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How Ariana Grande’s Brand of Pop Became the Perfect Soundtrack for RuPaul’s Drag Race

Grande's music has scored some of the best and most infamous moments of the reality competition series.
  • A defeated Valentina, after failing to lip sync Ariana Grande's "Greedy" (Photo: ViacomCBS)
    A defeated Valentina, after failing to lip sync Ariana Grande's "Greedy" (Photo: ViacomCBS)

    On January 6, RuPaul’s Drag Race hits the pavement for its 15th season with its largest cast in herstory, a new home on MTV, and special returning guest judge Ariana Grande. As one of the most lip synced artists, behind only Britney Spears and RuPaul herself, Grande is intertwined with the show. Drag Race and Grande became juggernauts of pop culture around the same time, creating a special alchemy of music, drag, and pop stardom. Over the years, Grande’s music has become a fixture in the franchise, providing the soundtrack for some of the series' most memorable moments. 

    Grande made a double debut on the sixth episode of Season 7 as a guest judge and featured artist of the lip sync for your life; her first album was released after Season 5 had aired and Season 6 had completed filming. Season 7 season proved ideal for Grande’s first appearance: Both she and Drag Race were on the rise in the zeitgeist. The competition show became exponentially more popular with each installment, all while Grande was transitioning from goofy Disney channel sidekick to pop siren.
    Despite these parallel trajectories, Season 7, through no fault of Grande or the cast, is not a highly regarded season of Drag Race. The issue with the season overall is the production’s overinvestment in a narrative arc that pitted “young” and “old” queens against each other. The season revolved around tensions between younger, less-experienced queens, like Miss Fame and Violet Chachki, who valued social media and high fashion aesthetics, and more seasoned queens, like Ginger Minj and Kennedy Davenport, who prized traditions of live performance, camp, and pageantry.
    Representative of a new generation of pop star, Grande found herself in a similar nexus between traditional and innovative performance. Fighting against the stigma of the Disney Channel pop princess pipeline, Grande had to distinguish herself from her contemporaries and predecessors. Unlike Janet Jackson, Beyoncé, or Britney Spears, Grande did not (and some might say still does not) have the most kinetic live performances — Rihanna was seemingly caught laughing at Grande’s performance at the 2014 iHeartRadio Music Awards. While her live performances lack a certain “it” factor, few would argue with the quality of Grande’s voice, which falls somewhere between the likes of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Grande — who reportedly possesses a vocal range of four octaves and a whole step, despite no formal training — can certainly sing.
    The emphasis on “old” vs. “young” that dominates Season 7 was evident at the start of the  sixth episode as Kandy Ho, having just survived her second lip sync for her life, boasted about ousting the two eldest queens in the competition: Tempest DuJour and Mrs. Kasha Davis. By the end of the episode, Kandy Ho found herself in the bottom two with a contemporary, Jaiden Diore Fierce, making her narrative purpose as the defeater of the “old” null and void.

    Before the lip sync commenced, Grande distinguished herself as an engaging and attentive judge. From her fawning reaction to Violet Chachki’s waistline on the runway to pushing back against Michelle Visage’s critique of Max’s predictable gray hair color, Grande was alive on the panel. Her knowing comments about the branding power of a consistent hairstyle or admitting she would try gray hair as long as it was in a ponytail were delightfully self-aware.

    The lip sync itself, set to Grande’s “Break Free” featuring Zedd, was terrific. Kandy Ho and Jaiden Diore Fierce gave it their all. They were evenly matched, but Kandy Ho had already lip synced twice in the season, giving Jaiden Diore Fierce the advantage of freshness. Grande, who had tears of joy in her eyes watching the queens perform, provided the extra energy that comes from having featured artists present for the lip sync, such as when Natalie Cole witnessed Dida Ritz’s performance of “This Will Be (An Everlasting Love).”
    If Season 7 was an introduction, Season 9 cemented Grande as part of Drag Race by creating one of the franchise’s most infamous moments when contestants Valentina and Nina Bonina Brown performed “Greedy.” Their matchup was destined on a micro and macro level. Having worked together unsuccessfully to produce a television pilot which found them both equally unprepared, their bottom two placements felt completely fair. On a broader level, the two queens appeared to be two sides of the same self-deluded coin: Valentina, a young queen from Los Angeles, had unyielding confidence that sometimes bordered on delusions of grandeur, and perfectly contrasted Atlanta-based Nina Bonina Brown’s intense case of imposter syndrome which manifested itself in paranoia that the other queens were working against her. Their lip sync felt preordained.

    However, the real drama unfolded after the lip sync started. As Nina moved across the stage, Valentina remained somewhat stationary and caused confusion among the judges. As Grande’s song played, the judges questioned the face mask that Valentina was wearing. The Club Kid runway directive resulted in many of the queens wearing masks, facial prosthetics, or extreme make-up. For the first time, RuPaul stopped a lip sync and demanded that she remove the face mask, arguing “This is a lip sync for your life and we need to see your lips. Take that thing off your mouth.” Sheepishly, Valentina countered, “I’d like to keep it on,” but ultimately complied. 

    As “Greedy” started back up and the queens resumed their performances, Shea Coulee proclaimed “Oh! She [Valentina] doesn’t know the words.” Nina Bonina Brown was declared the victor in one of the most shocking eliminations on Drag Race. The ending was rife with emotion when RuPaul twisted the proverbial knife, saying “I thought you had the stuff to go all the way,” while Valentina lamented about wanting to disappear.
    After that infamous Season 9 lip sync, Grande’s music was elevated to a lip sync for the crown in the Season 10 finale between Kameron Michaels, Eureka O’Hara, and Aquaria. In a strange “coincidence,” the first three-way lip sync for the crown was to “Bang Bang” featuring three vocal artists: Jesse J, Nicki Minaj, and Grande. The first lip sync for your life of Season 12 featured  Grande’s “Problem” (with Iggy Azalea) as Nicky Doll, who won while performing to the judges, and Dahlia Sin, who lost performing, oddly, directly to the camera. The very next season saw Utica and Symone battle to Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” with Symone going on to win the crown. Grande was also represented in All Stars 5 when Miz Cracker and lip sync assassin Roxxxy Andrews performed “One Last Time.” 
    Any survey of Grande’s sonic contribution to Drag Race would be remiss not to examine the All Stars 4 lip sync between Monét X Change and Valentina. Ultimately, All Stars is about redemption (or “Ru-demption”), when queens are given another chance to take the crown they did not win in their original season. In the second episode of All Stars 4, Valentina is given the ultimate redemption arc following her scandalous Season 9 elimination.

    The episode is perfectly built around Valentina. She is shown to have repaired her relationship with Farrah Moan after Farrah accused Valentina of ignoring her. At the end of the episode, when Valentina is given the power to eliminate a contestant, she does not let that friendship sway her decision. She justly eliminates Farrah Moan, who was clearly a weaker competitor in the first and second episodes of the season. More importantly, Valentina excels in the girl group challenge by paying homage to her late idol Selena Quintanilla, who, as an American Tejano pop star, remains an inspiration and representation of the potential of Mexican-American stardom. 

    This all builds to the stirring conclusion of the episode, when Valentina is able to lip sync for her legacy against Monét X Change. The song for the lip sync is by none other than Ariana Grande. Valentina is aware of the moment’s gravity when she declares “I now have the opportunity to completely redeem myself with an Ariana Grande song.” Valentina’s journey with Drag Race and Ariana Grande has come full circle. As the two queens perform to Grande’s “Into You,” a drag staple, Monét X Change is a competent adversary, but this proves to be Valentina’s show. Her performance is akin to possession — toward the end, the camera captures RuPaul’s eyes as they lock on Valentina, her mouth hanging open in astonishment. It’s a perfectly constructed moment of reality television, and it’s scored by Ariana Grande. This is Drag Race at its best.

    RuPaul's Drag Race Season 15 premieres January 6 at 8:00 PM ET on MTV. Join the discussion about the show in our forums

    Trae DeLellis is a freelance culture writer whose work has appeared in the Miami New Times, Yahoo Entertainment, The A.V. Club, and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

    TOPICS: RuPaul’s Drag Race, RuPaul’s Drag Race: All Stars, Ariana Grande, Monét X Change, Nina Bonina Brown, Valentina