When you start a project you see your subject everywhere. You are heightened to it. And if you’re like me, you go looking for it: research, talking to people, Google alerts. Amongst the loads of gay-penned articles about Judy (and gay men), there have been a few queer commentators saying that Judy Garland is becoming irrelevant to the current queer and gay generation. (There’s an irony in this in that the event most close to writing that saturated the Google alerts was the annual Night Of A Thousand Judys, a benefit for LGBT youth.) The thing is though, generations are rarely completely separated from those before. Stuff that means something to the older guard seeps through because we’re/they’re still here. But also, you’ll get some younglings who do like the stuff of times gone by and actively seek it out.
I am not unusual in being one of those types. Hey listen, I’m not saying that I’m a youngling; far from it, darlings. I am an aging glamazon and proud, babies! But growing up I dug old and new. My contemporary pop culture was one thing I loved – Boy George, Wham, Toyah, Dynasty, Fame. But I also adored Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe, Pearl Bailey, Clara Bow; you get the picture. I can pin point where some influences came from, have little idea about others but that’s not important here. The thing is, this isn’t that unusual. This old chick knows plenty of young gay things who love – and actually prefer – old school from decades past. It’s not just gay, of course. For queer and non-queer alike, some people won’t look further than what’s in front of them, others will seek out what speaks to them from farther afield. And I would go out on a limb to say that the latter is more likely to be the journey for those who feel like they don’t or don’t want to fit in to the mainstream of their peers. Outcasts, the marginalised and, yes, queers. We look for places to fit and we also look for what really, truly, deep down speaks to us.
What I’ve noticed about the proliferation of Judy references through my Google alerts is that she is a very regular feature out there in the alertiverse. Several times a day I’ll get links to Judy articles, events, mentions. And only very occasionally does a link have absolutely nothing to do her at all (no, Google, I don’t need to know about that Wisconsin Times article about someone who happens to be named JUDY). And it was through one of these alerts recently that I was directed to a song called ‘Judy Garland’ by a band named Frog.
One thing I adore about all of the entertainment food groups is that there’s always something new for you to find out there. I feel like a little bit of my musical soul jigsaw puzzle found a corner piece when I discovered Frog. On first listen to ‘Judy Garland’ I thought, ‘oh thank god it’s good’ and I posted it. Then I listened. And listened and listened. And that thing happened where it becomes an earworm and you have to play it almost to still the insistence in your head that wants to hear it. I keep having ‘Oh Juuuuuuuuuuuudy! Oh Juuuuuuuuudy!’ in my brain and it’s ok. Judy’s there most of the time anyway. She can stay; so can Frog.
But the more I considered the track and the wonderful video that comes along with it, the more multi-layered I realised this song is. And then I listened to their other songs and fell hard. But those other songs aren’t about Judy; this blog is. So.
We shouldn’t be surprised that a ‘slightly psychedelic indie-pop’ guitar duo from Queens should do a song about Judy Garland. But this isn’t just cross generational, it’s cross genre-ational too. They aren’t a queer electro pop band or disco queens. This is alternative, cult music but then again, it makes perfect sense when you remove assumptions and cliché. And that’s why it works. That someone involved should really love Judy just makes all of this that extra bit wonderful.
I spoke with Dan Bateman, one half of Frog, and also with Alex Coppola who directed the magnificent video. What I most wanted to know from Dan was, did he pluck Judy Garland out of the sky like Duck Sauce did with Barbra Streisand (they just needed words that fit)? But that’s silly because the brilliantly right on lyrics reveal a profound understanding not only of Judy the person but the legend, personae, and her wide-reaching cultural impact. The ensuing conversations fed me more than I ever imagined.
Corinna Tomrley: Why Judy Garland? Were you fans beforehand?
Dan Bateman: Judy Garland is one of my favorite singers! What a powerhouse voice. Meet me in St Louis was my wife’s favorite movie growing up. We’re big fans!
C: I am interested in the queerness of Judy – her, her legend, her fandom, and also how mainstream aspects of her can be ‘queered’ through interpretation and the exploration of her multi-facets. I would say this track queers Judy on many levels.
D: Before I wrote this song, I went on a tour of lower Manhattan with Speed Levitch, a tour guide who is profiled in the movie The Cruise. It was incredible, and one of the things that he talked about was the connection between Judy’s death and the Stonewall Riots two days later. His theory was that the gays were all in mourning for Judy, and so when the cops tried to do their usual hassling of gay clubs, all the people in them decided they wouldn’t take it anymore and history was changed forever. I found it really powerful that a pop star could have a hand in such a monumental event in this way.
C: Yeah, I interpret your lyric ‘all the drag queens and all the whores’ as a reference to the cultural connectivity between Judy and the Stonewall uprising. Or perhaps to the queer, outcast and marginalised members of her fan-base, generally.
D: Judy was a hero to many of the sexual outcasts of the 50’s and 60’s, something I wasn’t really aware of as a child but now is a big part of how I view her. Learning about Stonewall was part of what made me write the song.
C: Being inside the Judy fan-world it’s easy to forget that a large number of people will know her for Dorothy and not much else. What do you think ‘Judy Garland’ the song reveals to this part of your audience about Garland the woman, legend, cultural icon?
D: The song is about how the all the Americas loved Judy in the 60s, the rich and the poor, the sexual outcasts and the puritan mainstream. She was like Lady Gaga and Julia Roberts all rolled into one. When she died, it exposed the deep fractured relationship between these classes and types of people, and things immediately came to a violent head. It seems crazy to me that one person could actually have that kind of effect, but it was a different time.
C: The song is basically fucking JOYOUS, which is what Judy is at her best. But she’s also heart breaking, edgy, fractured, and FRANTIC. As is the song. What were you going for with the pace and energy of the track?
D: The song was a pretty difficult one to record, as we ended up cutting a lot of the parts that we originally had on it to make it sparser, more pared down. But it was supposed to be the hit, and so it’s definitely a bit more upbeat than the rest of the record.
C: Tell me about the video.
D: Alex could probably answer this better than me, but I think the whole slippers troupe is trying to get at the kinds of things I was trying to say with the first verse and chorus. He did a great job!
C: You reference Judy’s death in her Chelsea home. I’ve written a lot about her death and the house she lived in where she died. I’ve been there a few times and it’s shockingly ordinary. Actually, it’s a bit derelict now. For me the details and the prosaicness of her death are an integral part of her iconology and understanding her as a person.
D: The song is about her death, and also about how the studio executives pumped her so full of uppers and downers during her film career that it made her a drug addict. Most people can’t withstand the kind of pressure it puts on you when a whole country thinks they know you, and thinks you’d understand them.
C: You’ve said ‘When she died it broke the last vestige of the 1940s America that everyone deep down still loved’. This observation KILLS ME, it is so spot-on. But you identify as aspect of her cultural impact that’s actually seldom explored or acknowledged. Can you elaborate on your statement for me?
D: She was a legend! One of the best of the 20th century. When she died it brought into sharp focus the fractures that ran deep in American cities and, in my totally unscientific opinion, was a part of why the late 60s was such a violent, divided time in America’s history.
Corinna Tomrley: What did you know about Judy before you worked on this video project?
Alex Coppola: I think I knew some of the really basic backstory. And I was a big Wizard of Oz fan as a kid—like everyone, probably. According to my mom, I had to pee during one viewing and instead of pausing the tape I just went in my pants and kept watching. Which is still probably the most hardcore thing I’ve ever done. But the great thing about searching for footage to use for the video was listening to people talk about her and watching her perform. She was unbelievable. I’d kind of get lost in one of those Youtube spirals—jumping from one performance or interview to the next and realizing an hour later that I hadn’t actually worked on the video at all…
C: Did you get any surprises during your research for the video?
A: When someone plays an iconic role like she did, especially at a young age, it’s easy to overlook the rest of their career. Which in this case was pretty prolific. It was just interesting for me to see her outside of the Dorothy costume.
C: How much input did Frog have to the overall video and the choice of clips and narrative?
A: Thomas asked me if I wanted to make a video, I told him ‘absolutely’ and he basically turned me loose. He’s a genius. He’s scored a number of my videos over the past few years so it was fun to reverse that process—to have the song first and use that as inspiration to build the story. The first cut was far heavier on the dancing and it was Thom and Dan who pushed for more footage of the shoes being worn in daily life–which I’m really happy about because I think that direction made the video a lot stronger.
C: How did you come to choose the different clips? There’s a lot of later career ones – was that down to availability or did late period Judy fit more with the song for you?
A: I love frog because there’s something so weirdly joyful and tragic about their sound. And watching Judy perform in some of those later-career clips gave me that same feeling—there’s a joy there but also this grief that it seems like she’s singing though. I thought it worked nicely.
C: The video could be read as an homage to Judy’s entertainment prowess and also an homage to the joyousness of dance. Alternatively it could be read as symbolising the frenzied energy it takes to put a happy face on the surface of turmoil and the struggle for survival.
A: Whoa, I like that second reading! The song is so beautiful and catchy but that melody also belies this pretty dark story about loss and despair. And I think that’s kind of what you get by introducing those glittering shoes into more mundane circumstances. But honestly, the inspiration for the dance theme actually came from another source: The Red Shoes. That film and Wizard both have this magic footwear that can transform or empower whomever has them on. And I liked the idea of them being passed like a baton around the city and having them somehow transform people doing otherwise ordinary things.
I also had about 4 months’ worth of empty beer cans taking up an entire corner of my apartment that I told myself I was saving for some good reason. Once I had that image in my head of the striped socks sticking out from under that pile, I knew what to do.
C: How does the process vary for you using filmed material and found material to cut together? Are there more coincidental accidents with found footage?
A: When I started working with video I didn’t actually have a camera so almost everything I did involved cutting together found footage. And the great thing about drawing on existing material is that it comes filled with its own context or meaning. And once you start pulling those, sometimes, disparate sources together in a new context, this new meaning evolves. What that meaning is, is always a surprise. If I’m lucky it even makes it seem like I knew what I was doing.
C: In the book of The Wizard of Oz the shoes are silver, in the movie they’re the iconic ruby slippers. How did you come to the choice to use pink glitter shoes for your dancing Dorothies?
A: This is one I actually did think about. I knew about the symbolism of the silver shoes and the gold of the yellow brick road and the first pair that I bought at Walmart were actually silver. But—for the same reason they chose to change that color for the movie—I went with pink because it’s just more striking, visually. And unlike the silver, the pink ones were on sale—for obvious reasons. I bought about 10 pairs, all different sizes, and carried them and my camera around in a bag with me for about two weeks.