RuPaul Charles, the punk singer-turned-pop star, wasn’t the first drag queen to drop a single—and he won’t be the last. While drag performers are often known for their lip sync prowess, the qualities that make a good queen—their boldness, their humor, their acute nose for camp—have translated into original music dating as early as 1947, when blues singer Petite Swanson, part of a midcentury Chicago scene of “female impersonators,” released “Lawdy Miss Claudy” and “My Jockey Knows How to Ride” on a local label. By the 1960s, a range of performers proliferated, like activist and torch-song chanteuse José Sarria, whose 1960 album No Camping was recorded at San Francisco’s legendary queer club Black Cat, and disco icon Sylvester, who began his storied musical career with a group of teen drag performers and trans women called the Disquotays.
Androgynous glam icons like David Bowie—who wore makeup and dresses and wrote an ode to drag queens (and the Velvet Underground) in 1971—and the New York Dolls, who wore drag-punk ensembles onstage and off, spent the 1970s playing with gender expectations, bucking notions of the binary through outlets as prosaic as public television. The same decade, Divine, who had risen to a scrappy kind of stardom as the lead in a number of John Waters films, began his musical career as a disco star; by the new wave era he was dropping gems like 1984’s “You Think You’re a Man,” later covered by Glaswegian art-pop band the Vaselines.
Of course it was mass media that brought RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” to the pop charts in the 1990s, christening her the first full-time drag star of the MTV era. And now the drag ecosystem has been indelibly affected by the global popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race. The reality TV competition has brought the often-breathtaking art of drag into the homes of lifelong fans as well as people who’ve never stepped foot in a drag bar since its debut nearly 15 years ago. By 2021, Ru also began executive producing the wholesome, no-lip-syncing-allowed show Queen of the Universe, in which drag queens from around the world belt it out for the title.
And yet, drag is still fighting for its right to survive. The art has recently inflamed the hateful sensibilities of an increasingly anti-LGBTQ+ right-wing in the U.S., which wants to legislate drag out of existence. Perhaps they are too hate-blind to know about the First Amendment, or perhaps they live in fear of the fact that gender expression is an individual concern, whether drag queens in seven-inch Pleasers or cis women in chino-cut pants.
But drag will always be alive, thriving, and evolving. As will music made by drag performers, which encompasses a wide range of sounds including pop gems, club bangers, and country twangers. Most, but not all, of the artists here are Drag Race alums, if only because the show is such a ubiquitous launching pad. Some, like RuPaul, are charting stars, while others remain more underground; all, though, show how influential drag remains throughout pop culture. Consider this list, presented alphabetically by artist, an entry point to a much broader landscape.
Aja: “Vulture Queen” (2023)
Aja LaBeija’s Bed-Stuy lineage is clear in all her art, with an aggressive precision as a ballroom competitor and the gritty rap flow you’d want from a Brooklyn bruiser. After shelving drag for a few years to unfurl her gender journey, Aja recently reemerged in the Drag Race multiverse as an official lip sync assassin. Perhaps more excitingly, she’s on the cusp of dropping a new album, F3MQUEENRAGE, leading with “Vulture Queen,” a hip-house flex about her ferocity that leans on NYC-grown wordplay: “It’s a murder scenario/Fuck up the stereo/Ride the beat like merry-go/Better since I was an embryo/Born with a crown/I’m imperial.”
Alaska Thunderfuck: “Wow” (2021)
Alaska’s come a long way since her 2015 debut album, Anus, featuring the epoch-defining “Hieeee.” On Red 4 Filth, released last year, she’s elevated her campy, bottle-service club tracks, though her sense of humor is still intact on songs like “uh,” a big-room trance anthem about logging off. It’s a fairly uneven album—an “All That She Wants” cover is funny for the runway but truly does not square as a pure listening experience—but the pop-punk power ballad “Wow” is a standout, with Alaska wailing her revenge down upon a gaslighting ex. The video is fun, too, with Alaska in reverse-drag—which is to say, performing out of drag—in a lobster-print shirt befitting the most emo of the band boys who fucked you over in 2002. You better believe that guitar is slung down below her hips.
Bimini: “Rodeo” (2023)
Bimini kinda has it all: rapacious wit, punk sensibility, a side hustle as a high fashion model, and she’s opened gigs for pop heroes like MUNA. In the “Rodeo” video, the English artist spoofs Beyoncé’s Renaissance cover art, riding a tinfoil-wrapped mechanical bull and winking under a Texas-sized hat covered in faux fur. It’s both homage and send-up, but the track is very serious, a dance-pop lament about a laddish philanderer. Bimini is not a belter, but their timbre lends itself to the kind of sound Kylie Minogue might hop on, and their Cockney accent is magic, especially on cutting lines like, “You’re dead behind the eyes.”
Bob the Drag Queen: “Gay Barz” [ft. Kamera Tyme, Allx Mllr, Mikey Angelo, and Ocean Kelly] (2023)
Bob the Drag Queen’s 2016 club banger “Purse First” is better known, its catchphrase title having wormed its way into the general vernacular, but this year’s posse cut “Gay Barz” includes a punchline that deserves to be at least as influential: “I don’t speak Spanish but I will Tapatío.” This entire track is hard, with so many choice quotables it’s hard to pick a favorite (though as a New Yorker I especially appreciate Allx Mllr’s “I ride him like an E-ZPass”). Suffice to say that anybody here could body a battle rap—or, as Ocean Kelly casually drops, they could “stuff ya boyfriend like a motherfuckin’ turkey.”
Jinkx Monsoon: “The Lavender Song” (2023)
Jinkx Monsoon’s latest gig is starring as Matron “Mama” Morton in Chicago on Broadway, a natural landing pad for the years she’s put in as a truly fantastic cabaret act. And there are shades of Mama’s hubba-hubba gumption in “The Lavender Song,” with its swanky jazz backing band. It’s a fighter of a trans anthem that sounds like a 1920s street boxer squaring up in the ring, in heels. “We’re going to win our rights,” she belts, “to lavender days and… niigggghts.”
Manila Luzon: “Drag Den” (2022)
It’s not often that a TV theme is also an encouraging solidarity single in the tradition of ’90s house, but this song from Drag Den, a competition show airing in the Philippines and hosted by longtime activist and Drag Race Season 3 finalist Manila Luzon, is strong enough to stand on its own. As a relatively more seasoned queen, Manila has the authority to lift up her fellow performers who might be feeling targeted. And as a seasoned singer, she’s savvy enough to make a track that doesn’t read as a marketing opportunity. Bonus points for the line, “Just like Magellan, honey they about to be slayed.” Decolonize your drag!
Monét X Change: “Love Like This” (2021)
When was the last time a classically trained opera singer rapped “Thick lip like a Jay-Zay/Go off like Solangé… bitch, I’m Beyoncé” in a “212” flow over a house track? Well, that would be 2019, on Monét’s Unapologetically EP. The Brooklyn performer obviously has a great voice—she’s a bass in opera but stays in the alto vicinity for pop —and she’s also able to sound natural on charged disco, murky R&B and, most recently, a stunning Dolly Parton cover with NYC’s Unsung Collective Choir. Catch her in Donizetti’s The Daughter of the Regiment, and then go home and wine to the former Miss Gay Caribbean USA’s reggae single “Love Like This.” It’s called range, deal with it.
Monique Heart: “SUKM (Kiss Me)” (2019)
Mo Heart was born for drag—she’s as fierce as they come—but “SUKM” makes a strong case that she was also born to be a deep house diva. Her range is by turns gritty and forceful, soft and sensual, as she demands that the overly chatty object of her desire just shut up and kiss her. The New Yorker’s sense of phrasing was clearly honed in her city’s clubs, but lately she’s also been experimenting with contemporary gospel, Minneapolis-indebted synth funk, and Afrobeats, as on the lovely “Come See About Me,” from 2022’s Redemption. As one YouTube commenter wrote about that album’s title track: “This song is so good it almost converted me to Christianity.” Or at the very least, had them on their knees at the altar of Monique’s wig stand.
Pabllo Vittar: “Ameianoite” [ft. Gloria Groove] (2022)
The Brazilian singer/drag performer is a huge global pop star at this point, with five charting albums and collabs with artists like Rina Sawayama, Anitta, Charli XCX, and Honey Dijon. In Brazil, “Ameianoite,” from her latest album, Noitada, is a techno-juiced baile funk banger about being a witch, its midnight-magic imagery floating operatically over synth stabs. It’s the tropigoth ethos distilled into one spooky megahit, and also serves as a metaphor for resilience in the face of conservative vilification of LGBTQ+ people across the world.
Peppermint: “Best Sex” (2020)
Peppermint was one of the first women to talk about being trans on Drag Race, in 2017, and her career—as a Broadway star, activist, comedian, and TV actor—has exploded in the years since. Her albums showcase her love for R&B (her Janet Jackson tribute videos are legendary), and the sensual “Best Sex” is the perfect example: a slow-grinding quiet storm that has the effect of a Swedish sauna. She’s got a breathy vibrato, coy come-ons, campy self-awareness, and the ability to make moaning-ass Al B. Sure! blush. But the pain is palpable, too, as she describes a dude she can’t quit even though he deeply sucks, plus this devastating line: “You never know your status/Then you ask me if I’m clean.” As the old adage goes: DUMP HIM!
RuPaul: “Blame It on the Edit (Remix)” [ft. Anetra, Luxx Noir London, Mistress Isabelle Brooks, and Sasha Colby] (2022)
For a person who hosts multiple Drag Race franchises (and has spun off 21 editions across five continents), RuPaul still releases music at a staggering clip. The 1993 club classic “Supermodel (You Better Work)” will always be the standard-bearer, and in the decades since her songs have tended towards luxe house and hip-hop offshoots, as on 2012’s cheeky bounce track “Peanut Butter” with Big Freedia, which showcased her acerbic sense of camp and encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary music.
“Blame It on the Edit,” from her 2022 album Mamaru, is a chrome-clean (and very specific) retort, with Ru rapping nimbly about the way Drag Race queens often claim their lowest TV moments were manipulated in post. It gets even more meta on the remix, a semifinal challenge for Season 15, which features the top four queens holding their own region-specific flows over slinky synths. Still, Ru wants to know: “Why they all in my house, they’re lying on my production crew?”
Shea Couleé: “Material” (2023)
Somewhere between winning RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars, modeling in a Savage x Fenty show, and landing a role in a Marvel franchise, the Indiana-born Shea Couleé recorded their debut full-length, 8, a moody dance and R&B affair anchored by their voluminous rasp. The Vanity- and Janet-inspired “Let Go/Your Name” collects their late ’80s impulses into a neat package, while “Material” designates Shea as fully of the internet era. The song is a breathy chat over a pulsing acid house throb, nodding to the Chicago scene where they blossomed into stardom.
The United Kingdolls (Lawrence Chaney, Bimini Bon-Boulash, A'Whora, Tayce): “UK Hun?” (2021)
This Drag Race UK challenge single, starring Season 2’s funniest queens, became an unlikely Top 40 hit in England, in part because it was written to be a campy spoof of the perfect Eurovision song: ridiculous, super-fun, and so stupidly catchy you’ll be slamming your face against the wall weeks later, trying to get the “bing bang bongs” and the “sing sang songs” out of your head.
Trixie Mattel: “Jackson” [ft. Orville Peck] (2021)
Trixie, a beloved talk show host and make-up magnate with doll paint on her eyelids and a neon yellow wig, is also renowned as a music star, releasing four lyrically beautiful albums that range from country to pop-punk. Duetting with secret babe Orville Peck on “Jackson,” she transforms into a bombastic June Carter Cash to Peck’s Johnny, approximating an exasperated partner in a dead-end marriage whose man keeps threatening to have a wild weekend in Mississippi. Their harmonies are like coffee and cigarettes, the upright bass is motoring, and Trixie’s wig is big as hell.
Yvie Oddly: “Hype” [ft. Vanessa Vanjie Mateo] (2020)
The internet knows Miss Vanjie well for her major meme moment—when she exited Drag Race mewling her name like a confused cat—and Yvie is famous for their breathtaking looks, astonishing body contortionism, and once posting their baby leg on Twitter (not necessarily in that order). Together, they somehow made an undeniable, pussy-popping, NOLA bounce-tinged, West Coast joint—despite the fact that neither is from NOLA or the West Coast (Yvie’s from Denver, Vanjie’s from Tampa).
Vanjie’s musical output is sadly slim despite having one of the most distinct voices and funniest styles in the drag world. But Yvie’s got a new album forthcoming entitled Yo, including songs with Cakes da Killa and Wreckno. The first single, “Topsy Turvy,” is a tweaked bass track on which Yvie leaves their admirers with a useful piece of advice: “Met your dad, he wanna kiss me… If he do, he better tip me.”