This post was originally published in 2022 and has been edited for content and clarity.
My beloved home state is celebrating its 186th birthday today, and to mark the occasion, here are a few of my favorite Michigan-born artists and Michigan-set media.
- Stevie Wonder
Any number of Michigan-born musicians could have topped this list; Motown Records is just an embarrassment of musical riches. But no single artist has brought me more joy over the course of my lifetime than Stevie Wonder. Born Stevland Hardaway Morris in Saginaw, Wonder moved with his mother and siblings to Detroit when he was four. He was signed to Motown Records at age eleven; Berry Gordy gave him the moniker Little Stevie Wonder. Wonder had his first #1 hit at the age of thirteen with “Fingertips”. He made several of the definitive albums of the 1970s and in the process, won the Grammy for Album of the Year three times in four years (Paul Simon, receiving the award for 1975’s Still Crazy After All These Years, jokingly thanked Wonder for not releasing an album that year). He has won twenty-five Grammys and an Oscar (though the less said about “I Just Called to Say I Love You”, the better), and is an inductee to the Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues, and Songwriters Halls of Fame. He is a legend and an icon and simply one of the greatest artists of all time.
- Freaks and Geeks
My all-time favorite series would still be so if it were set in another state; the metro-Detroit setting is the extra cherry on top of this ice cream sundae. Paul Feig, who was born and raised in Mount Clemens, created this lovely paean to the rare highs and often excruciating lows of high school life. The cast of then-unknowns included Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Busy Phillips, and John Francis Daley. The producers’ insistence on original, era-specific tunes meant that the music – by artists like Van Halen, Styx, and Rush – took up a considerable chunk of the show’s budget (and resulted in a frustratingly long delay in getting the series to home video), but it was money well spent. If you’ve never seen this beautiful little one-season wonder, you can stream it on Hulu or Paramount Plus.
- “Detroit Rock City” – KISS
“You gotta lose your mind in Detroit Rock City“
The third single from KISS’s 1976 album Destroyer, “Detroit Rock City” failed to chart; somewhat surprisingly, the single’s B-side, “Beth”, became KISS’s best-selling song, peaking at #7 on the Billboard Hot 100. But “Detroit Rock City” has been a fan favorite for decades, particularly among the band’s fans in the Mitten. The incident the song describes – the death of a fan who was killed in a car accident on his way to a KISS concert – didn’t take place in Detroit; it actually took place in Charlotte, but “Charlotte Rock City” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Madonna Louise Ciccone was born in 1958 in Bay City, Michigan, and grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. She attended the University of Michigan on a dance scholarship but dropped out in 1978 to move to New York City. Though dreams of becoming a professional dancer brought her to New York, she eventually found herself drawn to music. Her first album, Madonna, was released in 1983; by the end of the decade, she was the top-selling female pop artist in the world (and a movie star to boot). Now in her sixties, Madonna continues to record and perform; her most recent album, 2019’s Madame X, was her ninth #1 in the United States (a subsequent tour was cut short in March 2020 due to COVID). She is a fashion icon, maverick, badass, and the undisputed Queen of Pop.
- Grosse Pointe Blank
Budget constraints prevented the filming of this Gen-X cult classic in Michigan, though one aerial shot of Lakeshore Drive was filmed on location in Grosse Pointe. The story centers around John Cusack’s Martin Blank, an assassin who returns to his hometown for his ten-year high school reunion – and to complete one last job before retiring. Come for the lovely chemistry between Cusack and Minnie Driver and the KILLER soundtrack (which includes ’80s bangers like “Blister in the Sun”, “Under Pressure” and “We Care a Lot”); stay for the hilariously unhinged performance by Joan Cusack as Blank’s assistant Marcella.
- “America” – Simon and Garfunkel
“‘Kathy’, I said
As we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh
Michigan seems like a dream to me now
It took me four days
To hitch-hike from Saginaw
‘I’ve come to look for America‘”
Taken from their #1 album Bookends, Simon and Garfunkel’s gorgeous road trip ode was inspired by a real-life trip Paul Simon took in 1964 with his then-girlfriend Kathy. “America” is one of the duo’s most enduring songs, though it only made it to #97 on the Billboard Hot 100; it enjoyed a resurgence in 2000 when it was used – brilliantly – in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. “America” is one of my all-time favorite songs, combining despair and hope in equal measures; the lyric “I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why” reduces me to tears every time.
- The White Stripes
Garage rock has always been a Detroit-area staple (MC5 and Iggy Pop, among many others). In the late 1990s, The White Stripes – former spouses Jack and Meg White – led a garage rock revival, and became one of the defining artists of the 2000s. Their big break came in 2002 when V2 Records reissued their third indie album, White Blood Cells; buoyed by the single “Fell in Love with a Girl” – and its brilliant stop-motion Lego video – the album made it to #61 on the Billboard 200. I had the pleasure of seeing The White Stripes live at the Royal Oak Music Theater that year (on my birthday, no less!); it was astonishing how much noise they could make with just vocals, guitar, and drums. Their subsequent albums, particularly Elephant with its iconic single “Seven Nation Army”, kept them at the forefront of rock throughout the 2000s. Their sixth effort, 2007’s Icky Thump, would be their final album; the duo officially dissolved in 2011. Jack White has continued recording with The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather and as a solo artist. The White Stripes were named the sixth greatest duo of all time by Rolling Stone; the band will be eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2024.
- Out of Sight and No Sudden Move
Steven Soderbergh’s delightful crime caper Out of Sight was based on the novel by Elmore Leonard, the so-called “Dickens of Detroit”. Soderbergh returned to a Detroit setting more recently with No Sudden Move. Out of Sight was filmed at several locations in and around Detroit, including the iconic State Theater on Woodward Avenue. No Sudden Move brought Detroit center stage, filming at locations like Rosedale Park, Wayne State University, and Detroit’s Masonic Temple.
- “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – Gordon Lightfoot
“In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald“
The shipwreck of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald on November 10, 1975, is the stuff of legend; if you ever find yourself in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum on Whitefish Point is a must-see. Lightfoot’s song took some artistic liberties with the details of the sinking (for example, the ship was bound for Detroit, not Cleveland), but “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” nonetheless pays touching tribute to the twenty-nine men who lost their lives that day.
- Jeff Daniels
Jeff Daniels is the pride of Chelsea, Michigan, one town over from my hometown of Dexter (both cities are west of Ann Arbor). Daniels moved to New York in 1977, where he performed in plays on and off Broadway. He made his film debut in 1981’s Ragtime; he’s co-starred in films such as Something Wild, Dumb and Dumber, Pleasantville, The Hours, Looper, and The Martian. But Daniels has found his greatest success on the small screen, starring in such acclaimed series as The Newsroom, Godless, and The Looming Tower. Daniels moved back to Chelsea in 1986 and has maintained his primary residence there ever since. In 1991, he formed the Purple Rose Theatre Company, named for his 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo.
- Beverly Hills Cop
Obviously, the majority of this 1984 comedy classic is set in Beverly Hills, California, but the event that kicks off the plot – the murder of Detective Axel Foley’s childhood friend Mikey – takes place in Detroit. And unlike many movies set in Detroit, Beverly Hills Cop actually filmed there. The producers even hired Detroit PD Homicide Inspector Gilbert Hill to play Foley’s boss, Inspector Todd, which gave the Detroit scenes even more authenticity.
- “Especially in Michigan” – Red Hot Chili Peppers
“Deep in the mitten / Where lions and tigers come running, just to steal your luck”
Lead singer Anthony Kiedis was born and raised in Grand Rapids; he moved to Hollywood at the age of twelve to live with his dad. “Especially in Michigan”, off the Peppers’ 2006 album Stadium Arcadium, is a lovely little ode to Kiedis’s home state. I particularly love the “lions and tigers” line, which is clearly a reference to Detroit’s respective NFL and MLB teams.
- Keegan-Michael Key
Keegan-Michael Key was born in Southfield and raised in Detroit. After graduating from the University of Detroit Mercy, he attended Penn State, where he received his Master of Fine Arts. In 2004, he joined the cast of MADtv, where he first met Jordan Peele. After MADtv ended, he and Peele created and starred in Key & Peele for Comedy Central; the legendary sketch comedy show earned two Emmys and a Peabody. Key and Peele also appeared in season one of Fargo. Key has co-starred in films such as Role Models (a favorite of mine), The Lego Movie, and Pitch Perfect 2. He made his Broadway debut in 2017 in Steve Martin’s Meteor Shower and he’ll have a role in the upcoming Willy Wonka adaptation with Timothée Chalamet.
- Standing in the Shadows of Motown
This 2002 feature-length documentary about The Funk Brothers, the legendary Motown house band, came about as a way to celebrate the previously uncredited session musicians. Using interviews with the surviving members, archival footage, and performances by the band with guest artists like Joan Osbourne (a personal favorite), Chaka Khan, Bootsy Collins, Gerald Levert, and Ben Harper, Standing in the Shadows of Motown will grab you by both your feet and your feels.
Fun fact: The Funk Brothers recorded more hits than The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and Elvis Presley COMBINED.
- “Panic in Detroit” – David Bowie
“He laughed at accidental sirens that broke the evening gloom / The police had warned of repercussions, they followed none too soon“
This track off Aladdin Sane was inspired in part by Bowie’s friend Iggy Pop’s experiences during the 1967 Detroit race riots.
And finally, while we’re on the subject of the Detroit race riots, we have this criminally underrated Kathryn Bigelow feature about the Algiers Motel incident that occurred on the night of July 25-26, 1967. A terrific young cast is headed by John Boyega and Will Poulter, who is absolutely terrifying as a racist, murderous cop. According to Melvin Dismukes (portrayed by Boyega in the film), Detroit is “99.5% accurate”.
As I was researching this piece, I stumbled upon this playlist created by Interlochen Public Radio (located in the northern lower peninsula, Interlochen is home to a well-renowned arts program whose graduates include Ben Foster, Ed Helms, Norah Jones, Terry Crews, and Anthony Rapp). All of my song choices appear on this list; thought y’all might enjoy it too.