‘Bigotry Comes From Misunderstanding’: Orville Peck and Leland Defend the Art of Drag
When Leland set out to write the music for “WigLoose,” the drag queen musical version of Footloose featured in Season 15 of RuPaul’s Drag Race, he never imagined its storyline about a city trying to ban drag would actually reflect real life.
During last week’s finale, as anti-drag legislation continues to affect red states, Leland tapped Orville Peck to join him for a rendition of “Built on Drag,” one of the songs featured in “WigLoose.” Together, they recreated “Built on Drag” as an acoustic, powerful track surrounded by all the queens, including winner Sasha Colby, from the most recent season.
“Something I’ve learned as a songwriter is that you have no clue how a song is going to be perceived when it comes out,” Leland tells Rolling Stone. “I just applaud the bravery of the local queens in all the states where this legislation is being passed. I hope that they feel our love and support through this performance, and that really is all that we are there for: to put whatever platform we have to support them.”
Peck, an openly gay country singer, knows all-too-well the sort of hate that queer people face for existing in cities like Nashville and throughout the South. He thinks it’s time for allies to start jumping in to support the art form.
“It seems unfair to be the victim of something, and also the bigger person trying to teach people and educate people,” Peck says. “I think some people get really worked up when they’re seeing somebody else just so unapologetically living their truth. I think it’s where a lot of aggression comes towards transgender people coms from: They get upset seeing somebody so bravely being themselves.”
He adds, “I think it bothers them, because they probably can’t find that within themselves.”
As part of the performance, Peck and Leland pledged their support to the ACLU’s Drag Defense Fund, which aims to defend drag performers in states where the art form is a target.
In an exclusive interview, Peck and Leland speak to Rolling Stone about putting together “Built on Drag,” what they think needs to change to create acceptance, and why the lives of drag queens are “a protest.”
Leland, what was it like to bring Orville Peck into this song for the finale?
Leland: Well, Orville is a dear friend, an incredible artist, and Orville is so unique in that he’s able to seamlessly go from culture to culture within the United States, and the throughline is that people love Orville’s music. It made sense for Orville to be a part of this.
Why’d you decide to do this, Orville?
Orville Peck: It was such an easy yes. I love Leland. We’ve worked together in the past, we’ve written together. There’s a close-knit community of LGBTQ people that work in this industry in Los Angeles. I think when we filmed the RuSical episode a year ago, I don’t think any of us could have imagined how poignant and relevant, sadly, that storyline would be when it came out. The timing was so insane. I think the song that really resonated with a lot of people was “Built on Drag,” because it’s a really touching story. Lyrically, I think it’s very relevant, not just to the drag community and the trans community that are being attacked right now, but just to all of us, anybody that’s marginalized.
What lyrics resonate most with you?
L: There’s a beautiful line in it that always stands out to me: “The kind of love we grow, can’t grow in the dark.” I think that’s such a beautiful, poignant symbol of what it means to be someone who feels marginalized or feels like they can’t be their full authentic self.
Leland, did you ever think that this song that you wrote would be so real?
L: I don’t, and I didn’t approach the writing of the song with that weight, thankfully. I was just writing this song at that moment over a year ago to serve the purpose of the Rusical, of the story that we were trying to tell without realizing how relevant it would be. Even though we’re in 2023, we’ve taken so many steps backwards as a culture. But to have this song be this connective tissue for everyone to rally behind that, that’s really wonderful.
The first drag ban was introduced in Nashville. Orville, you work in country music. What needs to happen for the country community to embrace queer people more??
OP: It’s always been a big mandate for me, of course, being an openly gay man in country. I feel like I sort of have to shout it from the rooftops all the time and try and spread awareness about it. I’ve actually brought a Nashville drag queen out on tour with me that performs in the middle of my show, Alexia Noel Paris. As a community, we always know how to come together and try to band together. But we don’t often see those allies stepping up and speaking for us and helping us.
A big plea I have at the moment is to ask people that maybe aren’t in the LGBTQIA+ community, but maybe they’re a fan of Drag Race, or maybe they’re a fan of my music, or maybe they have a gay friend, or maybe they have a trans sibling, we need those people to step up. We can’t do this alone right now.
Where do you think the hatred or fear of drag queens and trans people really comes from, and what do you think it’s going to take for that to change?
L: Ru really worded it eloquently in such a powerful way that it’s all a distraction from what our political leaders should be focusing on: healthcare, the safety of kids in schools, and gun legislation. Drag has existed forever. Drag has existed and so many cultures forever, and it also has existed through the lens of straight people doing drag. It is a complete distraction and fear not based in any reality whatsoever.
I think the hate comes from misunderstanding, and the hate comes from people telling you that you have to live your life this way, and you can’t explore, and you can’t be curious. There’s a lyric in “Built on Drag” that’s a Ru quote: “Drag only reveals who you really are.” People can feel that an agenda is being pushed on them when it’s just people existing within their line of sight. It’s just someone existing, and they can see that as an agenda being pushed.
Right. It’s just someone existing. What do you think about that, Orville?
OP: I think most bigotry comes from misunderstanding. I think some people don’t turn that into curiosity. I think they turn it into defense and aggression towards something they don’t understand, when really, if they just had a bit of curiosity towards it and they looked a little bit deeper into it, they would see the art of drag. My entire band and crew on tour, they’re all straight. As a community, we’re really welcoming to people who are even outside of our own community in spaces that are supposed to be these safe havens to us. I’ve never seen a straight person be turned away at a gay bar just because they were straight. We’re very open and welcoming and we want everyone to be there and enjoying it with us. We welcome a curiosity into our community.
L: Exactly. It also breaks my heart that someone is not able to enjoy a drag show in the way that I enjoy a drag show, that someone looks at the same thing that I’m looking at, and doesn’t see it as this opportunity to escape and something that is larger than life in a fun, irreverent way, and not be entertained. Drag has brought so much joy into my life that it breaks my heart for a person that without maybe any knowledge feels that drag is dangerous. They don’t know any better. Drag is an overflowing well of joy, and love, and acceptance, and curiosity, and entertainment, and comedy. I just wish that people could see drag in the same lens that I know Orville and I see it. It’s something so sacred, and special, and powerful — and also essential, absolutely necessary. It’s art.
Returning to the music, what was it like arranging the performance for the live finale?
L: Putting this together was just so easy. Orville and I, we really don’t lead with ego. We lead with love. Gabe Lopez, who produced the Rusical, the music for the Rusical, helped arrange and put this all together. I know that I wanted Orville to feel safe and supported and prepared. The audience really responded in a way that just made me emotional.
Is there anything you’d add?
L: I have a New Year’s party in Nashville every year, and I had two local queens perform at the privacy of my own home in Nashville. My goddaughter, who is five, was there. With the drag ban, I believe that would be illegal. The Tennessee government is saying, “This is how you should parent your children in Tennessee. This is how you should raise your children.” That is completely out of line for government to do. For every delusional thing that they point out, we can point out something within straight culture that is much more inappropriate for kids than a drag queen. Their lives are a protest, their jobs are a protest. They are so much more brave than I could ever be.
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