Oh, god. Singing drag queens.

It happens every season, but that doesn’t make the singing challenge any easier to take. There’s a reason drag queens specialize in lip-syncing, and it’s not because their singing voices are so good that they lure men to their deaths like the sirens of myth. It’s because, for the most part, these bitches can’t sing. Each season usually has a few queens with actual vocal talent, but there’s an equal amount of contestants that think they’ve got it when they don’t, and both camps are outnumbered by those that suck behind the mic and know it.

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“Spoof!” is an auditory assault, but the challenge of creating parody music videos is one that forces the queens to stretch creative muscles that they haven’t tapped into yet. (Also one that teaches valuable skills in a social media-dominated pop culture climate where the right parody can become a surprise hit.) The queens have to rewrite one of RuPaul’s recent songs with a comic twist, record the vocals, and film a music video with choreography they devise themselves. It’s a lot to accomplish on their own, so the contestants are split into three different groups that they get to choose, a decision that firmly establishes the lines that have been drawn between factions of queens.

The main conflict brewing this season is between models and performers, and I’m inclined to side with the performer group when it comes to succeeding on this series. Having a strong fashion sense and knowing how to take a photograph are essential qualities for America’s Next Drag Superstar, but being able to hold your own on stage is what really impresses the judges. Can you commit to a character? Can you hit some notes? Can you dance to a beat? Can you tell a joke? And when it’s all on the line, can you listen to a song, find the spirit of the music, and embody it in a lip-sync? If you’re going to be an exceptional drag queen, you need to be able to answer “yes” to most, if not all, of those questions.

After a premiere that emphasized fashion above all else, it’s been nice to see the proceeding challenges focus on performance. As silly as the “Glamazonian Airways” and “Shakesqueer” challenges were, they pushed the queens to show that they could perform in a variety show or scripted program, and “Spoof!” takes them into the world of song writing and music video recording with very mixed results. It’s not a surprise that the most successful group has the most performance experience, but Team “Let The Music Play” backs up the song and dance skills with a clever parody about RuPaul’s growing empire of products, from make-up to books to candy bars. Ginger Minj (who will henceforth be referred to as Ginj) and Kennedy (“LaGuardia, Newark, Kennedy”) are the clear standouts from this quartet, but everyone is safe thanks to a strong concept and lyrics that aren’t afraid to throw shade at the hostess with the most.

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RuPaul is caught off guard by Ginj’s line about Drag U being a “rough spot,” but that bravery is what ultimately pushes this group over the top. It also helps that they have the two strongest singers in Ginj and Kennedy, who manage to hit their notes with power while still playing strong characters. Kennedy is the big surprise of the episode, bouncing back from her appearance in the bottom two last week to become tonight’s winner, and she deserves it. Her performance in the video is the most personality she’s shown all competition, proving that she can venture into more exaggerated comedy queen territory. Combine that with a striking runway look—impeccable make-up, pristine padding, spectacular hair—and you have a remarkably well-rounded contestant that could very well be a frontrunner for the top three. (Just don’t ask her to be in charge.)

The remaining two members of Team “Let The Music Play”, Kasha and Kandy, continue to be two of this season’s most uninspiring contestants. Kasha describes her style of drag perfectly with her Rihanna “S&M” parody: “Suh-suh-suh-suh burb-an-an-an.” Her style is clean and inoffensive, perfect for a group of suburban wives having a wild girls’ night out (by suburban standards), but it reads as far too safe when compared to the other queens on this show. Tonight’s runway look from Kasha is the boldest she’s done, but even then, it would be a totally standard look if not for the money signs on the dress and the dollar bill boa. There’s very little imagination in Kasha’s fashion, but she has charisma and knows how to respond when the judges critique her. When asked about her talk-singing (described by Ginj as the voice of Ethel Merman and Paul Lynde’s lovechild), Kasha says that she felt the spirit of Bea Arthur inside her and settled on that. The judges like that answer, and a good comeback can work wonders for a queen’s chances of safety.

Guest judge Jessica Alba (who is apparently on the show to shill her Honest Company of products) says that Kandy is glamour and not much else, and she nails it. But even the glamour isn’t that impressive. Her chartreuse dress with matching ombré wig is a snooze on the runway, and she has no personality when the judges talk to her. She lacks charisma, so she’s consistently fading into the background, and as much as I would like to see this show crown a Puerto Rican winner, I don’t see that happening with Kandy given her performance in these first four episodes.

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Team “Sissy That Walk” takes the easy route with its parody, but it’s a success, leading Jaidynn, Violet, and Max to safety. The group just copies the “Sissy That Walk” video from last year’s finale and throws some season 6 references into the song, but simple is a smart strategy when the queens have so much work to get done. Jaidynn is Bianca Del Rio, Violet is Adore Delano, and Max is Courtney Act, but two of those characters are a lot easier to play than the other. Bianca and Adore had these huge personalities whereas Courtney relied on that body, so Jaidynn and Violet have more to work with in their impersonations. They both impress the judges with their music video performances and striking runway looks, and even though Max is one of the weaker contestants this week, she’s far from the worst.

Michelle says that Max is trying to play the most accurate version of Courtney instead of playing a drag version of Courtney, and that’s exactly the problem. We’re starting to see Max’s head get in her way, and her dedication to a more highbrow, sophisticated type of drag prevents her from really letting loose. She doesn’t want to be vulgar or sexual in her song lyrics because everyone does that and she’s better than that. She probably doesn’t want to offend Courtney by playing her too over-the-top, but the personality won’t read unless Max pushes it to maximum volume. Everything about Max is very polished and put together, from her runway looks to her on-screen persona, but that makes her a prime candidate for the inevitable “vulnerability” critique. Who is Max behind the gray hair and haughty vocal affectation? If she doesn’t show us soon, the judges will make her.

“Tan With You” may be a lame parody, but it has more imagination than “Get Ready To Clock.” The queens at least come up with an original concept, even if the results are lyrics like, “Turn the lights on now/Melanoma ow!/I wanna tan.” The issue is that this team is a mess. Pearl and Miss Fame are butting heads, nobody supports Trixie’s ideas, and they don’t walk into the music video recording session with a clear plan. And then there’s the general lack of vocal talent. Katya can’t sing at all and is aware of this (her one and only past recording experience was a “disaster”), but she puts on a boozy skank character that is ridiculously entertaining. She’s far and away the best part of the number, with Miss Fame trailing in a distant second. Fame goes into this challenge confident because she’s a “singer,” but her vocals leave a lot to be desired. The song is out of her range, but she’s committed to hitting those notes, no matter how screechy they sound.

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Unlike Katya, Trixie and Pearl fail to make up for their lack of vocal talent with big characterizations, delivering the weakest performances of the night and landing in the bottom two for a lip-sync to Blondie’s “Dreaming.” The series’ diminished budget is really starting to show in the lip-sync song choices, which have been fairly obscure this season. We’re getting songs by Olivia Newton-John, Kylie Minogue, Blondie, but these are far from the most popular tunes by those musicians. It’s not the most riveting lip-sync, but RuPaul’s decision is a puzzling one. Despite having one of the funniest audition tapes RuPaul has ever seen and giving a lip-sync performance with a lot of energy, Trixie is asked to sashay away while Pearl stays to sleepwalk through another day.

There’s a cool sultriness to Pearl that Ru potentially sees as a stronger fit for Blondie’s song, but I don’t see her having as much potential as Trixie. I fear that Pearl’s chill, detached demeanor means that she won’t be paying much attention to the judges’ critiques because she does what she wants to do, and her saying that she feels “picked on” isn’t a good omen for her future on the series. Trixie was eager to please and had more natural vitality, and I would have loved to see her grow over the course of this season and really find her voice. But alas, Trixie Mattel has to go back in the box. Bye bye, Trixie. I liked you enough that I might actually watch your extended goodbye at the end of Untucked.

Speaking of which, Untucked sure is weird this season. Its production values deliver what you expect from a webseries sponsored by Squarespace, and while the direction tries to work around this by taking a more documentary-style approach, it still looks cheap as hell. That said, I like that the show is taking a less glamorous view of the backstage aspect. The runway is just an illusion, and the real world is a lot rougher around the edges. Unfortunately, the change in surroundings does change the drama. The queens are in a much bigger space now, where they have the room to spread out and stretch after standing on stage for god knows how long. The old Untucked lounges were smaller quarters, and like wild animals in tight spaces, the queens were more likely to attack. There’s still drama, but it’s not as tense. I don’t know if there’s any likelihood that Untucked would return to its former iteration in the future, but this new format makes it less essential viewing.

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Stray observations:

  • Huge thanks to Allison Shoemaker for filling in for me over the last two weeks while I was DVR-less in Florida. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I should be here every week for the rest of the season.
  • Michelle’s hatred of green is one of the many things Joe Reid covers in his Beginner’s Guide to RuPaul’s Drag Race over at NewNowNext, a handy primer to the series featuring .gifs of some of the show’s best moments. Give it a read and then pass it along to your friends that haven’t watched Drag Race yet.
  • Tonight’s episode looks at Kennedy’s relationship with her late sister Sahara Davenport, and it’s a touching look at how important drag families are to these queens.
  • I finally got a chance to listen to RuPaul’s new album Realness, and it’s some damn good dance music that I can’t wait to hear in a club. It also makes for solid work music when writing about Drag Race.
  • Really didn’t like that Pearl confessional where someone off-camera throws some water in her face as she pretends to sleep. Too staged, not funny.
  • I wasn’t here last week, so I’m going to say this now: Jasmine’s beard was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever seen on this show.
  • The thunderclap when Katya sissies that leg is sound editing brilliance. I can watch that moment over and over.
  • “She done already done had herses!” I’m loving the “She-Mail” replacement message. Still have no idea what it means, but it makes me laugh every time.
  • “I am RuPaul, the elusive chanteuse.”
  • “Let’s just do fuckin’ ‘Tan With You.’”
  • “Well don’t compromise your Christianity.”
  • “Three Long Island iced teas, not 10.”
  • “Well, it was one of my favorite jobs. Did change people life, you know?”
  • RuPaul: “Let’s cue the track.” Michelle: “And the snipers.” This is disturbing.
  • “Is this the first time you ever used auto tune?”
  • “I picked out the scent!” Jessica Alba in a nutshell.
  • “Fangs for the memories.”
  • Jessica: “I love the shoulder pads.” Michelle: “Those aren’t shoulder pads. Those are her shoulders.”
  • “She is serving green legs and hams.”
  • RuPaul: “It’s almost as if the road runner were a showgirl in green.” Michelle: “Meep meep!”
  • “How much did her hair have to smoke to get that high?”
  • “I look like a glamour toad and I feel like a million bucks.”
  • “Not today, satin. Not today.”
  • “Pass me the fuckin’ baby oil, bitch.”
  • Absolutely…” Ginj for the win!

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