I’m doing some background work on an update to my
dragracer package and, with it, some updated 🔥 takes on my RuPaul’s Drag Race post from last year. I was starting to riff on Jackie Cox, and what I liked so much about her as a performer. I decided to make it a separate post since it needed it.
Basically, I think Jackie Cox’s “Firework” lip-sync might be the strongest visual performance by any queen since Sasha Velour’s legendary semifinal lip-sync. It might be the strongest non-finale lip-sync in the show’s history, and the most well-designed lip-sync performance (in that subset) since Latrice’s lip-sync to Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman.” That seems bold— I deal exclusively in 🔥 takes for the show after all—but I’ll explain.
First, watch it.
Jackie’s approach to lip-syncs stands in contrast to what I think many of the show’s fans expect, and probably what many of the performers themselves expect. Performers like Alyssa Edwards and Aja (to name just two) have elevated the athleticism of the Drag Race lip-sync. Performers like Sasha Velour and Yvie Oddly (to name just two) have elevated the theatrics and, for lack of better term right now, the “moving pieces” that go into a lip-sync. Performers have tried to keep pace as a result. Many (most?) performers on recent seasons can do splits or cartwheels during a performance. At advanced stages of the competition, most now feel compelled to do a reveal. Roxxxy Andrews may have started that or elevated it (at least for the wig reveal). Sasha Velour mastered it. Sometimes it goes great in recent seasons (e.g. Yvie Oddly’s flexibility to the backward head reveal). Sometimes it’s poorly designed and poorly executed (gestures wildly at Asia O’Hara and Silky Nutmeg Ganache). But it’s always there. It’s expected.
Enter Jackie Cox. Jackie Cox is neither an athletic queen, nor necessarily one for reveals. I think the edits during this season suggested she’s not much the dancer either, though that’s not really my call to make. She’s a “camp queen” (that’d be my rudimentary classification), and she’s great at it.1 Her “Firework” lip-sync was also in the middle of the season, precluding time and preparation for a fancy reveal. Yet creativity is born from limitations. Given these limitations, Jackie’s go-to seems to be to read the lyrics and tell a story around it. I think she said as much (in as many words) explaining how she prepared for the “Kill the Lights” lip-sync against Heidi. At the end of the day, that seems kind of trivial. Every lip-sync—every artistic performance—is some form of story-telling, and yet I think that’s been kind of lost in recent seasons amid increased expectations for athleticism and reveals. The lip-syncs don’t have to be bad; that’s obviously not the case. But they do often feel ad-libbed. They’re almost never the cogent story that Jackie prefers to tell.
The story that Jackie told is of a young Muslim girl in full Americanized hijab and abaya, who stands out as alien no matter her efforts to “fit in” and feel part of her community. It begins with her doing “kid stuff”, literally playing off the lyrics by kicking around a plastic bag. A young Muslim girl (presumably an immigrant as well), played by a young immigrant gay man of clear Iranian heritage, drifting through the wind… wanting to start again. It’s already a strong start, and I think a great preview of what’s to come with this lip-sync. The first thing we, the audience, see (suspending disbelief that it’s a drag performer) is a young girl doing young girl things in America. We, the adult audience, see the distinctions and understand why she feels the way she does, and how that conforms to the first few lines of “Firework.”2 We know a hijab-wearing Muslim girl in the United States is a minority and member of an out-group subject to persecution on multiple fronts.
Jackie, as that young girl, doesn’t quite know the reason why. She’s too young to understand the politics of it, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t feels it. Yet, she’s a young girl, doing a decidedly young girl thing. She’s acting out the lyrics of a pop song she likes, as no doubt plenty of American kids do. It’s a luxury of American life for kids of all walks the extent to which the U.S. is a rich country. She runs around her bedroom (the plausible setting here), literally acting out lyrics of feeling “paper-thin”, or as a house of cards caving in, or “feeling buried deep.” What Jackie acts out is the basic theme of the song, but from a perspective we, the audience, don’t typically consider. After all, Muslims are about 1.1% of the United States and the percentage of people from the Middle East and North Africa separating out Israeli Jews, Armenians, Greek Cypriots, and Maronite Christians from Lebanon has to be less than 1% of the population as well. But there’s a spark in that young girl same as there is anyone. She just needs to ignite the light, let it shine, and own the night. Just like the Fourth of July and plausible national holiday setting for why this young girl would be wearing a full stars and stripes hijab and abaya in the first place. Jackie, the young girl, realizes this come the first chorus and embraces it. She takes heed of the message of the sing and feels empowered by it. Kid stuff, to be sure, but it has a message and it’s going somewhere.
Just past the midway point of this three-minute (condensed for TV) peformance and it’s clear this is among the most unique performances in the show’s history. It’s a rare moment in the show (and probably the first since Sasha Velour) where you feel like you’re watching a great moment unfold in real-time. It’s made better by the fact it never deviates from the message it wants to tell. It is not “athletic” because it does not need to be. It has no reveal because it does not need one. The closest thing you get to a “reveal” is the second chorus, where Jackie (as young girl) dances down the runway twirling her abaya and revealing her heels. This young girl may or may not be dancing around in a pair of heels—perhaps she absconded with a pair of her mom’s heels—but obviously the performer needed to wear them (or it’d be an insta-sashay after the performance was over).
You can tell the producers of the show knew they were witnessing a legendary performance, and their edit capitalized on it with timely cuts to Jeff Golblum’s reaction. Jeff Goldblum was the cherry on top and what made an all-time lip-sync into great television. My understanding is Jeff Goldblum is just an eternally curious person who is easily interested in what he sees, especially when what he sees is new and foreign to him. To be clear, that’s a good trait, and I think he came into the studio for this episode with good faith and an earnest curiosity. There was the awkward moment where he asked Jackie to reconcile the hijab and abaya with the difficulty of acceptance of LGBTQIA+ people in the Muslim world. No matter, I think the reaction the show’s cameras got of him was him getting the message and the story Jackie was trying to tell. Basically, the lip-sync was Jackie’s answer to the question Goldblum awkwardly asked during the critiques. My best guess is his tears come from being reminded of his older brother. Goldlbum’s older brother desperately wanted acceptance as a young gay man, and was met with only cruelty. The cruelty ruined him in the long run. Jackie, as young girl, also wants acceptance as a Muslim in hijab and abaya. She too is met with cruelty, and we fear the cruelty will ruin her too. But there was a spark in Goldblum’s older brother like there is in this young girl Jackie portrayed.
Both needed to ignite the light and let it shine, but we collectively need to accept their humanity. There is humanity to both of them. Tolerance is necessary for society to function. Acceptance is the goal. That was the message and it worked beautifully.
Michelle Visage likening Jackie to Gilda Radner after the lip-sync against Heidi is spot-on here. ↩
Two things in the interest of full disclosure: 1) I love this song and think the full album from which it comes is one of the top five pop albums ever produced. 2) With that in mind, it’s probably a bit of serendipity that this was the song for this particular lip-sync. Jackie would’ve put on a great performance with any other song, but this was a unique opportunity. ↩