what do britney spears and judy garland have in common?
Both women – sick but totally iconic, medicated and manipulated – are to some degree casualties of a similar disease.
Judy Garland died officially in 1969, at 47 years of age. It might be argued that some part of her died earlier: at 2 years old, say, when the mother she called “wicked witch” first put her on the stage, or at 13, when she was put on diet pills by MGM. At 17, half-loaded on a cocktail of amphetamines and barbiturates, playing Dorothy in Oz as if she were a wide-eyed child and not halfway to womanhood. At 18, engaged for the second time and living on black coffee, chicken soup, and 80 cigarettes a day. At 19, coerced into having a backstreet abortion by the studio and the “wicked witch.” At 25, tossed in a sanatorium after a total nervous breakdown. When she came back, only a year later and with a newfound drinking problem, she was there and not-there, a star and a genius, and also a suicide risk who routinely received electroshock therapy.
“Judy Garland,” the actor’s sometime-agent wrote in a salacious tell-all, “[was] a demented, demanding, supremely talented drug-addict”.
I thought about Judy Garland last month after finding out that Britney Spears had once again been institutionalised for what was described on Instagram as "me time", and what TMZ described as treatment for “a mental health crisis”. Debate has since raged as to whether Britney -- who has been subject to a conservatorship at the hands of her father, Jamie Spears, for just over a decade -- jumped into rehabilitation, or was pushed. Debate has raged, too, as to whether she is being forced to stay on medication, and as to whether or not she still belongs on stage.
Précis of what is being referred to as the “Free Britney” movement tend to focus on her father’s litigiousness, her various public references to wanting to be free and her uncharacteristic use of punctuation and emojis. They do not paint a pretty picture, and they do not make a sympathetic case for the decision to expose your pre-teen daughter to the vagaries of fame. All of this is not to say that Britney Spears and Judy Garland are exactly analogous in their talent, or in their particular ill-treatment by the media, their handlers, or their parents. It is only to say that both women -- sick but totally iconic, medicated and manipulated -- are to some degree casualties of a similar disease.
More than in music or performance, it has always seemed to me that where Spears excels is in her ability to exist simultaneously in two states: as a sweet virgin and the most desired sex-object in American music; as a down-home Southern girl and the most famous woman in the world; as a mother and an exploited former child star; as a billionaire mogul and a woman legally considered too unwell to spend her own money responsibly. As with Garland, some essential part of her often appears to be dead while the rest of her performs in Vegas, or shows up on a red carpet with a smile that does not reach her eyes.
“Fuck you, fuck people, fuck, fuck, fuck,” a Rolling Stone profile from 2008 describes her snarling. “I don’t know who you think I am, bitch, but I’m not that person.” Our understanding of who Britney Spears is, or what the idea of “Britney Spears” means, has increasingly appeared to be the result of a case of mistaken identity: We have mistaken her for the not-girl who was not yet a woman we remember from 2001, or for the schoolgirl virgin from the video for ...Baby, One More Time, when she is in fact an exhausted, maybe-troubled, 37-year-old mother of two.“At the very moment Britney’s generation became adults, they realised that their parents were idiots and that their idol was mad,” Jo Livingstone wrote recently in a remarkable piece for The New Republic. “Not mad with self-hatred, exactly, or mad like the madwoman in the attic, but mad because the very ingredients of her public persona guaranteed that it would unhinge her mind.” Suspended as their earliest selves like human bonsai trees, then exposed for the very problems caused by this premature fucking of their growth, Garland and Spears were built to fail as functioning adults, and to succeed as stars.
Each at some point went meta on the subject, too, alluding to her doubled-ness: as Vicki in A Star is Born, Garland is able to relive her ascent to the pinnacle of fame from an entirely different angle, discovered as an adult after developing her supreme, one-off skill in front of minor audiences, and getting married to an alcoholic muso rather than becoming one herself. Spears, in 2003, wrote and recorded Everytime, a song whose video depicts her dying in a bathtub, then being reborn as an unspoiled, perfect baby. “The only direction that she gave me for the video was that she wanted to die,” David LaChapelle recalled recently in an Instagram post. “That she just wanted to die in the video.” I don’t know who you think I am, bitch, both projects whisper, but I’m not that person.
A few years after her discharge from the sanatorium, it is alleged by her ex-husband that Judy Garland attempted to cut open her own throat with a straight razor, high on pills. “What demons inhabited her soul,” he later asked, “just when life seemed so rich and productive?” Spears might know the answer.
Hearing that she was stone-broke and miserable, Bing Crosby asked Garland to appear on his new radio show a matter of months after the purported suicide attempt. “She was standing in the wings trembling with fear,” the writer Hal Kanter recalled. “She was almost hysterical. She said, ‘I cannot go out there because they're all gonna be looking to see if there are scars, and it's gonna be terrible.’ Bing walked out on stage and he said: ‘We got a friend here, she's had a little trouble recently. You probably heard about it – everything is fine now, she needs our love. She needs our support. She's here -- let's give it to her, OK? Here's Judy.’ And she came out, and that place went crazy. And she just blossomed.”
The idea of Britney Spears being unhappy terrifies me -- not because I am especially attached to her music, or because I think she ought to return to the public eye, but because, as Livingstone says, I am a millennial and a mess, and my investment in her happiness has always been to some degree an investment in my own. I think that motherhood appears to suit her. I think some parallel life in which she works as a backing dancer, un-famous and married to a man who owns a car dealership, might have been a kinder outcome.
Still, it’s just as likely that being a performer is the very thing she lives for. And I understand that although it relieved me when her manager revealed that she may not appear on stage again, she may eventually decide that she wants something different for herself. If and when she makes a comeback, I can only hope that she is welcomed home in a way that doesn't give her another reason to think “fuck you, fuck people, fuck, fuck, fuck,” she blossoms.
We got a friend here, we ought to decide, as one. She's had a little trouble recently. You probably heard about it – everything is fine now, she needs our love. She needs our support. She's here – let's give it to her, OK? Here's Britney, bitch.