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How an 80-year-old Judy Garland song became a Pride anthem

How an 80-year-old Judy Garland song became a Pride anthem

It was 1944 when the trolley first started to clang.

“The Trolley Song,” a second-act standout from the 1944 movie musical “Meet Me in St. Louis,” was sung by Judy Garland in striking Technicolor. It was released back when gay was more commonly understood to mean “happy,” a rainbow was just a weather phenomenon and a trolley was just another mode of transportation.

And yet it has found new life online nearly 80 years later as an unlikely anthem for LGBTQ Pride.

“The Trolley Song” has been making the rounds again this year among young queer people who can’t resist the brassy gift of Garland’s vocal performance, its campy, heightened atmosphere and its timeless fun.

“Happy pride month (sic) to Judy Garland in the trolley song. And also to the trolley,” one person wrote on X. “There’s no pride month without the trolley song,” said another.

Some hope “The Trolley Song” will be a featured lip-sync on the next season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” while others believe the song deserves to be released as several club-ready remixes. At least one person called it Garland’s version of Sabrina Carpenter’s summer smash “Espresso,” a frothy single about a fling that’s a staple on many Pride playlists.

“The Trolley Song” is not the most obvious candidate for a Pride playlist. It lacks the overt LGBTQ imagery of “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz,” perhaps Garland’s most famous song, or the appeal of Garland’s live performances toward the end of her life, which were heavily attended by her gay fans. But a closer read reveals why it resonates with LGBTQ fans today.

“The tempo, the lyrics, the onomatopoeia –– it’s all super gay,” said Dave Karger, a Turner Classic Movies host who frequently presents movie musicals, including “Meet Me in St. Louis,” on the channel. (CNN and TCM share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)

Patrick Kelleher, a social justice organizer in Ireland who’s written about his relationship with Garland and “Meet Me in St. Louis,” has noticed it popping up more frequently in his online circles, even declaring it “this year’s Pride anthem.” It’s thrilling, he said, that the song that’s brightened his life for so many years is now bringing other young LGBTQ people the same joy.

“As someone who has been obsessing over this song for more than a decade, I’m so glad it’s getting all this renewed attention,” Kelleher said. “And honestly, if ‘The Trolley Song’ came on at a Pride event, I think the crowd would go absolutely wild.”

It’s a campy crowd-pleaser

Though “The Trolley Song” is a rollicking crowd-pleaser, the scene in which it takes place starts out with Garland in a huff.

Her character, Esther Smith, is a lovestruck teenager in Missouri, months before the 1904 World’s Fair. She begins the song somberly traipsing around the trolley, wondering why her love interest has not boarded with her. When she finally spots him running to catch the caboose, the song revs up as Esther’s excitement grows.

“‘Clang, clang, clang’ went the trolley, ‘ding, ding, ding’ went the bell, ‘zing, zing, zing’ went my heartstrings — from the moment I saw him, I fell!” she sings, wide-eyed and moony. In her “high-starch collar” and periwinkle gloves, her giddiness radiates off the screen.

The song’s age hasn’t diminished its appeal. Paige Turner, a seasoned New York-based drag queen, has been performing “The Trolley Song” for 10 years. Every time she steps onstage in her own “high-starch collar” and costume made to look like Esther’s trolley outfit, she says her audience starts “screeching” with glee.

“People are like, ‘Oh my God, is she doing ‘The Trolley Song’? Oh my God, is she coming out like that?’ And it’s a familiarity you want to give people…” Turner told CNN. “It’s respectable camp.”

“The Trolley Song’s” campiness lies in its hyper-stylized, theatrical, exaggerated quality that tips into fantasy. Kelleher likened it to Cher’s 1998 autotune fantasia “Believe” but “somehow even more gay.”

Like Cher’s hit, “The Trolley Song” is dripping in artifice. But Garland’s earnest delivery cuts through what could be considered corny to deliver a classic.

“When you take the musical theatre leanings out, ‘The Trolley Song’ isn’t all that different to some of the big pop songs queer people have tended to gravitate towards in more recent years,” Kelleher said. “The song and the clip from the film that accompanies it are instantly iconic.”

It’s upbeat and joyful

“Meet Me in St. Louis” was one of Garland’s signature songs even before her death. Culture writer and critic Manuel Betancourt, who wrote a 33 1/3 book on the seminal live album from 1962, “Judy at Carnegie Hall,” said that the song received an “orgiastic reaction” from her audience when it appeared in her opening medley.

The singer Rufus Wainwright has covered “The Trolley Song” at least twice –– once in 2007, when he covered “Judy at Carnegie Hall,” and again in 2022 with his live album “Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios.” Both are open-hearted homages to the diva and her 1960s live performances, which were embraced by her gay fans.

Earlier this month, Wainwright shared a TikTok of himself singing the song once again, eyes closed in bliss.

“I have had the most fun ever in my life singing that song,” Wainwright told CNN in an email. “Once you get on that trolley with Judy, there is no getting off. Same with your sexuality.”

“The Trolley Song” is one of Garland’s “best-known, truly upbeat and celebratory numbers,” Karger said, which makes it especially fitting for a month meant to honor the LGBTQ community and its hard-won victories, though the work toward equality is still in progress.

With its quick tempo and spirited delivery, Turner said “The Trolley Song” can make her “forget that the world is a crappy place sometimes.”

“We’re almost running to catch up and get on the ride with her, and we feel a part of it,” she said.

It’s gay history

Judy Garland, pictured in "The Wizard of Oz," was embraced by her LGBTQ fans in life and in death.(Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock via CNN Newsource)
Judy Garland, pictured in “The Wizard of Oz,” was embraced by her LGBTQ fans in life and in death.(Mgm/Kobal/Shutterstock via CNN Newsource)

Dee Michel, author of “Friends of Dorothy: Why Gay Boys and Gay Men Love ‘The Wizard of Oz,’” was mystified as to why young queer people are meme-ing an 80-year-old song and praising it as a Pride anthem.

He posits that the young LGBTQ community might be taking history that is not necessarily rooted in fact (such as the myth that Garland’s death kickstarted the Stonewall riots or that “Over the Rainbow” is the inspiration for the Pride flag) because they want to feel closer to their community.

According to Michel, these “myths” can be powerful stories that a culture uses to “help explain their place in the universe.”

Without a monolithic gay history lesson or a one-size-fits-all cultural landscape to guide them, queer youth may choose to believe in “folklore” about the gay archives, Michel said.

“There’s this drive to be part of gay history and part of gay culture and feel like there’s something larger than you that you’re participating in,” Michel told CNN. “And that’s what folklore does.”

Believing in Garland’s influence can mean believing in something comforting.

“Whether (the history) was true or not, it doesn’t really matter to people, because they want it to be true and it makes sense to them,” Michel said.

And “The Trolley Song” and its rapturous response at Garland’s concerts, attended by supportive gay fans, are a part of her legend as a gay icon.

“The Trolley Song” has been adopted by LGBTQ people since Garland first started singing it in concert. Jim Bailey, a legendary Garland impersonator, often performed “The Trolley Song” dressed for adoring crowds that included the likes of Princess Diana, King Charles and Garland’s daughter Liza Minnelli.

It’s been covered by various gay men’s choruses, including those in London and Los Angeles. The song was even included in a medley on an “All Stars” season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” in a challenge inspired by Garland.

Though Garland rarely publicly voiced her support for LGBTQ people, queer people for decades have gravitated toward her because she’s a “woman of resilience” who endured abuse and tragedy throughout her life and was still a consummate artist, said Turner, the drag performer.

And maybe she’s still inspiring a sense of belonging among young queer people who are jamming to “The Trolley Song,” whether it’s their first listen or the 100th replay.

“If there are young people out there … who are putting ‘The Trolley Song’ out, how fantastic is that?” Turner said.

No matter that “The Trolley Song” is nearly 80 years old. It’s a cultural artifact that’s still ripe for discovery –– and a certified banger.

“Gay people simply have great taste and to have great taste is to love Judy,” Karger said.

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.


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