place in Bay City history, it did not disappoint. My only wish: I would have thoroughly enjoyed another hour of her classic music videos and would have gladly paid accordingly. There is nothing quite like watching the music videos that made Madonna a superstar and an inspiration to a generation of girls and women, for better or worse, on the big screen. It is an experience I will never forget. Her early music will always be a part of the soundtrack to my early childhood memories. In designing the program, the following original, unedited music videos were shown in all of their ‘80s and early ‘90s glory:
- Material Girl (1984) (Video) (My Take)
- Vogue (1990) (Video)
- Papa Don’t Preach (1986) (Video)
- Like A Prayer (1989) (Video)
Frankly, the music video portion of the program outshone everything else. The videos have held up over nearly four decades. What struck me most in the vintage videos was Madonna herself. Definitely not model thin or “fat,” she exuded old-school glamor in “Material Girl,” “Vogue,” and “Like A Prayer” with the dance moves that made her famous. As for “Papa Don’t Preach,” she looks like any fresh-faced midwestern high school or college girl.
Personally, I felt that the organizers/designers missed a huge opportunity by not including at least the videos for both “Promise to Try” (1989), which was largely filmed at her mother’s gravesite in Kawkawlin, Michigan (just north of Bay City), and “This Used to Be My Playground” (1992), which was included on the A League of Their Own soundtrack and supposedly written about Bay City becoming her refuge after her mother’s untimely death. The only actual footage of Madonna in or near Bay City was not included in the program. How?
The next segment of the program, “Smelly Little Town,” is originally why I wanted to attend the event and even moved around my schedule to do so. Debuting as part of the Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival in Bay City in 2021, I doubted I would ever have another opportunity to see it. Growing up with the controversy, knowing Bay City a little too well, and having been born in Bay City myself, I had to check it out.
First and foremost, it is quite possibly the most Bay City thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Let me just say this: It began and ended with scenes of people polka dancing at the St. Stan’s Polish festival to the Steve Drzewicki Band, both Bay City institutions. I half expected to see my ex’s parents go dancing on by. In general, the film did a decent job describing Bay City, covering all aspects of the “smelly little town” controversy with Madonna, and explaining how ever-corrupt Bay City small town politics is the answer as to why Bay City has never really been able to capitalize on the fact that it is the birthplace of Madonna.
For those who don’t know, Madonna Louise Ciccone was born at the former Mercy Hospital in Bay City, Michigan on August 16th, 1958. Madonna is her actual given name as she was named after her mother. Upon her mother’s tragic death in 1963, Madonna spent time in Bay City with her grandmother, who lived in the Banks area, then home to a nearby oil refinery (hence the “smelly little town” comment that caused such an uproar). To this day, there is very little commemorating Madonna in Bay City. Then again, this is the same city that passed on becoming home to a casino and a minor league ballpark, both of which went to nearby communities.
If something wonderful is planning on coming to Bay City, one can be sure that public outrage will ensue in some way, shape, or form. I am speaking from experience. When I moved back to Michigan with my ex, a Bay City native, in 2005, the controversy over the then new Wirt Public Library – a gorgeous new anchor for downtown Bay City – had yet to wane. While I agree it doesn’t have the history of the historic Sage Library in Bay City, people were genuinely upset over a beautiful new library downtown. I will never understand the mentality.
Then again, back in 2005, Michigan experienced a one-state recession which was about to turn into the Great Recession. 2008 is covered well in the documentary. It is rightfully called one of the darkest times in Bay City history, and frankly, I consider my life in Bay City (2005-2012) one of the darkest periods in my life as well. Yet, while Bay City is almost unrecognizable from that dark hour, there is still nothing formal honoring Madonna in the city.
As much as I wanted to see “Smelly Little Town,” I doubt it would have been half as entertaining if not for my own experiences with Bay City and my early love of Madonna’s music. In fact, much of it is forgettable. However, it did a good job highlighting the ridiculousness of the entire situation and Bay City politics. I actually understand the controversy now. A little explanation and context behind Madonna’s comments would have changed everything. In the same infamous 1985 interview with Jane Pauly, Madonna goes on to say that she has “great affection” for Bay City.
By the way, Bay City still is a “smelly little town.” In a hilarious coincidence, I happened to drive by the Michigan Sugar plant on Friday on my way to see “Madonna 40.” For those who don’t know, processing sugar beets can smell like hot garbage on a good day. Friday, as I drove by, it never smelled worse.
Clearly, Madonna’s relationship with Bay City remains complicated. I fully understand why. My love/hate relationship with Madonna – I will always love Madonna’s music, but question her methods of self-promotion – mirrors my love/hate relationship with Bay City itself. I do hope that she is commemorated in Bay City at some point. Not every small town can claim to be the birthplace of the best-selling female musical artist of all time.
By the way, if you want a quick, accurate outline of Madonna’s complex history with Bay City, the article below does a wonderful job of doing just that.
‘The Madonna Controversy’: Five facts about Bay City’s Material Girl you may not have known