In 2008, up-and-coming television producer Tom Campbell couldn’t stop thinking about telenovelas. Sitting at a table with Randy Barbato and Fenton Bailey, the co-founders of production company World of Wonder, he was specifically thinking about ¡Viva Hollywood!, a short-lived VH1 reality competition he made with the pair show revolving around aspiring telenovela stars. Contestants were eliminated in what was called “El Duelo,” two simultaneous, competitive death scenes between the aspiring over-actors. “It was literally life and death stakes,” Campbell says.
There was a reason “El Duelo” came to his mind — Campbell, Barbato and Bailey were pitching international drag superstar RuPaul Charles ideas for a prospective reality competition show, and wanted to find a similarly high-stakes elimination structure that made sense for a group of drag queens. “We’re sitting at this table, going, ‘Well, what do drag queens do? I guess they lip sync?'” he recalls. “I think I was the one who said, ‘They don’t just lip sync. They lip sync for their life!'”
Fourteen years after that conversation, RuPaul’s Drag Race has become a pop culture behemoth, including a whopping 56 Emmy nominations and 24 wins over the last decade. The show’s most iconic format, the Campbell-coined Lip Sync For Your Life, has created some of the most jaw-dropping moments in reality television; it’s also created an unprecedented platform for musical artists, both established and emerging, to reach a new audience.
As Drag Race has gained massive mainstream popularity — with an average weekly viewership of 609,000 tuning in to its 14th season earlier this year — songs featured in the show’s high-octane performance segment have seen impressive bumps to their streaming numbers following their appearance. According to data collected by Luminate, songs featured in Drag Race lip syncs see a 138% increase in streaming the week that each performance airs, on average.
How do the songs get chosen for each episode’s lip syncs? Campbell — who now serves as an executive producer of Drag Race — credits the show’s music supervision and production teams, made up of “queer people who are obsessed with pop music and pop culture,” who compile a list of tracks they’d like to see featured on the show.
But ultimately, he says, RuPaul gets final say on which songs appear. “He will reject songs because they’re the wrong tempo, they don’t build, there’s all of these factors he’s thinking about,” he says. “Back in the iPod days, when RuPaul gave you an iPod that he had loaded with music, it was a gift from god. He is truly a PhD in pop culture, especially when it comes to music.”
It wasn’t always easy going for the production team — back on the show’s nascent seasons, constantly on “the very cusp of being cancelled,” the producers were constantly pursuing licensing agreements that they could barely afford. “We were this little show that nobody knew, we were trying to get clearances, and it was really tough,” he recalls.
Today, thanks to the show’s dominance, the Drag Race team is no longer chasing deals — rather, they’re often the ones being chased. “The number of artists and labels that approach us has grown to a weekly cadence,” says Rochelle Holguin Cappello, Paramount Global’s svp of creative music strategy. “The pitches include A-list artists just as frequently as emerging acts. We’ve been told so many times that it would be an artist’s dream to have their music performed on the show.”
The most frequently-synced artists on Drag Race (aside, of course, from RuPaul) feature a mix of legacy acts and modern pop stars, with Britney Spears, Ariana Grande, Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston occupying some of the top spots. While artists like Grande and Spears have certainly benefitted from having their songs featured on the show, data shows that acts like Houston may get more bang for their buck.
Take, for example, the finale episode of the show’s ninth season — when Sasha Velour and Shea Couleé faced-off in their bombastic lip sync to Houston’s “So Emotional,” the song’s streams jumped by 510% across all streaming platforms the following week. The Thunderpuss remix of Houston’s “It’s Not Right But It’s Okay” featured in the same episode also saw a 190% increase in streams.
Jessica Shaw, svp of sync licensing at Sony Music Entertainment, says that seeing these kinds of gains for the late artist is “exciting,” mainly because her music is suddenly being appreciated by a new audience. “It’s giving the song a new audience that we cannot replicate without their platform,” she says. “It’s always great to see new life given to songs that people might otherwise not have a reason or way to discover that easily.”
Houston is far from the only classic artist seeing massive gains thanks to Drag Race— in March, Diana Ross’s “Swept Away” rocketed by 2,809% in streaming according to Luminate, gaining over 100,000 new streams following a lip sync on season 14. Crystal Waters’ “100% Pure Love” reached a career-high on Billboard’s Dance/Electronic Digital Song Sales chart following a raucous season 13 lip sync in February 2021. Dolly Parton’s “Baby I’m Burning” leaped 2,118% in on-demand stream back in 2017 after a neck-and-neck lip sync on season 9.
Not all of these gains are quite as massive — in 2022, vintage tracks featured on All Stars 7 saw more mild gains. Dolly Parton’s “Why’d You Come In Here Lookin’ Like That” boosted by 94,000 streams in June, resulting in a 60.4% increase for the song following a hilarious lip sync between The Vivienne and Yvie Oddly. That same month, Eurymtics & Aretha Franklin’s burning “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves” received 27,000 new streams, giving the song a 57.2% increase from the week prior after a finale lip sync between Raja and Yvie Oddly. (These streaming numbers include user-generated content, which are no longer included in Billboard’s chart calculations.)
Part of what makes the lip-sync format so effective for providing consistent boosts to artists’ music, Shaw points out, is the prominence of the song itself — songs aren’t being used to fill the background of a scene, they’re actively driving the competition. “It’s very much being creatively driven by the contestants on the show,” she says.
Campbell agrees. “With every aspect of Drag Race, the queens are what make the show,” he says. “We plan and produce, yet the best, most memorable things are what’s not planned and what’s not produced.”
As for the future of the show, there are still occasional challenges the team struggles with — Capello says that the growing popularity of the show necessitates reaching out to more than just major labels and large-scale catalog owners, and doing so on an ever-protracting timeline. “The clearance turnaround time is probably the most difficult [part of the job],” she explains. “It’s key for us to deliver a firm answer to the producers about what music the talent can and cannot perform during the season. Our team has an amazing track record… but it’s stressful in moments.”
The success of the lip sync format also doesn’t mean that innovation is impossible. On the latest all-winners season of Drag Race All Stars, the show featured its very first spoken-word lip sync, set to an infamous scene from the ahead-of-its-time 1986 sitcom Designing Women. For Campbell, whether it’s featuring a 36-year-old television clip, or an even older recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing “Old McDonald,” it’s all about giving the younger generation of queer viewers a sense of history.
“I don’t have children, and I’m not going to have children, but that’s part of what this show does; it’s passing down these generational moments,” he says. “The queens come together in this safe, queer space to teach us, and then we take that and try to teach the children.”