From the underground to the front stage, Drag Queens conquer the mainstream

The last season of one of the most successful shows around drag queen culture has ended just a few weeks ago and many of us are already speculating about the next season that’s coming out next year. I’m of course talking about Season 2 All Stars Rupaul Drag Race aired on Logo, a LGBTQI cable channel. Followed by hundreds of viewers in the US, the TV show is watched in the entire world via streaming which led to RuPaul winning the 2016 Emmy Award for “Outstanding Reality Show Host”, beating long running heavyweights such as Project Runway, American Idol or Dancing With The Stars.

Thanks to its success, the show rapidly became a display of many talents. (!! SPOILERS !!) One of their most famous contestants, Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 was just crowned opening the season of release of new material by many of the superstars drag race queens who take advantage of the high exposure giving by the show, going from the newly-crowned queen who shared the “The T” to quit way too soon Adore Delano who shared “I.C.U.“. There was also Detox and her song “Supersonic” and even season 2 breakout star Tatianna, who won all our hearts with her amazing (and a bit gross) spoken-word track “The Same Parts“.

Steadily growing more famous with every passing season, it’s easy to imagine some of these queens in the same position as any pop star. Living in a period where LGBTQI people are more and more accepted, with gender fluidity being a current discussion for the youth, the role of drag queens is celebrated from fashion to music to stand-up comedy to dance by creating a natural bridge between pop culture and underground activism. Is the world ready to accept a drag queen as a relevant actor in mainstream musical entertainment? How are the newer generations of drag queens changing the game when it comes to music quality? Is drag queen culture, by gaining more attention in the public eye, losing its political activism?

To understand better how far we’ve come, it’s helpful to first draw a picture of the artists who started bringing drag queen culture to the mainstream. Even if the art existed for decades, it remained for many years, an underground culture, only accepted by the gay community. A lot of artists, such as Boy George, David Bowie, Grace Jones or Lady Gaga, have used androgynous characters through their careers to create an illusion often made to shock the establishment. Nevertheless, the first drag queens to reach the mainstream came during the 70’s as the first born superstars that came out of the shadows to start taking a part in pop art. First, in 1972 with Divine starring in John Waters‘s “Pink Flamingos” and then in 1975 with Tim Curry who played a cross-dressing bisexual in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Playing highly rebellious characters, both films will remain as the classics that help putting the highlight on an underground culture. Divine used her newfound fame to release “My First Album”, ten years after her breakthrough in Waters‘ movie, which peaked at number 21 on Dance Club Songs in 1982 with her song “Native Love (Step By Step)”.

During the 90’s, two friends queens came and conquered the world: Rupaul and Lady Bunny. The former thanks to her glamour and sophistication, and the latter because of her humour and style. Both performers used their creativity and their sense of avant-garde as a channel to make it into the mainstream. With “Supermodel (You Better Work),” Rupaul hit number 2 on Dance Club Songs, and number 45 on the Hot 100, with the praises from Kurt Cobain who considered it as one of his favorite tracks in 1993. When it comes to Lady Bunny, we’ll have to wait until 2013 to see her shine with her track “Take Me Up High.” It would be a mistake to forget about club performer Kevin Aviance who ruled the discotheques all over the world in 1997 with many singles dotting the charts. The best one of her discography will remain “Din Da Da,” the hymn that all the gay clubs in the world were waiting for. Playing with all of the most relevant codes of the 90’s gay community, they marked the starting point of the revolution where the sub-culture became considered as a ground-breaking and inspiring part of the club landscape.

After the success of her music in the 1990s, RuPaul created her “Drag Race” television show in 2009 to carry her legacy, and created many tracks over the following seasons, producing an unavoidable bridge between pop and her queens. Many of them will use music as their way to glory, shaping a whole new range of tracks that are fiercely brilliant and sometimes, let’s be honest, cringe-worthy. After 10 seasons, there is a mix of queens who made songs that are jokes (“Boys Is Bottom“, “American Apparel Ad Girls” being the most successful examples) to very serious pop divas who released full-length albums.

“Mr Doorman, what’s that?
You need my ID?
This face is my ID, motherfucker!”
– Alaska Thunderfuck 5000

If two queens deserve the right to be considered to carry RuPaul‘s musical legacy, it would be Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 and Adore Delano, who both have used drag humour elements to gain access to pop stardom. “Your Makeup Is Terrible” by Alaska features the winning expressive and twisted gimmicks already used by RuPaul in the past, and a beat that is clearly made for the dancefloor. While Alaska uses her glamour and recognizable humorous voice to become a superstar, Adore Delano‘s schtick is the creation of a relatable persona, making the listener feel like they’re actually her friend. Unpolished, using clothes you can buy on Ebay for 10$, her aesthetic and talent are able to shine through drag, specially when you think about the fact that she participated on “American Idol” before as her boy-self and didn’t make it very far. The art of drag has become a way for many artists to escape the stiffness of the musical landscape and use its freedom as an unlimited expression of themselves.

Handling her freedom as a way to express her sexual desires, season 7 winner Violet Chachki delivered “Bettie,” a BDSM industrial track that uses all of the stereotypes of 1950s perfect spouse to create an underground sex temple for straight men. Using the same story-line as “If U Seek Amy” by Britney Spears and the aesthetic of “Human Nature” by Madonna, the younger generation becomes bolder than ever, straddling the boundaries of gender and disturbing the vision of the straight comfort zone. Queer activism is not about politics that please the straight audience by acting like them, but more about getting them out of their socialized heteronormativity.

By raising the questions of gender roles, Violet Chachki uses drag and music to make a political stand. Some other queens struggle with finding the appeal of drag culture as a way of expressing themselves and will use their boy-self to be taken seriously. Season 7 top three contestant Pearl shared self-produced debut single “Love Slave,” an electronic experimental track. Even though she is in full drag in her video, she uses her boy-self image as the face of the producer, in order to build a credibility. The track ends up seeming like she is trying too hard and it lacks what we love most about drag culture: humour. The same struggle occurred to season 3 contestant Phi Phi O’Hara who in her typical fashion, managed to push it to the extreme, by completely abandoning her drag persona and releasing her new single “Play” under her boy name Jaremi Carey. Drag culture is losing its appeal for some artists, when they want to become a part of the mainstream at all costs and have some recognition of the straight public. Sadly for them, it seems like the best way to access to stardom is to own your drag-self, as the gap between the musical careers of Alaska/Adore with their millions of followers, and Phi Phi/Pearl poor attempts to be taken seriously is quite abysmal.

Considering the fact that RuPaul has created such an entertaining show with many highly polished queens, it is hard for other artists to get the recognition they deserve. The competition is so rude than many people have declared that Drag Race destroyed the world of drag by imposing the world to a unique form of the art. Some other queens, instead of putting the show down, decided to do their own thing, not caring whether they look cute, polished, or thin. American rapper Christeene used the art to make her viewers uncomfortable, and being truly punk about her image. Her character is clearly a political stand. In the video for “African Mayonnaise,” she manages to be chased in a mall by a cop, heckled by Christians and assaulted by a member of the Church Of Scientology. Her drag is not there to please us, but rather to disturb. Her music is aggressive using hard drum beats and electronic vibes reminding the style of other queer characters such as Peaches or Mykki Blanco, who also uses a female persona as a punk posture.

“I’m your new celebrity
I’m your new America
I’m the piece of filthy meat
That you take home
and treat to yourself”
– Christeene

Outside the American musical landscape, there are some other queens who are killing it. In the UK, Irish-English singer/entertainer pioneer Danny La Rue kicked the charts in 1969 with her slow track “Oh, What a Lovely War!” quickly becoming a classic among the drag British world. Mixing 60s glamour with a touch of camp, the entertainer will remain one of the most iconic drag queens in the UK, until her death and beyond.

In France, the most famous kitsch 90s band was called Sister Queen who released the provocatively funny “Let Me Be A Drag Queen” in 1995. Thanks to their extravagant dresses and busted make-up, the quartet claim their right to express their other self throughout wild nights on the dance floor, all dressed up in their feather boas, fierce wigs and gigantic platform shoes.

Spain has always been considered as one of the epicentres of the drag world where the art was celebrated to contest Franco’s dictatorship. Nevertheless, one of the most iconic and interesting queens is Madrid-based contemporary artist La Prohibida who has already released 4 LPs during her career, the last one being “100k años de Luz” just last year. Mixing electro-pop with italo disco, her aesthetic is futuristic yet inspired by the 60s making her famous all over the Hispanic world, from Spain to Latin America where she is considered as an absolute idol.

One of the most worldwide drag queens was catapulted by one of the biggest musical institutions, Eurovision. I am talking about Conchita Wurst, the Austrian singer, winner of the contest in 2014 with her song “Rise Like a Phoenix.” Her mix of drama-pop, James Bond’s glam, and Adele-ish vocals won the hearts of the entire continent. Wurst turned into an icon, a symbol of tolerance and acceptance, and a discussion topic for Europe, which is still today strongly divided in two parts about LGBTQI rights. Another drag pop figure of the Eurovision is Ukranian Verka Serduchka who participated in the contest in 2007 with her song “Dancing Lasha Tumbai.” Somewhere between dance and pop, Verka became rapidly famous in her country where homosexuality is barely tolerated.

In Brazil, hate against the LGBTQI is also very blatant. Yet, some young artists made it to the top, been renown everywhere in their town thanks a mix of electronic Western vibes, pop references and funk/baile dance, typical to the Brazilian musical background. Lia Clark exploded with her track “Trava Trava” where she uses funk vibes with a loop of a sample taken from Ariana Grande‘s “Problems”. In the other side, Pabllo Vittar uses the same technique in her track “Minaj” where she samples Beyoncé‘s “Partition” or simply creates a bossa-nova version of “Lean On” in “Open Bar.” Considering the population of the country, these artists have reached the same rank of superstardom as the American contestants of Drag Race having millions of views on their respective Youtube channels. Both artists are incredibly young, reminding us how the entire continent is changing their vision over the LGBTQI community.

After considering the careers of all these fierce queens, we can’t help to wonder: where are the drag kings? What are they doing? Why are they so absent? The main explanation is that even if they are creating the illusion of a woman, under all the drag, they are all men. The music world is clearly dominated by them, and the part that women can take in the equation is minimal, and the LGBTQI community also faces its own male domination. Let’s hope that the future of drag will be of kings just as it seems that for the straight public eye, the future is gay.


Matias Calderon

Leave a Reply