RuPaul’s Drag Race, the wildly popular drag queen competition show on Logo, is back for its seventh season, and with that age has come a certain maturity, for better or worse. Now two episodes in, the production feels tighter, the queens are more polished and savvy (and therefore a little boring), and the commercial breaks—previously a delightful fantasyland of budget tackiness, PSA earnestness, and Boy Butter lube—are now rather anodyne (though Boy Butter thankfully continues to grease one slot).
Ru’s much-deserved success always meant that the show would eventually become more mainstream, so these changes are not surprising—even if one does sometimes pine for the more ramshackle days of the Interior Illusions Lounge. (Untucked, the once great behind-the-scenes post-show shade fest, has been demoted to a YouTube afterthought this season.) But lost rough edges aside, Drag Race continues to serve an admirable pedagogical function, introducing viewers to aspects of drag and larger gay culture that they might not otherwise meet.
Monday’s episode, a flight-attendant themed farce, was no exception. For the main competition, the girls were divided into two teams, each tasked with providing the pre-flight instructions to a cabin full of Ru’s well-muscled “pit crew” gentlemen. This hilarious performance took the form of a “mix number,” a modern subgenre of drag lip-synching that involves creating an audio collage of musical clips intercut with snippets of dialog from films and television, usually to explore a theme or advance a story arc over the course of the piece. In this case, the mix included silly original songs and clips from films about flying; a more high-concept recent example I saw live explored the story of Joan of Arc with help from Eminem and Rhianna’s “Love the Way You Lie”: Just gonna stand there and watch me burn …
That latter number was, in fact, performed by Outward contributor Miz Cracker, who explained that the mixing of spoken word lip-synching (at which some of Ru’s queens could use practice) with musical content was elevated to an art form by luminaries like Lypsinka and has become a mainstay for many working girls, particularly in a moment when audiences may not have the attention spans for entire songs. “It’s the number one way for a queen to show her wit when she doesn’t have mic time—which most queens don’t anymore,” Cracker added. “If you can make a smart mix, you can win a crowd.”
What’s interesting about this mix number genre is that digital technology—and the accessibility of much of the world’s media online—had enabled clever drag queens to make literal a gay cultural practice that had long been performed in the realm of imagination. Excluded and alienated from mainstream society, generations of gays clipped and spliced straight cultural material into “mixes” that were meaningful to them, idiosyncratic readings of films and artists that were completely divorced from the original intention. Indeed, this is to a large degree what the “camp sensibility” is all about.
It’s heartening to see that even as Drag Race shifts into a less queer register, the show is still managing to highlight the unique modes of expression pioneered by gay people. It’s a reminder that now, as before, drag queens are our cultural preservationists—which is great, since all they usually ask for in return is a few bucks and a little applause.