Rupaul’s Drag Race and Musical Spectacle: The Narrative Function of Lipsyncs and Finale Numbers
In this final lecture, Lord Puttnam discussed music once again, and looked at musical numbers in cinema and the evolution of the film musical, and song and dance onscreen. Taking inspiration from his lecture, I will be discussing a variety of musical numbers and performances in Logo’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, and examine what they say about performance, gender and identity.
Lipsyncing For Your Life: Theatrics, Embodiment and the Art of Imitation
Lipsyncing on television has become increasingly popular of late, particularly with the success of Spike TV’s Lip Sync Battle, in which a range of actors, singers and other celebrities lipsync against each other to both old and new songs; each contestant lipsyncs a different song, and the result is decided by the judges LL Cool J and Christie Teigen. The show has featured an array of famous participants, including Channing Tatum, Anna Kendrick and Anne Hathaway. The show’s format grew out of a popular segment on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show, and was later expanded to a full series; it attracts an audience through star power and easily digestible viral video appeal. The primary draw of Lipsync Battle is seeing famous celebrities act out routines with a complete lack of self-consciousness, apparently abandoning their tightly-controlled and proper personas, and engaging in some outrageous yet #relatable fun; in some senses, it represents a sort of return to song and dance shows of old – stars get to show off their musical impersonations and movement. Lipsync Battle usually features celebrities performing songs that seem at odds with their image, and grants celebrities the chance to play around with public perception. One notable example is Anne Hathaway’s performance of Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball: during this lipsync, she inhabits a rebellious and decidedly sexual bad-girl persona, in stark contrast to her usual Type A, theatre-kid, respectable young actress image. Young male actors on the show sometimes perform in drag, or perform songs by iconic female artists, and this can be read in a number of ways: the format of the show gives them the opportunity to experiment with a lightness and freedom they may not have access to in their regular roles, and it allows them to appear down-to-earth and willing to make fun of themselves on some level. Charitably, one could say it shows them to be somewhat progressive – that they are willing to play around with gender and femininity and commit themselves seriously to performing female artists’ songs, sometimes with only a slight wink or ironic edge. During these battles, each performer has the entire stage to themselves, and can make use of props, dancers, and all manner of costumes. The performances are certainly entertaining, and dynamically staged, but beyond seeing celebrities enjoy themselves, and some admittedly impressive dancing and accurate mouth movement, there is not a great deal of substance to Lipsync Battle. It does not really need to be substantive, of course; it’s a light entertainment show, made to be disposable and primed for viral content. The contestants do not gain anything apart from publicity for performing on the show; a few write-ups on Buzzfeed or Refinery29, a video viewed a few hundred thousand times on YouTube, a new side to their star image. There is little in the way of personal investment in the outcome of the battles – we do not really know these people, and are not given an (admittedly highly edited and produced) insight into their lives, as we are with the contestants on Rupaul’s Drag Race.
When the contestants in Rupaul’s Drag Race lipsync, the stakes are much higher – they lipsync for their life (and in the new AllStars season, for their legacy) i.e. their continued place in the competition. Lipsyncs on this show mean something – a chance for redemption, an opportunity to display the hunger you have to stay and the talent that got you there in the first place, a chance to create a moment, to make the judges and the audience feel. There are certain unspoken rules, and cardinal sins: never take off your wig or clothes without an appropriate reveal, don’t physically attack your competitor (don’t lift them over your head especially), heels on are better than heels off, use every inch of that stage unless your lipsync is incredibly tight, know the words of the song you are performing. The beginning of each Lipsync For Your Life is eerily similar; RuPaul repeats the same words, in almost the same exact intonation, as the lights fizzle and swoop, and thunder and horns blare over the stage; each LipSync has a feeling of a great mythical battle – two competitors going for blood, and frantically vying to be in the spotlight; each queen has these few minutes to convince us of their worth and their potential stardom, to make the audience buy into the story they are creating, the scene they are conjuring.
As each season progresses, the audience invests in both the female drag personas, and the men, women, and genderqueer people behind them – watching the show becomes a complex negotiation, where the audience is challenged with regards to identity and performance – buying into the illusion that the queens present (and judging, by their own subjective criteria, what is ‘believable’, in terms of gender and persona and character). At times, the characters the queens play are easily separable from their boy personas/identities; at other times, it is hard to figure out who the ‘real’ performer/person is (the question of authenticity and ‘seeing the real you’ haunts certain performers). Part of the joy of watching the queens lipsync then is witnessing how they engage with the song – whether they choose to fully embody their drag persona or adapt it for the purposes of this particular performance, or abandon it altogether, how they engage with the theme and narrative of the song, how they move their body across the stage and the tricks and stunts they use, how they commit to making themselves central to a spectacle and perform gender illusion, or how they challenge their competitors – both physically and psychologically. The best lipsyncs, in my estimation, occur when performers fully commit themselves to a song, whether they utilise irony/humour, or channel a sense of sadness or anger.
The queens are always in drag when lipsyncing – they have already blurred the lines of gender and identity. In a classical musical, the female body is an object of spectacle; on the Drag Race stage, the queens become objects of spectacle, performing for the judges and the audience at home.
This lipsync from Season 7 clearly illustrates the different approaches taken by two queens. Katya, a firm fan favorite, was (and still is) beloved for her candid nature, self-deprecation, kindness, and honesty about her struggles with debilitating mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction; her time on the show saw her largely function as a wacky narrator, and she was portrayed as a queen who never took herself in any way seriously, but who was deathly afraid of failure and gripped by anxiety. The contrast between her lighthearted nature and the sincerity and seriousness of her lipsync, and the strangeness of seeing a character queen dedicate themselves so completely to a song without falling back on a shtick, elevates this particular lipsync. Her competitor, Sasha Belle, relies almost entirely on broad comedy and her self-presentation as a comedy queen: gesticulating wildly, pushing herself forward, and making constant eye contact with the judges, and thus never fully engages with the sincerity of the song, as well as losing the gender illusion at various points (this is not necessarily a negative occurrence during a lipsync, but there must be some reason to disrupt the illusion, and it must be done skilfully and with very obvious purpose). Katya, on the other hand, although she could be categorized as a comedy queen (or at the intersection of comedy and glamour), fully embodies the song, without irony or attempts at humor, and is incredibly precise in her lipsync – looking out into the middle distance with a serious gaze, controlling her body with a dexterity that few other character queens have exhibited, and deploying a split, back bend, and a slow split as the song picks up momentum, and most importantly, precisely moving to the beat of Twist of Fate.
This lipsync is largely considered the greatest lipsync ever performed on the show, and a masterclass in drag as high art. In an effortless and virtuoso performance, Dida Ritz’s take on This Will Be… encapsulates the essence of a great drag lipsync: it requires a combination of dynamic physicality, appropriate expression, imitation, precision and passion. The power of a lipsync, and the best lipsyncs on RPDR, is that the viewer temporarily forgets about the labour that goes into drag, and the person underneath the questionable wigs and nails and Dermablend ceases to exist: the queen fully becomes their persona, a woman, a diva, a star. A truly transcendent lipsync on RPDR allows the viewer to become fully invested in the fantasy/’realness’ of the moment; there is a suspension of disbelief and a simultaneous acceptance of gender transgression. Dida Ritz remains the focal point for nearly the entirety of this lipsync, leaving The Princess struggling to be seen, as she uses the entirety of the stage, and seems almost possessed by the song, channeling old R’n’B divas with her Tina Turner strut, and also channeling guest judge Natalie Cole herself. This Will Be… is a joyous song, celebrating the unbelievable possibilities of love and belief in hope from now on; with each gesture to the judges and shimmy across the stage, she redeems herself.
A lipsync on Rupaul’s Drag Race is often related to the contestants’ narrative in some way, or forms part of their arc – for instance, Adore Delano’s performance of Vibeology in front of her former American Idol judge Paula Abdul was an opportunity for her to impress a previous mentor and establish herself as a distinctly different performer than Danny Noriega. This particular narrative conceit was part of Adore’s overall arc, from reckless, sloppy but incredibly charismatic hopeful to legitimate contender for the crown – from a kid who was cautioned by her mother to downplay her flamboyance and sexuality, and who was best remembered on AI for a moment of teenage insouciance that would bring her brief viral fame, to a star; during this lipsync, which is particularly irreverent, athletic, goofy and heated, she decisively emerges as a a queen with palpable star quality, and narrative-wise, is presented as a kid who found freedom and liberation through drag, evolving into a more expressive, passionate performer. The transition from Danny to Adore shows the power of drag and lipsync performance: a young gay man is fully allowed to embrace his gayness and play with gender and camp and sexuality, and transform into a party-obsessed trash mermaid punk, or a Mortal Kombat cat, and this lipsync demonstrates that a queen can express this dichotomy in identity.
Season Finales and Spectacle
The last two seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race have featured a personalized lipsync for each of the Top Three queens. These lipsync songs are another source of profit for World of Wonder, made available on iTunes and streaming services shortly before the finale. Each lipsync song is carefully composed to fit with a queen’s persona – catchphrases and storylines from the season are woven throughout the songs as queens are reduced to a few key traits – sleepy club kid, sultry, Southern and Christian, brash New York talent, burgeoning supermodel. This lipsync, by Violet Chachki, allows her to showcase her performance skills, and plays upon several aspects of her persona featured on the show; it allows her to act haughty and flirtatious, leading the dancers and reprising her tango from earlier in the season, and the performance is tailored for her drag – a mixture of vintage Bettie Page burlesque striptease looks, John Willee BDSM reference points, and showgirl strutting. Too Many Daddies allows Chachki to be desirable, playfully coquettish, and to display the huge confidence that took her so far in the race. Her body is made the central point of the spectacle: tightly corseted and snatched (she has the smallest waist in Drag Race history), lingered on by the camera, slowly unveiled, she is transformed into a model and object of desire, female and male and both and neither at the same time. The end of the lipsync, in which she appears topless apart from the tassels on her chest, epitomizes her drag -a mixture of old and new, the future and the past – and her philosophy around gender identity. Her choice to not pad or contour on an illusion of a chest is very deliberate – Chachki is a genderfluid/genderqueer drag queen and believes in deliberately queering and confusing cisnormative notions of gender and body in drag and in society.
The lipsyncs on RuPaul’s Drag Race and Lipsync Battle have different purposes, and evoke different emotions: the latter is light, relatively expensive comparatively, but has a sort of sickly winking quality to it – how funny or cool is it that these actors dress up in lady’s clothing, aren’t they great because it’s so obviously stupid and ludicrous. Lord Puttnam spoke about the dearth of ‘all rounder’ kind of stars – stars who sang and danced and had a whole slew of performance tricks, who used their body and their voice (or mimed along convincingly to another voice). I would submit that the queens on RPDR are requried to exhibit these all rounder tendencies, and nowhere are they more on display than during lipsyncs and musical performances.The lipsync is a chance to see a queen’s identity, a bold and thrilling display of individuality and a commitment to the art of drag, to hear songs that are indelibly tied to gay culture, to observe the power of imitation and masquerade and gender play; there are moments of pure emotion as friends tearfully serenade each other, or we fully invest in a fantasy: we believe that a sweet man named Timothy, who is rebuilding his life after a stint in prison, is actually a large and in charge diva named Latrice, pregnant with her beloved child, and deeply maternal. And we are moved by her rendition of You Make Me Feel (Like A Natural Woman), as ludicrous as it seems, as patently ridiculous as the pregnant runway challenge is – the audience feel a depth of emotion and connection, even as Latrice stands in one spot, singing to a bump made out of Styrofoam. Lipsyncs can be powerfully political or simply fun, a mishmash of pop culture, crudeness and queerness.The queens do not usually have the luxury of backdrops or dancers or smoke machines – only their own body and performance choices and charisma and their ability to imitate – whatever character/identity they are portraying, whatever singer they are trying to channel. Though drag is about irony and purposeful, overt kitsch, even when lipsyncs are comedic or over the top, the main difference between the lipsyncs on RPDR and LB are that on RPDR there is always a sense of embodiment, of sincere connection, with the music, with the judges, with us.