Once a field that the wider world saw as beginning and ending with RuPaul, drag music has steadily grown in currency thanks in large part to the runaway success of the aforementioned queen’s reality series, RuPaul’s Drag Race. Since 2009, the show has pushed drag into the spotlight, with competitors cultivating dedicated fan bases regardless of whether they take the crown.
The show’s explosion has helped numerous Drag Race alumni jump start musical careers, with many of them even hitting Billboard charts. But can mainstream acceptance risk boxing in this historic part of LGBTQ+ culture, limiting music from drag performers to the realm of ‘dancefloor fierceness’?
Enter L.A. singer-songwriter Gess.
Hitting the R&B scene in 2018 with the single “Spilled Milk” and his acclaimed EP Plastic City, Gess’ dark, atmospheric beats make every song he creates feel as if it ends too soon, transporting the listener into a detailed soundscape of his painting. This knack for production led him to RuPaul’s Drag Race alumnus Shea Couleé, with whom he’s become a frequent collaborator.
Using music as his self-proclaimed shoulder to cry on, Gess worked with Couleé to craft “Gasoline” and “Rewind,” exposing a new side of Couleé – and in the process, bringing a rare level of intimacy and vulnerability not often heard in the punchy dancefloor numbers most queens deliver.
“I feel like the way that it has started already with Shea Couleé was I write a song for her as I would write for myself and then I go from there. I write a beat and usually before the beat is done my brain starts giving me melodies… not to sound all spiritual but I really do believe my ideas come from somewhere else and I’m an antenna.”
With clarity and honesty, relatable tracks like “Rewind” and “Clouds” instantly connect with the listener, fueled by Couleé’s desire to reveal their layers and Gess’ own urge to peel back the veneer of disco-tinged invincibility that drag music often amplifies.
“I mean no shade, but music that is put into the category that is almost looked down on because…it’s meant to be carefree and feel good, it doesn’t really go deep. So I was just like, ‘Wait — some of you can sing and you have these amazing onstage personas. Why not have some musical knowledge to make a song that could potentially go into the charts?’ Like, how crazy would that be?”
Of course, disco invincibility has its benefits: for some queens, the art of drag serves as a shield, protecting and strengthening them in a society that fails the community. Music can help them create a stronger, more explosive version of themselves. But through making songs that are vulnerable, Gess believes it can become an avenue of self-exploration, too, and allow fans to see the human underneath the glitz and glam.
“I do think that if someone came out with a song that could stand next to someone like Ariana Grande’s…people would start to look at some of the queens differently. Not that I’m saying that’s right or wrong — they’re so talented even if they’re not releasing top 40 music — but I do think a whole new industry could look at them differently,” he says. “Almost unintentionally someone might hear the song and not realize it’s by a drag queen, say if it appears on their Spotify Discover Weekly.”
Part of his drive to help drag music evolve originates from a hope that this form of musical expression will reach wider audiences. If not, Gess worries that drag music could find itself in a box with a shelf life. “There’s a ceiling,” he notes of the current state of affairs.
In the meantime, Gess has more than enough on his plate, with collaborations on the horizon and hopes of producing an EP later this year. Plus, Gess’ recently dropped “Darkside” gave him a strong start to the year; released late January, the artist used the song as an opportunity to experiment with his sound and mold his voice differently: “That’s really exciting…I used my voice in a way that I don’t think I’ve used before.”
Through careful songcraft and high level of discipline, Gess hopes drag music can assist cementing this culture in the eyes of a global industry, reaching new audiences and lifting up the LGBTQ+ community.