In all of my years of drag kinging I never thought of it as a sound practice. Lip syncing, after all, is a central trade mark of drag. So you could say that at the core of drag exists an absence of sound — or at least a signifier of sound as a hollowed out form. Functionally however, lip syncing is one of the key apparatuses that allows exaggeration and the all-out, no holds barred expression that makes drag the enthralling, subversive act of joy and gender transgression that it often is.
The act of lip syncing actually performs an exaggeration of sound — the fact that drag performers aren’t actually singing allows them to create a hyper-sonic display. Mouths, bodies, movement all gesture to songs as something even grander, bigger, more outlandish than the OG.
Historically, what has been so radical about drag is the gender spectrum we have allowed ourselves to embody publicly. It is the body, not the vocals, that amplify sound— and in that hyper-performance of sound our bodies become more sonorous. Something deep down in or something far off out of reach comes through us. So lip syncing is a channel and, in dragging the absence of sound through us, it’s like we tug a line that brings out some power or tenderness we needed to access.
The lip syncing version of drag is on a scale of meta-supra-pata-sound.
If the sound byte of drag queens is shantay you stay, what is the sound byte of drag kings? Tune into mainstream stations for the former and underground radio for the latter. My current project on post-drag calls upon a whole other sound board.
With the rise of Rupaul’s industrial drag queendom, societal perception of drag is assigned even further to the realm of queenness and for the most part cis men performing as women. Meanwhile the notion of a drag kinging remains in the side alleys of most people’s minds. Despite an equally long and global history of drag kings and an electric, galvanized movement of kinging in the 2000’s, Rupaul is the pop sound track of drag. Just go to the Shantay You Stay online gift shop for some super-pop-drag, so pop you can taste the sugar.
Sashay Shantay! Shantay You Slay. Sashay Away. Drag has become a household name. The play of drag permeating the air waves of America signals shifts that make me want to lip sync throwing up in a toilet just a little bit. How, then, do we celebrate progress with an extra sashay in our step while also uttering a collective cry about a transgressive queer art form once the sole space of gender warriors’ survival getting boiled down to consumable, commodified bits.
With all of the subversion enacted through the history of drag, the score of drag is generally centered on and within the singular unit of a song. I find pleasure in the push and pull of this. The rawness and electricity of bodies pushing against binary constraints of gender gets amplified by the sonic container of a classic pop form. The most complex of human stories compress down — and yet expand to some universal — within this temporal constraint.
In performing as a drag king on the international circuit of the 2000’s, I experienced and witnessed how the power of a song created a booming kingdom. The compression of a three to four minute song elicited a kind of thundering power: whether polished or gritty, cooked or raw, drag king acts offered resounding embodied messages through the volume a song holds. And if the sound system at a show faltered, it was like air whistling out of a robust balloon. The electronic break of a song ruptured the kingly form.
Drag kings and queens saunter, strut and slide to a sonic boom.
In the years since I performed as a drag king on stages across the U.S., the visibility and representation in the spectrum trans and gender non conforming folks has expanded like a multi sonar field.
We perform a glitch in society — on a daily basis, the optics and sonics of our existences out in public illicit everything from a mild skip to a wild glitch in the system. This is true even within the form of drag.
If there is a mother-father board of drag, how would the post-drag board operate — as a nonbinary, parentless operating system?
I am calling forward a concept of post-drag — a space for the out-of-sync performance, the public decentering act of our daily lives as gender nonconforming people.
Post-drag is an interstitial score. Gaps and skips and pauses broadcast out from bodies that don’t match up with the binary codes of our world or even the classic female-to-male or male-to-female form of drag. Trans and nonbinary bodies are the the scratch, the skip, the glitch.
We are the transmixed tape performing an evolutionary de-syncing of bodies and voice and culture. We are the gaps. We are the seismic glitch to society’s binary score on loop, even when that loop seems endless to even those of us beat-breaking that loop.
This spring, I launched a new project, A Post-Drag Multiverse, with my new performance ethos/platform Qosmos. The three performances at the launch party at a home in Silverlake all played with sounds and bodies in ways that decentered the hermetically sealed unit of the pop song and offered up versions of what I see as post-drag.
Thinh Nguyen and their superego Long Long ascended slowly from a long staircase with a small karaoke machine in tow. The soundtrack of Thinh/Long Long’s original song rang tinny and flat, and they sang the one line “I just want to be loved” on repeat. The portable lofi sound created a playful, awkward distance in the track as Long Long wove through the audience and lingered with certain people, singing the song — sometimes directly into someone’s ear, sometimes saddling up to a few people, and several times calling out to the audience to join in.
If you were to do a sonic trace of Long Long’s delivery of the song, it would be a windy topography of waves and weaves, with pauses and the lyrics on loop as a circular overlay. More than a serenade to someone or the audience as a whole, the song was like a vulnerable request placed in people’s laps. At one point, breaking from their more plaintive song-call, Long Long blurted out to the audience to sing louder. Repeated over and over, I just want to be loved became a sonic mantra that just wouldn’t quit us. The vulnerability of a nonbinary human asking us, on repeat, to also say/sing this line out loud, as a faltering, collective chorus with a tinny karaoke machine, left a voice cracking with realness and ringing on loop in our ears for days after.
As gender nonconforming and trans people, we often live at variegated distances from the voice or body we were born with. Drag is a form that allows us to sing without singing. A form where we can stitch together an embodied voice from disembodied songs. A form where we can feel the body we believe and know is ours, without looking.
We live in a time-space warp that we are constantly navigating and adjusting ourselves to. There is joy and struggle in this daily act. And drag is a form, born from and within a collective root of pain and freedom, a matrix that for many of us is inexorably linked.
When Estela Sanchez’s performance started, there was just a song without a body. Everyone looked for the performer — an unsteady collective gaze darted around, looking for it’s object. What they found was a large stuffed bear bobbing about as someone on the couch shook this stuffie-puppet head. The delay between the entrance cue of the song and body left the audience in a curious echo chamber. As Estela’s movements became more dramatic to the rhythms of the song, the gaze of the audience, the song, and the hybrid bear-body aligned as a unified field from disjunctive corners of a strange qosmosphere. The performance escalated as Estela stepped off of the back of the couch and danced barefoot on the floor, delivering a hilarious, enthralling, electrifying act. As the white fluffy bear with a pink bowtie thrashed, Estela, in a classic drag king move (one of my personal favorites), unzipped their fly and drew out silver mylar strips. More and more mylar was mined from a seemingly infinite qosmic qrotch.
Estela’s performance was a sound track on a time-space-skip-delay — this gap was a lay up for the sonic boom when their body synced up with the song. A distinct pleasure occurs when sound and bodies sync up, and it was as if Estela created a post-drag time lapse that amplified the classic stage synchronicity of bodies and sounds in alignment.
We find our bodies as a sound form through layers and fragments, and in the gaps between. We are more sound in our bodies, in the skip of a beat between forms. We are made of interstices.
When I performed my post-drag entity Qosmos at the launch, I created a multi-party call center to invoke the Post-Drag Multiverse. With a series of analogue phones attached to my body, I gave out phones to the audience activating a de-centered party line. I told the audience I needed their help to call out to the Multiverse — that I need more than my singular voice to make the call. For my gender(s) and for an era that is so urgent for many marginalized bodies, we can’t exist as a solo operation. A singular line out is no longer enough, we need a multi-party chorus line.
My voice and performance as a whole was a series of fragments and layers. Rather than a singular song, I used fragments of three different pop songs that played between a poetic text and a call and response with the audience. Since I stopped performing as a drag king as one of my primary forms in 2011, I started playing with sound as a series of sampling and loops that decenter a singular song and create gender performance as a mixed tape. Rather than a singular song or a singular spoken text, I create a narrative or concept through layering samples of different songs that patchwork an arc through fragments. This sound practice matches my ongoing mixed metaphor of nonbinary transgender(s). From this play with decentering the unit of a singular song from drag form evolved my fixation with the concept of post-drag as a form that can represent the more dis-unified field of non-conforming gender expansion.
I sing an elongated, dispersed, scratch and skip, pop and boom sonic field.
For centuries, drag has been a transformative queer space for multiple expressions and representations of identities that need more air time.
Post-drag is an anti-form for our current times: a phenomenon with space for multiplying forms and for breaks in those forms — and even more, where the skips and fragments and gaps are as much of a form as the form itself.
We are daily public acts of performing cultural skips in society’s EP. We are interstitial sound bit bodies. Post-drag amplifies our lives as sound bytes and skips and fragments as a larger score of decentered sound forms.
Our bodies are the language. They speak volumes and tomes. We travel at the speed of un-sound sound.
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