There’s a lot happening in Taylor Swift’s new video. You’ve likely already watched “You Need To Calm Down,” or at least seen clips from it scattered across your timelines. Here’s the gist: it’s a song about GAY RIGHTS, and features cameos from the likes of Laverne Cox, Billy Porter, Hayley Kiyoko and Queer Eye’s “Fab 5”. You also witness a makeshift pageant, as the lens zooms out to take in Ariana Grande, Beyoncé and Cardi B standing in a line onstage. But, hang on – you soon spot that, actually, you’re watching a handful of drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race impersonate the pop divas.
Sure, there’s something to be said for Swift using her huge pop star status to promote the art of drag to the masses. Namely, the thing to say is: that’s nice. “As drag, and more specifically Drag Race, becomes increasingly popular with audiences beyond queer people, it makes sense that pop artists would want to find room for drag queens in their work,” writer and self-dubbed “ RuPaul’s Drag Race herstorian” Kevin O’Keeffe tells me. “A cameo from a Drag Race fan favourite is just another way an artist can acknowledge their own fans' other interests – in the same way that Lady Gaga once put several of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills in her ‘G.U.Y.’ video.” It means drag queens get to occupy spaces in pop culture they wouldn’t normally have been able to.
This trend, of drag queens showing up in pop music videos, is by no means new. What has changed, though, is the texture and meaning of those appearances. A drag artist cameo has moved from signifying ~deviance~, often with slightly grim connotations, to helping pop stars project the right kind of woke allegiance. That makes sense for acts like Lizzo, whose music so often speaks to the sort of self-love (and dancefloor potential) cherished by queer communities. But Iggy Azalea, who had to pull out of a 2015 Pride event over past homophobic comments? Maybe her use of drag queens in two recent videos doesn’t work as convincingly. In any case, the brief history of drag performers ‘crossing over’ into pop visuals tells a story that goes further than both Swift, and how she’s been mocked and celebrated for “You Need to Calm Down.”
Drag Race fans will know how Rupaul shot to fame after landing a cameo in the 1989 video for the B25’s hit “Love Shack”. It’s brief, but RuPaul credits the gig as his first proper break, leading to his single “Supermodel (You Better Work)” and his evolution into arguably the most famous drag queen in the world. Similarly, a few years later, an array of drag queens stood in for Gloria Estefan for her 1994 “Everlasting Love” video, playfully showing off their lip-syncing skills. Rumour has it that Estefan was too far along into her pregnancy, so enlisted the queens to impersonate her.
The tone of drag appearances darkened somewhat in the late 90s and early 00s, though. Queens then were cast in videos from people like Kesha, The Black Eyed Peas, Rihanna and Eminem. You probably didn’t clock the drag artists much, because often they’d appear in the background, normally in settings eluding to sexual subcultures, late-night partying or demonic hellscapes. They weren’t there to showcase their drag looks or make-up; it felt as though the brief read more like ‘look odd and interesting’. See: Drag Race season three alum Willam in Rihanna’s “S&M” bound together with fellow racer Detox Icunt. Meanwhile, long before his time on season eight of the show, Derrick Barry appeared in drag as Britney Spears (he’s a professional Britney impersonator) in Eminem’s “We Made You” video, played for cheap laughs.
This feels like a lifetime ago, considering how RuPaul’s Drag Race has grown into an inescapable pop culture phenomenon that’s pushed drag into the mainstream public arena. The show now often affords its queens a unique level of celebrity and social clout no matter how long their stint on-air. They stomp towards ‘pop crossover’ territory with devoted fan bases and brand deals intact. And as a result, their cameos offer returns that feel on a par with those of big-name actors (ie: Tom Hanks in Carly Rae Jepsen “I Really Like You”) or wider pop culture figures (Lil Dicky is all over this, from Kendall Jenner to Leonardo DiCaprio).
When you fast-forward to the present, that looks like Little Mix featuring Willam (in plain view this time sans bondage attire) alongside Alaska Thunderfuck and Courtney Act in “Power”. It looks like that alternative video Lizzo released in April, her massive single “Juice”, where she brought on a load of Drag Race. Less convincingly, it looks like Iggy Azalea’s videos for “Sally Walker” and “Started,” where the likes of Shea Couleé, Trixie Mattel and Vanessa Vanjie Mateo pick up their fair share of screen time.
Such a delicate balance between ‘authentic shout-out’ and ‘hey, this will look good and expand my audience, right?’ proves hard to strike. Already Taylor Swift’s been accused of using drag queens to pander to the community and rehabilitate her fractured public image.As pop culture writer Alim Kheraj sees it, the financial and audience-building gains can be worth it for the drag performers, regardless of how people over-think the optics.
“Knowing how difficult it is to make money as a drag queen when these girls are included in these music videos means they’re booked and busy, which is only ever a good thing,” he says. “If they are getting paid for appearing in these music videos then that means the money they earn can go towards doing their own stuff… I mean if Taylor Swift called you up and said: ‘Hey, do you want to be in my music video?’ I don’t think you would say no.”
As with anything in music, trends will only last as long as the public cares about them. With rumours Madonna is enlisting the help of a few familiar drag faces for her upcoming music video for “God Control”, it’s hard to predict where the trend will go from here. “I think it's worth noting that culture is cyclical,” O’Keeffe says. “We've been through a period in which drag was popular and mainstream before, with RuPaul at the forefront of it. But then there was a period in which drag went back underground. In fact, RuPaul's Drag Race started specifically because Ru wanted to crown an heir – America's Next Drag Superstar. This is a tremendous period of mainstream success for drag artists, but I do think it's as much a part of a cycle as ever.” Onwards we go, then.