Judy Garland: Judy at Carnegie Hall Album Review

May 19, 2024 - Music

This capacity to read Garland beyond face value—to sense, for instance, as she breaks down over the hopelessness of her partner’s addiction in A Star Is Born, that she was also talking about herself—also placed her at the forefront of camp. The “failed seriousness,” as Susan Sontag later put it, of a child star who developed a lifetime of trademark tics to cope with the spotlight, has been a boon to generations of drag queens and actresses in want of an award-winning biopic.

Though the lexicon of contemporary gay culture is unthinkable without “Judy, Judy, Judy,” the audience who clamored for Judy at Carnegie Hall inhabited a vastly more hostile world than the modern listener. Apart from the brutal policing and social ostracization, the 1950s and early 1960s was a heyday of Freudianism in America, and the profile that emerged of homosexuals as effeminate, repressed, and grotesquely sentimental elicited both patronizing sympathy and flagrant contempt. In a very homophobic article for Esquire in 1969, William Goldman managed to sum up both: “First, if [gays] have an enemy, it is age. And Garland is youth, perennially, over the rainbow. And second, the lady has suffered. Homosexuals tend to identify with suffering.”

Though Garland’s death in 1969 on the day of the Stonewall Riots is mythically invoked by some as a driving factor for the rebellion, it actually marked a decisive break between generations. Gay liberation was, to a large extent, about materializing a self out of the shadows. The defiant, often hard-bodied new homosexual that emerged in its wake had no need for Garland as a conduit to express itself or to articulate its political demands. In turn, loving Judy became not only passé but slightly shameful, an activity associated with the most pathetic kind of closetedness: evocative of mothballs, jazz hands, and a deferred life of masochistic yearning.

But even as the cult of Garland dipped, it laid the seeds for powerful new affinities to develop between performers and their audiences. In Judy at Carnegie Hall, one can hear the genesis of contemporary queer fandom, in all of its relatability and complicated emotional grappling. Judy’s precipitous highs and lows have gradually been given a cleaner shape by the artists who succeeded her, smoothing out the turbulence in favor of a much more manageable approach to pop as a way of life, whether that be narrativizing a fully-rounded approach to sex and romance (Madonna), sharing moments of shattering vulnerability (Janet Jackson), or performing jazz standards while taking on A Star Is Born (Lady Gaga). Even when the going is rougher, she remains the benchmark for preternaturally gifted performers who persevere despite unthinkable odds: just look at how often her name comes up in discussions of Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston, or Britney Spears.

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