This week’s ’60s girl groups show us what drag does best.
You can always count on RuPaul’s Drag Race to let out the steam after an emotional episode. Compared to last week’s mainstage per-fart-mances and intensely personal Untucked, this week’s episode is a bit of a dud. But what it does do is showcase the way drag can operate as an archive.
Once again, we open with Daya. Finally out of the safe zone, she’s gunning hard for a win. I suppose every season needs a “villain” and this episode works hard to push Daya forward as this season’s Final Bitch. The trouble is none of the queens really see Daya as the threat such a narrative requires. She’s just a gal trying to take the inside track of the race and the queens can see right through it. The competition is heating up, though, so anyone not vying for a position will be quickly left behind.
The library opens this week for the reading challenge. It’s a pleasantly consistent challenge with smart, sharp cracks. Sure, there are some cringe moments like when Daya gets called “two-faced” by Jasmine, but overall this read-through reveals that the queens have a good sense of themselves and each other. Bosco takes the win with her playful conceitfulness.
For this week’s maxi challenge, the queens are self-divided into three teams to write and record a brand new retro pop hit that pays homage to the girl groups of the 1960s. The pastiche play displayed in this challenge is one of the more accurate we’ve seen in the series. The three groups — The Shang Ru-Las, The Ru-nettes, and Ru-premes — actually have songs that match the groups they are parodying.
While the recording sessions with Michelle (herself a former girl group star) reveal that this season has a lot of talented dancers and models, the singing isn’t half bad. Unlike some singing challenges in the past, I had no problem sitting through these songs. Even the modifications they made (like having Jorgeous talk on pitch) fit well within the girl group genre; plenty of girl groups from the era broke into poetic talking to extend the story within the songs.
To win such maxi challenges, you have to know and recreate your references. At their worst, Drag Race singing challenges are an exercise in enduring cringe. But when they work, these challenges can be educational and display one of drag’s most endearing qualities — its ability to archive (queer) culture. They show us what is worth remembering. And they don’t just archive tones and tropes, they also archive gestures. Angeria this week absolutely nails the flounce and delicate swaying that made Diana Ross and The Supremes the light and airy post-flower power extravaganza that they were.
Though Ru says this week they’re being judged as individuals, what she really means is the queens are being judged as individuals-within-a-group. Were it truly the case that the queens were evaluated based strictly on their own performance, Angeria would have won this week. But alas she wasn’t in the best performing group this week.
That honor goes to Bosco, Willow, and Daya of the Shang Ru-las who were able to not only recreate the bopping monkey arms of the 1960s girl groups, their lyrics fit even further into the genre by telling a classic story of the rebel bad boy with the queer and historically accurate reference to cruising. Theirs is the best display of drag-as-archive because it pulls together historical details, infuses them with a queer inversion, and displays them as simultaneous play, critique, and the passing on of memory. Daya finally gets her win for being the most animated in her group.
The bottom two, sisters in transness, Kerri and Jasmine are perfect examples of how improperly indexed culture within the archive disturbs the play and can cost a queen her chance at the crown. While Jasmine more or less fades into the background this episode, Kerri is decidedly singled out as being “off-genre.”
As she says in her confessional footage, Kerri grew up in a religious household so her catalog of culture is bounded by gospel, rather than secular music. It’s a profound metaphor for how deeply our past shapes our knowledge and consciousness. Thus, when it comes time for Kerri to recreate a historical genre, she only has gospel to reference. Instead of being bright and effortless like The Supremes, Kerri’s character moves as if she’s at a religious revival and it ruptures the pastiche.
Nothing will be as off-genre as a techno remix of “Unbreak My Heart,” however. Kerri and Jasmine have the extremely difficult and unenviable task of having to know when to emote and when to shablam as the remix of the classic heavy-hitter ballad swings wildly from tonal extremes. The original essence of the song is gone. If any remains, it’s nearly impossible to capture. Though neither of them succeeds, Kerri Colby succeeds just a bit less and Ru sends her packing.
But as both Untucked this week and last week confirm, Kerri’s self-confidence in her transness was an inspiration for many of the girls. Bosco and Willow each unpack their gender-questioning a bit deeper and we get a sense that the tone around trans women and their participation in drag has shifted dramatically. And this season that was thanks in large part to the way Kerri carried herself as a model — not just for clothes, but also for a way of trans living that is filled with joy and drag.
While I don’t want to make it sound like exposure is a substitute for study, episodes like this week’s RuPaul’s Drag Race show the ways drag can educate us. It preserves and performs the queer culture of the past (or the culture of the queer past). And perhaps most importantly it allows us to learn about all the different ways we can navigate gender in this lifetime.