Influenced: Dogs in Ecstasy's Molly Rosenblum on the Subversive Brilliance of RuPaul
In Influenced, we talk to Milwaukee musicians about the artists that shaped and inspired them, both as performers and listeners.
Molly Rosenblum is one third of Dogs in Ecstasy, a noisy synth punk outfit featuring members of the beloved but sadly defunct Doombuggy. She opted to speak with us about one of the more unexpected subjects of this feature thus far: the world's most famous drag queen, the one and only RuPaul. In our conversation, Rosenblum shared her respect for RuPaul's branding strategy and self-made empire, which has left a mark on music, television and beyond.
RuPaul is an interesting figure to choose, considering the multi-faceted nature of her career. With that in mind, how were you introduced to her?
It was actually a momentous moment of my life. I was 8 years old on the island of Maui on vacation with my parents. So we’re at the airport and we see these two drop dead gorgeous drag queens. Fully made up, just absolutely gorgeous. I remember turning to my mom just being like, “What is that? That is so cool!” and my mom being my mom explained it to me. So anyway, we’re at the hotel, and being that I was only 8, I responded differently to jetlag than the rest of my family, so I was wide awake. This was also my first time ever having access to cable TV, and I happened upon a marathon of “The RuPaul Show” on VH1 and I was just enamored.
I’ve always been attracted to things that are subversive and countercultures and stuff, so even then I thought it was really cool. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. The theatricality of it, the showmanship, I just found it to be really enticing. So I’ve pretty much been a fan ever since.
So when did you become familiar with her music?
The interesting thing about RuPaul as a musician is that she’s done a few different things. She started out playing in Atlanta in the early ’80s with this No Wave band called Wee Wee Pole. From what I can tell they never released much of anything, but there’s a small amount of public access video that exists of them and it’s absolutely fantastic.
The music she’s most well known for is the dance music she started making in the early ’90s. I’ve always been a fan of club hits [laughs]. It’s undeniable euphoria, why deny it? I think during my “angsty teen” period I was too cool for that kind of thing, but once I got older I just became comfortable with liking whatever I liked. So once I started watching “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” I got into some of her more recent records. Then I heard Wee Wee Pole and it was just like “wow, just when I thought I couldn’t love her anymore…” But music is just a small part of what RuPaul is, which is a brand.
I work in the advertising and branding industry, and one of the things that has truly blown my mind about the success of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” are the branding techniques she uses. It would be completely cheesy if anyone else did it. She plays with it, though. This is our culture and you can either play to it or attempt to ignore it, which probably won’t work out too well for you.
I don’t know how she can pull it off, but I think it has to do with the subversive nature of her as a mainstream entity. She’ll call out the hashtags that the followers are supposed to put on Twitter, which are often really vulgar, but people do it. And in doing that she has, to use business-speak, created the ultimate tribe. Every single episode of “Drag Race” features her music seamlessly integrated into it. Everything she does is completely stylized to fit her brand.
With Dogs in Ecstasy we tend to play with that concept a lot. I think branding yourself as a musician is super important. The way that she does it is obviously very in your face, but every successful musician has done it. Bruce Springsteen is a brand, The Rolling Stones are a brand. The two worlds merge in more ways than one. It’s all branding and you’re completely lying to yourself if you don’t think that is true. Or you’re just 15 in a basement and don’t know any better.
So when you look at RuPaul, you don’t see her as simply one thing, be it a musician or otherwise?
Yeah, exactly. She came to prominence as RuPaul, and I think everyone pretty much accepted that she was going to do whatever she wanted. It’s all different shapes of performance art—whether its musicianship, authorship or reality TV—and it’s all part of her empire. She’s a cultural icon who just so happens to pump out some pretty solid club hits.
I interviewed Michael Gira from Swans a few years ago and he got upset with me referring to No Wave as being confrontational. Do you think it’s confrontational?
Definitely at its inception but not so much today, especially with Internet culture and how accessible everything is.
Do you think what RuPaul has done since then could be considered an extension of that?
Absolutely, 100% without a doubt. Whether you look at what she was doing in Atlanta in the early ’80s or what she ended up doing later on as a performer, she’s always been very subversive and confrontational. If you stop to think about what RuPaul does now as a performer and that scale that she does it on, it’s no less subversive than the music she was making 30 years ago. What’s more punk than being a mainstream drag queen? You’re completely fucking with the system. I think it’s a completely natural progression from those roots, it’s just not a progression that you see very often. That’s one of the things that interest me the most about her.
I personally think that it’s a huge triumph for not only drag queens but also for anyone who grew up weird. She has created an empire. The difference is that she has made mainstream culture her own. With Wee Wee Pole she was coming at it from the outside, whereas now, she’s like “I get mainstream culture, and I’m going to make it into camp.” In terms of brand following and brand equity and all that, she’s using that to its utmost degree by doing it, even if she’s making fun of it in the process.
I previously referred to Metallica as being synonymous with the entire heavy metal genre. Do you think RuPaul is to drag what they are to metal?
Yeah, in the sense that she’s the most widely known drag queen, but she’s also the only one on that level. RuPaul represents what is referred to as mainstream drag, but by saying that she’s synonymous with the entire drag community would be to ignore so many of the other sub-stratum of drag, She’s definitely the biggest name in the world of mainstream drag. That counterculture has definitely become part of the mainstream due in no small part to the contributions of RuPaul.
RuPaul has enjoyed success for more than two decades now. How do you think that she’s made this possible?
She just knows how to stay relevant. On one hand she is the master of social media and branding, completely polished with no cracks in her facade, right? But she also has a firm grasp on counterculture, whether its drag or hip hop or whatever. She’s kept that connection with the countercultural community that she came from. That balance, that’s the only way to stay relevant. She understands the landscape and maximizes it to her own advantage.
I think I can safely say that you are likely the largest RuPaul fan I’ve ever encountered.
If anyone wants to host a “RuPaul’s Drag Race” trivia night, they should invite me. I’d love to participate in one of these, but I don’t want to host it because I would like to win [laughs].
Dogs in Ecstasy’s recently released single “I Google Myself/I’m A Man” is available for free streaming via Bandcamp. They perform at the Cactus Club on March 28 with Purling Hiss, Technicolor Teeth and Platinum Boys.