This past weekend, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender folks, supportive straights, and people with an insatiable appetite for grotesque portions of artery-clogging carnival food (the line for the "butterfly chips" cart was so long, I assumed people were standing in line to meet a celebrity) gathered in downtown Ferndale for the Motor City Pride festival. From what I could tell, the event was a resounding success -- so many people milling around and having a great time you almost forgot that these were the people who were the main threat to this nation (even more so than terrorism or Islam) and who want nothing better than to tear a big ol' rainbow-shaped hole into the moral fabric of our society...
One of the main attractions of Motor City Pride has always been live music. The organizers book a wide range of talented performers, from well-known locals to some national gay favorites, and attendees can always look forward to finding something of quality to meet their tastes. That said, I was weary but intrigued when I saw that one of the main musical attractions this year was a Madonna impersonator from California (and not a drag queen either). The printed fest program informed us that the act -- which is collectively known as "Into The Groove" -- featured a Madonna impersonator [Julie Nugent -- a Michigan native herself] who fronts "the world's most successful tribute to the Material Girl, complete with dancers, costume changes and a set list that offer[s] classic songs, sexy choreography and audience participation that's still completely family-friendly." The Madge clone was to start the performance at 5:15 p.m., right after the doggie drag show.
Quick "doggie drag show" report: Far from an actual "show," this portion of the day amounted to 25 minutes of disorganized folks parading across the stage with their dogs in hand, while the MC (a local drag queen) rambled on about how "cute" they all were. From what I could tell, only one dog had a dress on (namely an Italian Greyhound dressed in a black evening gown) and I don't even know if the dog was a boy. The little poodle that was dyed powder blue was also pretty cute -- but I don't think that he (or she) was actually wearing any "clothes," gender-bending or otherwise. At that point, I wasn't the only one in the crowd starting to lose patience and getting antsy for "Into The Groove" to get into the groove and onstage
A few words regarding "tribute artists/bands": I'm generally not a fan. I can understand and appreciate, from a theatrical perspective, the tribute artist/band idea (acts so polished, you can't believe it's not the real artist -- usually somebody iconoclastic like Prince or Bruce Springsteen). I can also understand it from the point of view of a fan of an artist who's dead (Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, etc.), thereby seriously limiting your opportunity to see them perform. My favorite is the odd curiosity category -- groups made up of midgets (mini KISS) or Asians (The Parrots, Japan's most renowned Beatles tribute; or RenElvis, the "Philippino Spawn of Elvis") -- acts that always take their tribute to a whole new level. And considering the tough market for today's bands and musicians, one can probably make more money as a polished tribute act than by playing original material. After all, drunk people always prefer music they know the words to.
"Into The Groove" doesn't fit any of these categories. Ms. Nugent is not a dead ringer for Madonna; the actual Madonna is not yet dead; and although the guitarist appeared to be of Asian descent, in this case, it doesn't count. The first song they launch into is (surprise!) "Into The Groove." It's clear that not-Madonna can't hear what she's singing. as she starts off wildly out of tune. I look around to see the crowd reaction and see many people clapping along and smiling -- the response I would expect from drunk people with no musical ear. Their expression said, "I know this sing! I clap when things are familiar!"
The band is pretty darn tight -- compromised of the above mentioned guitar player, a drummer with a crew cut and those horrible 1980's sunglasses, and a keyboardist in a full pinstriped suit, I can't fault them for their performance. Not-Madonna gets a little more comfortable a couple songs in and her vocals improve. Still a bit weak, but she's starting to really get into it. The crowd reception is tepid, but there are a few folks who are obviously having a great time -- one example is a younger lesbian couple who seem so happy just to be dancing together (although their display of enthusiasm clearly has more to do with their mutual infatuation with each other than "Into The Groove's" ability to pump up a crowd). There's also a woman standing about 10 feet behind me who most definitely has Down's Syndrome, and she is so ecstatic and wide-eyed with excitement that I would not be surprised to find out she really thought this woman was Madonna.
There's also another person onstage through all of this '- a younger woman who's signing for the deaf. She's been up onstage for most of the day signing while various people talk or perform. I have to hand it to Motor City Pride for thinking of the deaf community and providing this service. That said, I found it fascinating to watch the woman signing. Possibly stemming from a lack of familiarity with the words to Madonna's biggest hits, she would occasionally stop signing the words and begin sternly "air drumming." I'm assuming this was to let deaf members of the audience know that, in fact, the people on stage were creating sound, not just miming their way though a silent concert-like performance. Or possibly she just really likes the drums and just got "into the groove" (wow -- you didn't see that one coming, did you?). Either way, the most important thing is everybody seemed to get at least a kick out of it. For better or worse, not-Madonna seemed eager to please and was clearly enjoying herself.
What really matters in the end is that some folks still -- to this day -- don't find this kind of general vibe of acceptance outside the confines of events like Pride. Until LGBT Americans have equal rights -- and laws deeming them as second-class citizens are overturned -- I'll gladly sit through a shaky Madonna tribute just to add to the all too fleeting feeling of the equality of my fellow attendees. That's the very least we can all do. -- Laura Witkowski
Ms. "Into The Groove" Julie Nugent: no relation to Terrible Ted...