Culture Trips

‘I take music seriously’: Drag Race stars begin crossover chart success | Music

If you’ve spent the past fortnight with the words “Bing-bang-bong sing-sang-song ding-dang-dong” reverberating around your brain, Freddy Scott would like to apologise. “To those who say they can’t sleep because they have UK Hun? stuck in your head,” the songwriter says, “I’m sorry–ish.”

Scott and his co-writer Leland are the creators of the viral hit from the British edition of RuPaul’s Drag Race. Written as a homage to Eurovision and performed by the show’s drag queen contestants, UK Hun? by United Kingdolls, with its earworm chorus, entered the UK Top 40 at No 27 last week, ahead of established pop acts such as Rita Ora and Pink. It beat the reality TV show’s previous highest chart entry, Break Up Bye Bye, which peaked at No 35 in 2019.

It won’t be the last. After comedy queen Tia Kofi was recently eliminated from Drag Race – giving her final performance in a pterodactyl ensemble – she released her debut single, Outside In. Unlike prior drag hits, which have traded on novelty, it is a straightforward pop record written by seasoned artists Little Boots and Tom Aspaul, and received its premiere on Zoe Ball’s BBC Radio 2 breakfast show last Friday.

“I know people will have expected me to release a debut single called Baroness Basic or something like that,” Kofi says, referring to the jokes that fellow contestants made about her style. “But fortunately for the world, music is really important to me and something I take very seriously.”

Drag queens traditionally lip-sync to chart music and rarely produce original material, making them a relative chart novelty. Disco star Sylvester did it in 1978 with You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real), and Divine managed the following decade with You Think You’re a Man. In 1992, RuPaul received heavy rotation on MTV with dance anthem Supermodel.

But it was his reality show that changed the game for drag pop. Now in its 13th series in the US and second in the UK, Drag Race broke the mould when it introduced original songs into the formula, showing a new generation of queens that there was a commercial imperative to recording their own material.

Music has become a key part of a queen’s post-Drag Race armoury. Original songs are a way to engage fans online and sell tickets for live shows. The US record label Producer Entertainment Group (PEG) has become a drag-oriented equivalent to 80s hit factory Stock Aitken Waterman, managing a huge roster of queens. Drag Race alumni have crossed over into commercial pop, as guest stars (Shangela appeared on Nasa by Ariana Grande) and in videos for Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Miley Cyrus.

‘Fortunately for the world, music is really important to me and something I take very seriously’ ... Tia Kofi.
‘Fortunately for the world, music is really important to me and something I take very seriously’ … Tia Kofi. Photograph: Ray Burmiston/BBC/World of Wonder

With some notable exceptions, including country music performer Trixie Mattel and Brazilian superstar Pabllo Vittar, queens have generally produced comedy songs that speak to a dedicated fanbase. Few drag pop artists have signed to major labels.

“A lot of the songs have been novelty records and that has been a hindrance for Drag Race music,” says Simon Jones, a publicist who has worked with reality TV alumni such as One Direction and Little Mix. “That’s not denigrating what those queens have done. It’s not meant to be taken seriously. But it’s not allowed the industry to take Drag Race music seriously as a commercial prospect.”

To change that, Jones and G-A-Y club owner Jeremy Joseph established Intention, an independent label specifically for UK Drag Race acts. They’ve signed series one winner the Vivienne, and series two stars Veronica Green and Kofi.

The success of UK Hun? and the involvement of credible pop talent behind the scenes suggests the British acts see music as a serious route to a wider audience. Fans have petitioned for United Kingdolls to represent the UK in Eurovision 2021 as a replacement for the confirmed contestant, James Newman.

Trixie Mattel performs at RuPaul’s DragCon in New York in 2019.
Country music performer and US Drag Race alumnus Trixie Mattel at RuPaul’s DragCon in New York in 2019. Photograph: Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

There are challenges even in what seems like their natural habitat. William Lee Adams, founding editor of Eurovision site Wiwibloggs, points to Austrian drag queen Conchita Wurst who won Eurovision in 2014: “Conchita set the bar impossibly high with Shirley Bassey vocals and a timeless song straight out of a Bond film.” Moreover, “drag queens are not universally adored among British Eurovision fans. They’re frequently dismissed as novelty acts who undermine the show’s musical integrity.”

Kofi, a huge Eurovision fan, believes the time has come for a drag queen who can do both. “I want to make legitimate pop and also be the silly person I have been throughout the show. I can say, isn’t my song great? And, also, remember that time I dressed as an ice-cream cone on RuPaul’s Drag Race? Those things are not mutually exclusive.”

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