Slaying the charts: The evolution of drag anthems, from Judy Garland to Madonna and beyond

As we honor Pride, let's delve into the rich history of music that has uplifted he drag community over the decades

Published June 22, 2024 9:00AM (EDT)

Madonna, Judy Garland and Cher (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Madonna, Judy Garland and Cher (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Drag queens have always been at the forefront of LGBTQ+ liberation, and in the past 100 years or so, pop music has helped fuel the fight for equality by putting plenty of spiritual gas in the tank. As our cultural understanding and acceptance of drag queens continues to evolve, the playlist of drag anthems grows right alongside us. The evolution of music that engages with queening and the queens themselves who increasingly have power and resources to make music are a vibrant tapestry woven with threads of defiance, resilience and celebration.

As we commemorate Pride, it's essential to delve into the rich history of the music that has empowered and uplifted the drag community over the decades. At a time when trans rights are under a massive resurgence of legislative and judicial threats amidst a larger culture war, it's crucial to offer supportive allyship to both drag performers and trans individuals. Drag, which is the art of performing gender through costume and theatricality, often overlaps with trans identities, though the two are not synonymous. Celebrating the music and stories of drag is a way to honor this intersection and support the broader fight for trans equality.

Before the term "drag queen" entered our mainstream lexicon, pioneers like Ma Rainey and Gladys Bentley were setting the stage as prototypes for drag kinging, which was often considered somewhat more socially permissible than queening. Ma Rainey's 1928 song "Prove It On Me Blues" is often hailed as an early lesbian anthem, hinting at same-sex relationships with a boldness that was revolutionary for its time: “It's true I wear a collar and a tie, / Makes the wind blow all the while. / Don't you say I do it, ain't nobody caught me. / You sure got to prove it on me.” Ma Rainey generally wore dresses on stage, but Gladys Bentley certainly did not. Bentley was known for her tuxedo-clad performances and was a trailblazer in both music and gender expression. Bentley's audacious presence and piano performances at Harlem's speakeasies in the 1920s and 1930s challenged societal norms and laid the groundwork for future drag performers.

As blues singers began picking up the pace, they reached rock 'n' roll territory with the likes of suit-and-tie sporting Big Mama Thornton and her song "Hound Dog" in 1952, a cover of which later helped launch the career of Elvis Prestley in 1956. Of course, Elvis himself would go on to become an icon for drag kings everywhere, and “Jailhouse Rock” is a kinging staple thank to the surprisingly overt gay verse: “Number 47 said to number three / ‘You're the cutest jailbird I ever did see / I sure would be delighted with your company / Come on and do the Jailhouse Rock with me.’” It's remarkable that it was allowed on the radio in its original form at this time. During the mid-'50s, Elvis also covered several songs written and first recorded by Thornton’s friend and record labelmate, Richard Wayne Penniman, better known as Little Richard

This closeted community needed songs with queer-coded meanings that were somewhat less obvious for safety’s sake.

In 1955, Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" exploded onto the music scene with its electrifying energy and lyrics that remain subversive even though radio stations insisted the song be sanitized for mainstream audiences: “She knows how to love me, yes indeed / Boy you don't know what she do to me.” The original lyrics of "Tutti Frutti" were rife with sexual innuendo and more than just hinted at queer identities: “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don't fit, don't force it / You can grease it, make it easy.” Little Richard's flamboyant persona and musical innovation made him a crucial figure in the prelude to drag queen anthems. Known as both "the king and queen of rock 'n' roll," Little Richard's career was marked by his bold stage presence, fabulous outfits, and boundary-pushing performances. His influence extended far beyond his music, inspiring countless artists, such as Prince, and challenging societal norms around gender and sexuality.

In the first half of the 1900s, we see different kinds of gender-nonconforming people writing songs with queer meanings quite near the surface level. But there have also always been many in the queer community who sadly had to fear for their lives or livelihoods, and this closeted community needed songs with queer-coded meanings that were somewhat less obvious for safety’s sake. What emerges from a need like this is the adoption of an American sweetheart and her transformation into a diva legend playfully worshipped by many a drag queen through the performance of her music, which provided solace and strength during a time of profound struggle and change.

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Judy Garland, with her powerful voice and emotional depth, became an enduring icon for the LGBTQ+ community. The slang "Friend of Dorothy" emerged as code for being gay, inspired by her role in “The Wizard of Oz.” Songs like "Over the Rainbow" became anthems of hope and resilience, resonating deeply with drag performers and their audiences as they dreamed of a better way of living and performing more freely somewhere else. Garland's influence reached a poignant peak with her death in June 1969, just before the Stonewall uprising — a pivotal moment in LGBTQ+ history when popular legend – now since debunked – has it that drag queens gathering at The Stonewall Inn were so saddened by Garland’s recent funeral that they were provoked by the evening’s usual police harassment, and they fought back.

That moment in 1969 is considered by many to be the kick-off of the LGBTQ+ civil rights movement at the end of a decade filled with many cultural shifts and new voices. The 1960s witnessed a broadening of musical influences that began to resonate with the drag community. Sam Cooke's "Twistin' the Night Away" offered a joyful escape “Somewhere up-a New York way / Where the people are so gay” and you can find “a chick in slacks” or even “a fella in blue jeans / Dancin' with an older queen / Who's dolled up in her diamond rings.” There was also the Pretty Things, fronted by bisexual singer Phil May, who challenged gender norms with their provocative performances. The Kinks favored songs that explored themes of identity and self-expression like "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," while Velvet Underground gave shout-outs to queens that Lou Reed met at Andy Warhol’s Factory — itself a safe haven rich with performance opportunities for drag queens — in songs like "Sister Ray" and "Candy Says.” These anthems were predominantly sung by male vocalists who already had enough musical success to assure them the privilege of directly pointing to the queer and the queenly without doing damage to their fame.

Disco appealed to straight and queer clubgoers alike, and this decade cemented many female vocalists in the pantheon of queening anthems.

The Kinks continued to push boundaries in the following decade with "Lola," a song that candidly addressed a romantic encounter with a trans woman. David Bowie's androgynous personas and songs like "Queen Bitch," his homage to Lou Reed, celebrated fluidity and rebellion, further cementing Bowie’s status as a drag icon. Yet queens longed for songs they could relate to from female vocalists because these were the ones they could perform in drag, and the community certainly got what it asked for when the 1970s ushered in an era of glam rock and disco, genres that overall celebrated flamboyance, defiance, and freedom. ABBA's "Dancing Queen" became a quintessential anthem for its exuberant celebration of dance that perfectly captured the spirit of the time. Cher's separation from Sonny Bono and rise as a solo artist brought her unique blend of glamour and defiance to the forefront with tracks like "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves" and "Half-Breed" that showcased her ability to blend pop appeal with themes of outsider identity. Disco appealed to straight and queer clubgoers alike, and this decade cemented many female vocalists in the pantheon of queening anthems, from Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” to Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman.”

With its civil rights still in limbo, the queer community slogged through the profound challenges of the 1980s with the onset of the AIDS crisis, which brought immense suffering and galvanized activism. Against the backdrop of a pandemic, the decade also marked a significant shift as drag culture began to gain some mainstream visibility. Diana Ross, who was already known as “the queen of disco,” achieved new heights when "I'm Coming Out" became widely understood an anthem of empowerment, celebrating self-discovery and liberation. Also often referred to as “the queen of disco,” criminally underrated avant garde drag pioneer Sylvester continued to release gay dance club hits like the Hi-NRG track “Do You Wanna Funk,” while his backing vocalists left to form The Weather Girls, whose gigantic hit "It's Raining Men" offered a jubilant celebration of queer desire and fantasy that was at odds with many activists’ calls for safer sex. Fierce allies also stepped up, with Madonna's "Material Girl" and Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" both becoming popular anthems, the former tune for its embrace of unapologetic femininity in the style of Marilyn Monroe and the latter for its heartfelt message of acceptance and individuality.

The 1990s can be seen as a golden era for drag. Madonna’s "Vogue" defined this decade of drag with name-checks of countless divas from Greta Garbo to Rita Hayworth, who fiercely bent their genders and remain key frames of reference for queening performances. The song also paid homage to the dance style originating from the Harlem ballroom scene, a vibrant subculture where Black and Latino LGBTQ+ individuals found a haven to express their creativity and reenergize as a community. To this day, ballroom culture in Harlem and increasingly around the globe fosters a sense of genuine belonging, offering a space where participants can compete in elaborate drag and voguing competitions.

Similarly, George Michael's "Freedom! '90" became an anthem of liberation and self-expression, resonating deeply with drag performers. Although Michael was in the closet during his time with Wham!, his eventual coming out in 1998 marked a significant moment in LGBTQ+ visibility and advocacy. His journey from secrecy to openness mirrored the broader struggle for acceptance and authenticity within the queer community. Like gay men, drag queens also became more visible in the '90s. Salt-N-Pepa's "I Am the Body Beautiful," featured in the opening sequence of the classic 1995 film "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar," was a celebration of self-love and body positivity. RuPaul's "Supermodel (You Better Work)” catapulted drag into mainstream pop culture in 1992, celebrating the glamour and fierceness of drag performance and further solidifying the decade as a golden era for drag visibility and influence.

The new millennium gathers all these different modes of drag queen anthems together, reflecting the community's roots, its growing diversity, and the global reach of our internet age. Allyship from mighty songstresses remains on the rise. Lady Gaga's "Born This Way" affirms “I’m beautiful in my way / cause God makes no mistakes. / I’m on the right track, baby, / I was born this way.” Katy Perry asserts “I kissed a girl / and I liked it” and Taylor Swift shushes homophobes by informing them “You need to calm down / You’re being too loud.” Lizzo confirms “Everybody’s Gay,” and Beyonce made a whole album about the queer "Renaissance." See also: the four albums charting the pansexual and nonbinary evolution of Janelle Monae.

Best of all, drag queens are more able than ever to do it for themselves. Since RuPaul’s “Supermodel (You Better Work)” won two Billboard Music Awards in 1993, he’s released a whopping 15 albums. Off the back of Emmy-winning machine "RuPaul’s Drag Race" and its spinoffs, Ru has helped launch the music careers of dozens of other queens. This includes groups like the Frock Destroyers. Some of the most successful include solo performers such as Alaska Thunderfuck, Monét X Change, Bob the Drag Queen, Trixie Mattel and Jinkx Monsoon. Dubbed “Queen of All Queens” thanks to her victory in the all-winners seventh season of "RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars," Jinkx has received critically acclaim for her Broadway runs in "Chicago" and "Little Shop of Horrors." In addition to two albums, "The Inevitable Album" and "The Ginger Snapped," her various takes on Judy Garland both in song and comedic impersonation circle back to the roots of drag culture, creating the ultimate bridge between past and present as Jinkx is slated to perform at Carnegie Hall on Valentine’s Day in 2025, where fans fervently hope she will perform some moments from Garland’s iconic album "Judy Live at Carnegie Hall."

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive list of all the legends on a drag queen’s lip sync playlist. Now that you’ve heard what’s historically trending, don’t be jealous of my boogie — just go find your own.

By Megan Volpert

Megan Volpert has written or edited more than a dozen books, including "Boss Broad," which won a Georgia Author of the Year Award. Her latest is "Straight Into Darkness: Tom Petty as Rock Mystic" (University of Georgia Press, 2022). She is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Kennesaw State University and a fellow at the American Institute for Philosophical and Cultural Thought.

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