Over 13 seasons, RuPaul’s Drag Race and All-Stars have become a space for queer people to come together. It is our water-cooler cultural phenomenon, something that feels like ours (even if it has long ago crossed over into the mainstream). It is analyzed to death, conspiracy theories and all, precisely because there’s nothing else quite like it, nothing that inspires as much discussion, work, and theorizing for many of its queer fans.
While the show’s lip sync battles, in which two queens compete to earn their place on the show after landing in the bottom that week, have always been a key part of this cultural project, it’s worth remembering the power of Drag Race to create a kind of musical queer canon all its own. While it often taps into agreed-upon gay anthems like Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out,” the series has also explored deeper cuts, and has even helped inaugurate newer songs into its own canon. Here, we highlight some of the most memorable and powerful lip sync moments in the series’ herstory to better understand how Drag Race has fostered the creation of its own ever-expanding queer canon.
5. BeBe Zahara Benet vs. Ongina - Stronger pic.twitter.com/q4WK8JmeEV
— daniel (@lgbtvelour) March 22, 2017
There are certain battles, paired with certain song choices, that live on because they seem to work together to bring out the absolute best in the queens, in this case BeBe Zahara Benet and Ongina. Ru memorably left the judges’ table to deliberate after the performance, as BeBe and Ongina were both frontrunners and had both killed it. “Stronger,” a song not only about embracing one’s sexuality but about taking control over your image and identity, makes perfect sense as an early show-stopping lip sync battle. The song allows BeBe and Ongina to fight for their lives, but it’s also a reminder how often songs seem to be chosen for their lyrics. “Stronger” is an early indication that many of these battles will center around themes of self-empowerment and control.
Ru has said many times that this remains one of his favorite lip syncs, as a touching tribute to his late mother, and as one of the first instances of the artist appearing as a guest judge. Moreover, Sahara Davenport, who discussed her struggles with addiction on the show — and who defeats Morgan McMichaels in this episode — would pass away two years later of heart failure. The performance is now even more heartbreaking with this in mind, particularly with Ru’s words about death: “I want each of you girls to know that even through adversity or death, love and energy lives forever.” The show’s lip sync battles are also occasionally tinged with the ache and tribulations that confront the queer community, and while Wash is better known for the gay anthem “It’s Raining Men” as part of the Weather Girls (which would appear, sort of, in season 4), Ru’s choice of “Carry On” holds far more weight.
21. India Ferrah vs. Stacy Layne Matthews - Meeting in the Ladies Room pic.twitter.com/UR39nQeieI
— daniel (@lgbtvelour) March 22, 2017
Although not an especially notable performance by either India Ferrah or Stacy Layne Matthews, “Meeting in the Ladies’ Room” is a somewhat more obscure (compared with most of the more recognizable choices) 80s club hit that shows Drag Race’s knowledge of gay club culture of yesteryear and of today, sure to make room for songs that have long been present at drag shows and clubs.
Everyone remembers Manila Luzon and Delta Work battling to “MacArthur Park.” Certainly one of the most famous lip syncs, it also stands as a representation of how crucial camp is to drag, Drag Race, and these battles in particular. Donna Summer’s cover features some of the most strange lyrics ever written about love (“Someone left the cake out in the rain/I don’t think that I can take it/Cause it took so long to bake it/And I’ll never have that recipe again”), which means it is ideal for these queens to turn it into a hilarious, silly, and highly theatrical spectacle.
Season 3, clearly, introduced or reaffirmed many long-standing lip sync traditions and memories. Raja and Carmen Carrera’s performance of “Straight Up” is an unequivocal reminder that any queer canon you care to dream up must be sexual, even perverse. They strip, nibble, and hump, turning this battle into a softcore dream that ultimately leads to Raja’s killer kiss. Lip sync battles rarely get this...intimate, but it’s significant in how it asserts a queer sexuality through musical performance.
Again, a perfect example of taking an established anthem and giving it a distinctly Drag Race context to up the emotional ante. In this case, Robyn’s gem was perhaps hitting too close to home for besties Raven and Jujubee, who both struggle to keep it together until they break down and embrace. “I’m giving it my all, but I’m not the girl you’re taking home,” Robyn cries, and it’s only when Ru decides to save both of them that everyone can exhale. From then on, “Dancing On My Own” took on a newly queer and emotional meaning for many.
While Willow Smith’s playful “Whip My Hair” may not seem like a natural fit at first (the lyrics are, after all, very repetitive), it quickly became clear watching Alyssa Edwards and Roxxxy Andrews that high energy is all you need to create an iconic moment. Well, that and a wig reveal. Seriously, considering how many stunts have been pulled on the lip sync stage to set yourself apart, Roxxxy’s reveal is an all-timer that also helps to show how a seemingly inconsequential song choice can have a huge impact.
Here we see Drag Race acknowledging the long relationship house music has had with queer people and gay clubs by using one of the first house songs to achieve major mainstream success, at least in the US. Particularly in later seasons, Drag Race has focused more on pop ballads. Perhaps this is partly because they are often well-suited to lip syncing, but it’s nice to be reminded that diva house music may be the quintessential queer music genre.
On All-Stars 2, the top queens would lip sync and the winner got to decide which queen in the bottom to send home. This change seems to have contributed to a shift in the culture of the series, moving more towards queen drama and reality show twists. What better example of this than Alyssa Edwards and Tatianna, eliminated queens who, battling to regain their spots, win together to Rihanna’s “Shut Up and Drive,” a highly-charged pop song about taking sexual control, so that together they can surprisingly both eliminate Phi Phi O’Hara, the season’s villain?
Sometimes, Drag Race tries to take a new song by a new artist and turn it into an iconic moment. Sometimes, it fails utterly, as with guest judge Meghan Trainor and her song, “Woman Up”. Beyond the glaringly obvious lyrical connection to drag, this song is an absolute bore. The luxury of being a guest judge is that you get your song performed, but it was clear that this was dead on arrival, and there was nothing Farrah Moan or Cynthia Lee Fontaine could do to change that.
It’s almost a little insulting to have Katy Perry’s stereotype-perpetuating, deeply condescending breakout hit used on Drag Race ten years later. That said, there is something lightly subversive about the performance BenDeLaCreme and Shangela put on, putting some actual queer sexuality into a song that was originally a trivialization of queer desire. Regardless, it is a prime example of how the series occasionally tries to “reclaim,” for lack of a better word, songs that are excruciatingly straight or have simply pandered to queer audiences (see also: Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer,” performed in season 9).
While season 10 also featured “Celebrity Skin” by Hole, with Courtney Love present as a guest judge, in a bit of unconventional programming, the standout choice so far is Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling,” which has the rare status of being a newer song that doesn’t really need Drag Race’s help in becoming an instant queer classic. While past efforts like Meghan Trainor’s failed, Carly Rae Jepsen is already feverishly heralded by her queer fans, and though Drag Race inserted her into its own canon, it’s almost as though it needed her more than she needed it.