FEATURE: Colour Inside the Shading: Could Drag Queens Help Revitalise Pop Music?



Colour Inside the Shading


IN THIS PHOTO: New York-based drag queen, Monét X Change/PHOTO CREDIT: @monetxchange    

Could Drag Queens Help Revitalise Pop Music?


I realise drag queens have played a role...

 IN THIS PHOTO: Shangela LaQuifa Wadley, the breakaway drag queen from A Star Is Born/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

in music over the past and, if you listen to Ariana Grande’s NASA and the prologue is delivered by Shangela Laquifa Wadley. Shangela appeared on the massively popular show, RuPaul’s Drag Race and that show has captured the imagination around the world – I know many people who have watched it and I have yet to tune in. It is not usually the type of show that I would watch but one cannot deny the sheer life and fun that it brings. If anything, it is a celebration of drag queens (or ‘artists’, as I should say) and an enormously popular format. I think a lot of people rave about it because of the colour and giddy fun; the fact we get to celebrate another culture and, aside from being entertained, actually learn something at the same time. RuPaul has been a public figure for decades now and is hugely inspiring. I wanted to write this piece as a sort of companion to an article I saw in The Guardian. It asked the question as to whether drag queens could be Popstars. An history of music will show you that, whilst there have been some flamboyant figures and true characters, it has been a rather safe and secure scene. There have been icons and explosions but, looking at Pop now, and things are very safe and predictable. Maybe Ariana Grande and some of her stronger peers are an exception but there are so many sound-alikes that are penning the song sort of songs.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Madonna in 2017 (she is including several drag queens in her upcoming music video, including Monét X Change)/PHOTO CREDIT: Carl Timpone/BFA/REX/Shutterstock

I believe, actually, Madonna has assembled a cast of drag queens for an upcoming music videos – I am not sure what her single is called but it looks like it will be cool. Artists like Madonna have always championed drag queens, members of the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community and those who do not get the same attention as everyone else. Maybe the mainstream has yet to fully embrace those in the L.G.B.T.Q.A.+ community and it still has ideals regarding type. That is not to say drag queens in music is anything new. They have been releasing singles for a long time and it has taken a while for music to adapt and allow that sort of passage. As The Guardian’s article explains, there are differences between the drag culture and modern Pop:

That drag artists are becoming pop stars in their own right is both surprising and inevitable. The art of drag has historically been bound up with the ritualistic practice of lip-syncing, where queens mouth the words to songs by well-known female artists on stage. The simulation aspect – the fact that the songs were not original, but copies of those sung by cisgender women – was essential.

The lip-syncing was a key prism through which the drag queen, the figurehead of gay male oppositional culture, was able to refract gender and highlight its absurdities – the simulation was itself the radical act. The idea of drag queen as a conventional pop star, then, immediately jars – original music is divorced from drag’s historic function”.

It is not the case that all drag queens lip-synch and there have been evolutions. The idea of drag queens penning their own material, performing it live and taking it to the commercial peak seems like a big step. Maybe it will take a few years to assimilate fully but Pop music does need an injection and a change. Maybe it is that feeling that modern music either sounds too processed and fake otherwise it is becoming too downbeat. Many Pop artists, when they try for upbeat sound too machine-like or the songs lack true soul. I do think there are few Pop innovators who are creating fun and genuine Pop bangers that have real depth.

Even a lot of the new breed lack real bravery when it comes to pushing boundaries and being a bit more bold with their subject matter and sounds. Formats like RuPaul’s Drag Race have helped bring about discussion and change and done a lot to bring about awareness of drag in Pop music; the challenges faced by artists and how good the end result can sound. Michael Bronski, professor of gender and sexuality studies at Harvard University, talked about the changing face of drag in The Guardian’s article:

As drag becomes more and more commercial, it moves further from its roots in gender parody, but as Bronski points out, this doesn’t necessarily mean it is no longer a critique of gender. “It uses drag in a different way,” he says of original music. “They are no longer hiding behind the drag – a copy of a copy – but rather embracing the idea of [fluid] gender. It is neither better nor worse, but profoundly different”.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Brazilian Popstar/drag queen, Pabllo Vittar/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Whilst drag queens’ popularity on a lot of streaming services still seems to revolve around comedy and entertainment, formats like RuPaul’s Drag Race have sort of prepared the new generation for the hurdles and realities of music. There is a big difference between the drag circuit and life there and the complexities and promotional duties of modern music. I do not think it is a big leap to imagine drag queens transitioning authentically and being able to bring their talents to Pop music. It is a cliché to suggest drag queens only want to make a particular kind of music. It is not the case that the music would be camp or jokey; many have perpetuated this notion of a drag queen and the fact that it is very niche and not suitable for the mainstream.

IN THIS PHOTO: Drag star and recording artist, Alaska Thunderfuck/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Drag queens do want to make Pop music and there is no reason to suggest the finest of the modern wave could not make the sort of music Ariana Grande, Cardi B or Kacey Musgraves are releasing. Before moving on, I want to bring another extract from The Guardian’s article: relating to homophobia in music and how many are not ready to accept drag queens coming into the forefront:

As much as we think we’ve progressed, there is a lingering homophobic aversion to the sort of genderfuck that queens represent, and a significant percentage of pop consumers may not benignly embrace a drag persona the same way they did Beyoncé’s Sasha Fierce or Katy Perry’s Kathy Beth Terry. The only moderate success of relatively unthreatening stars such as Troye Sivan and Olly Alexander suggests their image is still discomfiting to many; Ariana Grande’s upcoming Manchester Pride appearance suggests we don’t have enough major LGBT stars to fill headline slots. Fully fledged drag queens are likely too much of a shock to the system...


To doubt the potential of drag queens as legitimate forces in music would be naive. Some queens are already able to pull in big-name collaborators: Violet Chachki’s Bettie was co-written by Mötley Crüe’s Tommy Lee and Monét X Change enlisted songwriter Eritza Laues (of Michael Jackson and Macklemore fame) for Soak It Up. And let’s not forget the Eurovision and Australian Idol success of Conchita Wurst and Courtney Act, respectively, who won the hearts of the public in full drag”.

There have been, as I said, examples of drag queens releasing music - but a lot of this music is not as widely promoted as heteronormative and traditional music. Perhaps it is more common for drag queens to appear in music videos of big artists rather than stepping into the spotlight themselves. Educate yourself regarding the history of drag queens in music and the role they have played. It is debatable whether the music industry is quite accepting and open-minded regarding encouraging drag queens in the mainstream. If Ariana Grande and Madonna have, recently, brought drag queens into their music, I wonder whether it will take more than that before doors are opened. I think perceptions lingering regarding what a drag act would involve. I know shows like RuPaul’s Drag Race are huge but it will not be too long before formats like this are no longer on the screen. One reason why I wanted to write about drag queens is because of the way music is going now.

 IN THIS IMAGE: The iconic and groundbreaking drag queen, Sylvester/IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images

It is not about adding vitality and fun to music: we need to embrace different cultures and scenes more. Yesterday was International Women’s Day and many men were complaining about the celebration and asking why men do not get their own day – they do but that seems to have passed many by! We are still living in an age where gender-inequality rages and women have to fight for their rights. Again, like gender, race seems to be an issue still and black artists are afforded fewer opportunities than their white peers. There is an active L.G.B.T.Q.+ scene but it is not that visible in the mainstream. I feel a lot of artists are reluctant to embrace who they are and fear the industry is not going to stand behind them. I do feel like music is struggling to bring much fun and energy to the party. If they do then it can sound a little cold and forgettable. Drag queens can bring something new to music and, in a way, help bring about equality for others in music who are overlooked. This Entertainment Weekly piece comes back to the idea of misconception and whether we are willing to accept the traditional drag queen:

While queer pop artists are just now breaking through publicly by way of Troye Sivan, Halsey, Sam Smith, and Janelle Monáe, the idea of a 6-foot drag queen with a deep male voice isn’t an easy sell to major labels. According to Keith Caulfield, Billboard’s senior director of charts, labels are typically evaluating talent via the standard pop-star mold. “We can maybe market someone who we found on YouTube who has the right look,” he says of the industry’s thinking on the topic, “but what do we do with a drag queen that may not have a really easily digestible Top 40 look?

Drag queens bring this sense of performance and theatre; there is a vibe and sensation that is lacking from popular music. I do feel that, slowly, the mainstream will open up and start to give greater voice to women, black artists and L.G.B.T.Q.+ artists. It might be a long road but I feel drag queens could find a footing and not be restricted to niche playlists and tastes. Think about the music they have already released and what they bring to music videos and you cannot argue against real inclusion. A lot of modern drag queens want to play in genres like Pop and Rap and bust out of this preconception. They want to/and do address subjects such as gun violence and politics and it is not the case that every drag queen will sound the same. At a time when some of the most promising Pop artists are being maligned because they are not taking enough risks and playing things too safe, I feel drag queens, in many ways, could provide a real antidote. We are a little way from progress in that respect but few can overlook the fact that there are very few bright and interesting Pop moments. The same can be said of most genres: drag queens can bring new perspective and force. Music is at its best and most inspiring when it is eclectic, bold and brilliant and I think, if we change our perceptions regarding drag queens and allow greater assimilation, then we could well see a brave and exciting new...

 IN THIS PHOTO: Blair St. Claire was a contestant in the tenth season of RuPaul’s Drag Race/PHOTO CREDIT: Blair St. Clair/Getty Images

FORM of artist.