Why RuPaul’s music is the fuel that keeps ‘Drag Race’ running

Midway through every episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul materializes on the runway, serving a lewk that is sickening, as a quartet of fabulous judges claps.

This moment—the transition into the most competitive portion of the reality competition show—has been soundtracked by the same song for 12 years. By now, they are inseparable.

“Cover girl, put the bass in your walk,” the song insists, an audio cue for any viewer whose attention has strayed, to hurry back to the TV, post-haste.

When this song blares in the countless bars that host Drag Race watch parties—or that did pre-COVID-19, anyway—it provokes a Pavlovian response in anyone stuck in the bathroom: finish up and get out. Because the song is actually performed by RuPaul, though, perhaps he’s also singing it to himself on the runway, as much a reminder to slay as it is a flex.

“Cover Girl” is just one of the many RuPaul originals organically integrated in Drag Race’s DNA, each of them an unsubtle reminder that Ru is as accomplished a musician as he is an overall brand and cultural force.

Leland (left) and Tom Campbell (right) attend the world premiere of RuPaul’s Drag Race Live! [Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images]

“You can’t go to a gay Sunday brunch or a Friday night drag show without hearing a queen perform one of Ru’s songs,” says the show’s composer Brett Leland McLaughlin, who also produces hits for the likes of Selena Gomez and performs under the mononym Leland. “[RuPaul’s music] has infiltrated LGBTQ clubs, and it’s also just what people listen to at home, when we used to actually have people over. RuPaul was right there playing next to Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga, a part of the shuffle.”

The words “Cover Girl” should be familiar to longtime RuPaul stans as an ad lib from the chorus of “Supermodel,” the hit single from RuPaul’s debut album in 1993. Since then, the world’s most prominent drag queen has put out 12 more albums, including three Christmas ones. While RuPaul’s musical career is relatively unsung on the Billboard charts, it’s absolutely ubiquitous in the world of Drag Race—which now spans spin-off franchises in six countries and includes Vegas Revue, whose season finale airs Friday, September 25.

RuPaul’s original songs serve Drag Race in a number of ways. They’re baked into the structure of the show, as in the case of “Cover Girl” marking the start of the judging, and a rotating crop of songs that play during the runway portion and the closing credits each season. The songs play in the background as the queens wage psychological warfare on each other in the werk room. They also serve as the basis of some of the show’s challenges, including a remix late in each season, where the contestants all contribute their own verses. Just as music is a major element in LGBTQ and drag culture, it’s a critical part of the show.

If a lot of that music just happens to come from RuPaul, well, his name is in the title for a reason.

“I think Ru’s real heart is probably as a musician,” says executive producer Tom Campbell, one of the co-creators of the series. “The very early concept of the show was that these drag queens were gonna learn to walk a mile in Ru’s shoes. Because the host has performed, written, produced songs, they were going to be asked to do all those things, too. So from the very beginning, it was built in.”

The basics of how Ru’s music works on the show were already in place during the first season, even if the lighting was notably bad. The theme song remains mostly the same today; “Cover Girl” was always the main event announcer; and “Supermodel,” Ru’s original mega-hit, played during the runway scenes. Over time, though, the show’s producers became more ambitious about how music could factor into the show. Fairly quickly the show transcended the label of “reality competition show” to become more of a variety hour, with new musical extravaganzas like The Rusical, a capsule-size version of a Broadway show.

In 2018, for the third season of Drag Race All Stars, Campbell and Leland paid tribute to home network VH1’s rich tradition of Divas Live shows with a group lip sync challenge. The cast appeared dressed as legends like Diana Ross and Dolly Parton, performing RuPaul songs like “Guess Who’s Back in the House,” but interpolated in the style of whichever diva they were playing.

It’s a delightfully demented musical mishmash that showcases the talents of the queens as much as RuPaul.

While RuPaul’s music has always influenced the show, eventually the series began to influence RuPaul’s music. The title of the creator’s latest album, You’re a Winner, Baby, is inspired by a catchphrase from the show, one of many that has served as inspiration for a song.

“He’s literally writing the soundtrack of the show now,” Campbell says.

In the same way that drag culture pulls samples from every aspect of pop culture, in terms of fashion and humor, RuPaul has always sampled linguistic tidbits that stick in his brain. According to Campbell, Ru inherited a phrase-collecting trait from his mother. He was reportedly moved to create the bouncy bop, “Sissy That Walk,” after hearing the phrase from one of the pageant moms on Toddlers and Tiaras. Naturally, RuPaul would go on to create songs based on sayings that come up regularly on the show, like “Condragulations” and “Let the Music Play.” Anyone who witnessed one of the guest judges in the 10th season jokingly suggest that the catchphrase “Bring Back My Girls” should be a song couldn’t have been too surprised earlier this summer when the new song, “Bring Back My Girls,” served as the lip sync challenge in the 12th season finale.

RuPaul’s playful shamelessness in loading the show with his own music extends to a shrewd business sense of how to sell that music. The latest collection always seems to drop the same week as a new season of Drag Race kicks off, or in the case of 2020’s You’re a Winner, Baby, the week that RuPaul’s Netflix series, AJ & the Queen, premiered. The title of each season’s runway song—”Snap Shot,” for instance, or “The Realness”—flashes onscreen briefly, as the queens start strutting.

It’s subtle enough that it might take several episodes to notice. Once you do, however, it’s impossible not to notice. A hot remix challenge song like the recent “U Wear It Well” from Canada’s Drag Race might stay on the iTunes charts for weeks after the episode airs. “The music has this afterlife, as different people discover it in different territories around the world,” Campbell says.

The way that fans interact with the music on Drag Race partly inspired the show’s latest spin-off, Vegas Revue. Back in January, the producers launched a recurring live show that put the music and performances from the flagship show on stage. It was typical of the synergistic genius one can expect from this team: drag queens made famous on RuPaul’s Drag Race singing songs by RuPaul (and others) during a live stage show that would eventually be broadcast on the Vegas Revue TV show. The only further logical conclusion would be if the Las Vegas revue ended up landing on Broadway, as Campbell not-so-secretly hopes.

For the moment, thanks to COVID-19, Broadway is as shut down as the Vegas show. Until theaters reopen, however, the spirit of Broadway will live on in whichever countries Drag Race spin-offs are safe to film in—filtered, of course, through the musical prism of RuPaul.

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