Saturday, May 24, 2014
The Top 10 Singles By Drag Race Contestants
Many former Drag Racers have tried their hand at music in an attempt to claim the legacy of RuPaul's Drag Race's namesake. When RuPaul exploded onto the scene in the 1990s, it was a kind of kismet that hasn't been seen since. Her single "Supermodel (You Better Work)" was an unexpected hit, both in clubs and on the Billboard Hot 100, where it climbed to #45 and went Gold. The success of RuPaul's first album, Supermodel of the World, was a surprise to just about everyone, including Rupaul herself: it spawned two other #1 Club/Dance Play singles, peaked on the Billboard 200, and led to the public's growing awareness of underground drag culture. From that album, RuPaul then appeared in films, television shows, and even her own VH1 talk show.
Cut to more than twenty years later, and RuPaul is once again at the height of pop culture relevance with Logo's popular competition reality series, RuPaul's Drag Race. Her renewed popularity has resulted in a new lifestyle book, three more albums (the most recent of which, released in February, marked Ru's highest-charting album ever), countless talk show appearances, a fragrance and makeup line, and even a RuPaul candy bar. But the whole point of the show is to expose upcoming queens with the same qualities Ru possesses to the world, all in hopes that they can achieve the kind of crossover success Ru has. So far, few have even come close. Season four's Willam was a television and film regular before he ever appeared on Drag Race, with guest spots on some of the country's biggest TV shows (CSI: NY, Cold Case, Boston Public, etc), and has since found viral success with the YouTube series Willam's Beatdown and several singles. Jinkx Monsoon, season five's winner, has appeared on one of TV's most-watched shows, Blue Bloods, and sold out an off-Broadway run of her original musical, The Vaudevillians. But none have really replicated the unmitigated mainstream success of RuPaul's career.
But in their effort to try, a large number of contestants typically start with releasing music. It only took one song to really put Ru on the map, so these queens usually put all their eggs in one basket and hope for a lightning-in-a-bottle effect. The results are a complete mixed bags, with some absolutely awful songs and some, much fewer, listenable ones. Some, dare I say, are even good. Let's take a look at the more successful Drag Race singles.
10. Sahara Davenport - "Pump with Me"
Sahara, may she rest in peace, released "Pump with Me" in 2010, one of the first queens from the show to do so. She doesn't have the strongest voice, but the music features a fun, lush disco arrangement and a call to the dance floor reminiscent of Donna Summer. The video also features a cameo by Sahara's then-boyfriend, Karl, AKA Manila Luzon... out of drag!
9. Honey Mahogany - "Shoulda Known Better"
Honey was all but forgotten by the time she sashayed away less than halfway into the fifth season, but she has since found some moderate success in her hometown of San Francisco. She's released an EP of original material and made a brief appearance on the HBO series Looking. The first single from that EP is "Shoulda Known Better," a classy ballad that has Honey channeling Billie Holiday and other jazz chanteuses. Her vocals aren't perfect, but they're miles ahead of most of the other queens who attempt to sing, and they're much better than is to be expected from a queen who left her season so early.
8. Bebe Zahara Benet - "Cameroon"
Season one winner Bebe is still the least-known of all the show's winners, thanks to the first season's lower viewership, but she is also one of the most versatile. She has an incredible, over-the-top fashion sense, some of which you can see in the video for her second single, "Cameroon," an infectious dance song with flecks of Bebe's African heritage. This would probably be my vote for most likely to succeed RuPaul's dance/club hits; its beat and wordless chorus are just that good and memorable.
7. Sharon Needles - "Why Do You Think You Are Nuts?"
It came as a shock to many when Sharon Needles released a full-length album in 2013. She struggled with her vocals in one of the challenges during her season and never seemed to want to be the typical club/dance queen. When RuPaul crowned her the winner of season four, an album full of dance songs just didn't seem to be in the cards. But that album, PG-13, actually charted higher on the Billboard 200 than Ru's most recent release at the time and inspired a string of singles, the best and most fitting of which is "Why Do You Think You Are Nuts?" The song is what you'd expect from a song by Sharon: loud, raspy punk rock in the vein of The Ramones. It's a far cry from the other club-ready tracks on PG-13, but it's one of the few standout tracks on the otherwise lackluster album, and it perfectly showcases Sharon's attitude and aesthetic.
6. Phi Phi O'Hara - "Bitchy"
Like Sharon, Phi Phi struggled in the singing challenge (actually, she was paired with Sharon) and got a less-than-kind critique on her voice from the judges. So color me surprised that Phi Phi can actually sing. As an added bonus, her single "Bitchy" is supremely listenable. It's very pop-oriented, less house/EDM as Drag Race contestants tend toward, with a catchy hook. This could easily be a mainstream single.
5. Willam - "She Doesn't Know"
Willam will make another appearance on this list with his drag girl-group DWV, but when it comes to his solo songs, "She Doesn't Know" is the best. It's an original pop-rock song, not a parody or dance song like DWV's popular tunes, and it features a really strong vocal performance. That's what this choice really came down to: Willam has a really good voice, and this track shows it off.
(Note: The full song is not available on YouTube or anywhere else for free, but it can be purchased on iTunes/Amazon/etc. or from Willam's official store as part of his full-length CD The Wreckoning... considering you get 11 songs for $5 plus shipping, I recommend the latter. So worth it.)
4. Jinkx Monsoon - "Coffee & Wine"
Jinkx's oeuvre is pretty different from the majority of Drag Race's other queens. Her first single "Coffee & Wine," off the cheekily-titled The Inevitable Album, is a 40s-inspired jazz number with a silky vocal track and easy demeanor. This is perfect music to play while making dinner, as opposed to getting ready to go dancing (for that, take your pick of most of the other queens' singles), and it showcases Jinkx's uniqueness and talent.
3. Courtney Act - "Mean Gays"
Courtney is one of the stronger vocalists to come out of Drag Race, even if she was singing long before appearing in the most recent sixth season. She was a finalist on Australian Idol's first season and released her first single a decade ago under a major recording label. Now she's aiming for fame in America. I waffled about whether to include the recent "To Russia with Love" instead of this song, because of its support message for the LGBT community in Russia released in conjunction with the Olympics, but I settled on "Mean Gays" because of its peppy back track, confident vocals, campy lyrics, and cute video. I'm waiting for Courtney to release a video that really lets her voice shine (a ballad or something similar), but this song encompasses her persona while still proving that she has a real talent for music.
2. Adore Delano - "DTF"
This song isn't going to be for everyone. Its lyrics are filthy, the video is hysterical and NSFW, and the smooth hip-hop beat is odd. But this is, I believe, the only song by any Drag Race alum ever that could be played on the radio right now and fit in just fine. It's right in line with the likes of Miley Cyrus's most recent album: there's an R&B flavor to Adore's voice that blends well with the dirty, urban flair of the backing track. This sounds like it could crossover to mainstream, because it's so of-the-moment, much like how RuPaul crossed over in the 90s when underground club music made its way into popular consciousness.
1. Willam & Detox (with Vicky Vox) - "Chow Down"
I told you Willam would pop up again, this time with season five's Detox and non-racer Vicky Vox. This is the song that really started, I think, the explosion of Drag Race singles. Sure, there were a few here and there, but with "Chow Down's" viral success and perfect timing (it came out just when Willam was inexplicably disqualified from the show and just when Chick-Fil-A started to majorly come under fire for its anti-gay policies), a lot of other queens started trying their hand at music more frequently. I think we all have DWV to thank for it basically being a requirement now that the most popular Drag Race contestants release singles and/or albums. And, I mean, it really is the best song by any queens from the show. It's smart, timely, funny, stylish, and well-performed. "Chow Down" really legitimized drag as a relevant art form again with its political commentary disguised as entertainment.
There you have it - what I think are the ten best singles from former Drag Race queens. In case you were wondering just which queens didn't make my list, there are plenty. Feel free to seek out their music on your own, but beware... the results aren't always pleasing to the ear: Nina Flowers, Tammie Brown, Tyra Sanchez, Tatianna, Pandora Boxx, Jessica Wild, Shangela, Raja, Manila Luzon, Mariah (as Mariah Balenciaga), Mimi Imfurst, Venus D-Lite, Chad Michaels, Alaska, Magnolia Crawford, and (prior to her appearance on the show) Kelly Mantle.