The New Queens of Pop: Examining the Rise of Drag Queen Musicians

“Drag is a magic trick, drag is an illusion and drag is funny. But it’s a funny thing I take very, very seriously,” RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 2 winner Alaska Thunderfuck 5000 tells us.

Whether it was Miley Cyrus bringing out almost 100 drag queens on stage with her, Austrian queen Conchita Wurst winning Eurovision or RuPaul scooping an Emmy win for Rupaul’s Drag Race, drag has been pushing its way into the mainstream for sometime. Queens are influencing the fashion world, appearing on our screens and widely influencing celebrity culture. So where lies the future of drag superstardom? The answer, it seems, is music.

Originating in the clubs, music and drag has always been connected in some shape or form. It comes as no surprise that many drag acts have began exploiting their new-found fame to jumpstart music careers. Time and time again, queens have dropped albums, singles and low budget music videos that are, by their very nature, just a little bit shit.

“Right after [RuPaul’s] Drag Race, girls look at the booking fee and worry about saving up their money. I am worried about the longevity of my career,” Rupaul’s Drag Race alum Adore Delano admitted. “I try to build something rather than put out a Rice Krispies Treat single.”

Drag queens trying to create multi-faceted media personalities out of themselves through music is no new trait, but one of which seems a more accessible goal with the rise in LGBT tolerance and the popularisation of drag. In the 80s, drag icon Divine achieved top 40 success in the UK, followed by RuPaul in the 90s, but it’s always been brief, a flash in the pan and simply just another tool in their boxes. The world has yet to see a true drag popstar with mainstream appeal. But with RuPaul’s Drag Race making waves and getting the much-needed ratings on our screens, more and more queens have began their pursuit for a career in music with a longer shelf life in our charts, with the likes of Adore Delano peaking at 59 on the Billboard 200 and Alaska Thunderfuck at number 3 on the Billboard dance charts.

Alaska tells us that the few men at the top of the corporations “don’t understand” drag music careers yet, “but as soon as one of them takes a chance on it and sees the impact it has on their wallet, I’m sure we’ll be seeing drag more and more everywhere.”

Drag queens have to be aware of marketability to make it work. Author Jackie Huba talks about the power that drag queens have with the “one percenters”, the fanatics and the super-fans across social media. As drag queen Trixie Mattel says: “Drag is a small business. You can’t survive without a strong brand.”

This is exactly how Alaska has made it work, by creating music with strong drag references to reaffirm her brand and excite fans. She tells us her music is “by drag, for drag, and about drag.”

“We live in a world where realness and authenticity are in rare supply in the mainstream media,” she laments. “If all I cared about was chart success I would be putting out mediocre, watered down music. They say you should always write what you know. If I know anything, I know drag. So that’s what I write. It’s real and it’s personal and I think those are the things that connect with people.”

Connecting her music with rap, Alaska explains that R&B culture “is from a specific culture, talking about events and things that were very far from the reality of our white existence. Rap music is authentic and real and from a specific viewpoint unlike any other. I see drag music as very similar to this.”

But is a mainstream audience ready for this style of drag music and aesthetic? Sure, it’s getting more spins at popular gay clubs but it’s still far away from making it on to BBC Radio 1’s coveted playlist. Looking back at Bowie and moving through to Madonna and Prince, blurring the lines between gender, masculinity and femininity have been widely embraced and adored in the 20th century. Contemporary artists are now embracing LGBT+ culture as well. Beyoncé incorporated “I slay” as the hook to her song Formation as well as Rihanna’s dancers death dropping during the interlude in her most recent tour. Mainstream superstars taking elements of the gay market is a tried and tested gauge for the popularity of pop, so where are the queens?

With Trump, Brexit and the Pulse nightclub shootings, there is certainly a lot of uncertainty within minority groups. Hate crime is on the rise and recent headlines have given a louder voice to those opposed to these groups. Alaska suggests that perhaps drag music “is very much in favour” of being the soundtrack for a community who feels more at threat: “The cocks of the world have fucked things up pretty royally.”

With drag queens performing at the VMAs, saturated within advertising and having their own reality shows, it’s not hard to imagine a future where gender-manipulators are dominating our sonic channels. It’s time for drag music to, as Violet Chachki so gloriously states, come through.

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