Kelsea Ballerini’s Performance With ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ Queens at CMT Awards Playfully Flouts Wave of Anti-Drag Laws
The ‘Hairspray’-like performance couldn’t help but come off as a statement on Tennessee’s and Texas’s legislation — the second topical moment in a show that had Kelsea Ballerini more emotionally addressing gun-violence tragedy
During the opening monologue at Sunday night’s CMT Music Awards, broadcast from Austin on CBS, there was a comedic bit in which Kelsea Ballerini and Kane Brown exchanged anniversary presents to celebrate their cohosting of the show for the third consecutive time. Brown gave Ballerini a cowboy hat, and she reciprocated by giving him a pink hat to put on in return. At least a few audience members shared a joke about the exchange: By wearing pink, would Brown be breaking Tennessee’s recently passed law that some believe would ban most drag performances in the state, if they were back home?
That was a “just kidding” response to the silliness of the hosts’ monologue. But Ballerini really went there later in the three-hour telecast, when she chose four “RuPaul’s Drag Race” queens to perform with her as she sang “If You Go Down (I’m Goin’ Down Too).” That song, off her 2022 album “Subject to Change,” is Ballerini’s anthem of female friendship — and, with the way the CMT Awards routine played out, she very much seemed to be counting drag performers as among those friends. The performance was playful and ostensibly non-political, and in a different year might not have raised very many shaved or unshaved eyebrows. In spring 2023, it was hard to read it as anything other than a statement of: If drag queens are brought down, the rest of us will be dragged down with them.
The choreography and design offered the biggest splashes of color in a night already filled with colorful costuming and production elements. The performance read nearly as a salute to “Hairspray,” with the four veterans of RuPaul’s camp — Jan Sport, Olivia Lux, Manila Luzon and Kennedy Davenport — decked out in dresses redolent of the early ’60s, complementing Ballerini as she eventually shed layers to get down to what looked like 1960s swimwear.
All the while, the lyrics rang out a supportive message: “Dirt on you is dirt on me / And we both know our hands ain’t clean / If it all blows up and we end up on the news / If you go down/I’m goin’ down too.”
It was not the only LGBTQ-supportive moment of the show, as Megan Thee Stallion, in introducing Equal Play award winner Shania Twain, enthusiastically spoke about the latter star’s support of that community.
Anti-drag laws certainly have been “on the news,” as the Ballerini song says, in recent weeks. Just two days before the Austin ceremony, U.S. District Judge Thomas Parker temporarily blocked Tennessee’s globally headline-making new law hours before it was to go into effect, siding with a Memphis LGBTQ theater company that had filed a federal lawsuit against the state earlier in the week. The judge issued a temporary injunction keeping the law from immediately going into effect, stating that it was unduly broad and vague. While Republican lawmakers have contended that the law was aimed at risque performances possibly taking place in front of minors, opponents have argued — and the federal judge agreed — that it could be interpreted in a way that would make virtually all drag performances subject to misdemeanor or felony charges.
Tennessee is not alone in bringing up such legislation. Texas, the new home of the CMTs, has a similar bill under consideration, as trans issues suddenly have become the new face of the culture war among the most socially conservative Republicans.
Ballerini did not go on record Sunday discussing the performance, but her “Drag Race” dancers happily hit the red carpet to talk about what it meant for them to be there.
“Continue to be your authentic self,” Season 7 contestant Kennedy Davenport, a Dallas native, told the Austin American-Statesman on the carpet. “We’re still motivating young people, we’re still inspiring them, we’re still lifting them up because at the end of the day, we have a calling and we have a job as drag queens. That’s what we’re here to do and people don’t understand that. We have a lot of people coming to us, you know, telling us how much we’ve saved their lives and kept them from depression. Keep your focus, stay strong, and just be careful what you do.”
“We feel so supported here,” added Season 13 contestant Olivia Lux, saying their priority with allies was “continuing to be together and press that envelope and continue to create that change.”
Texas currently has two anti-drag bills under consideration. Senate Bill 12 would define drag shows as “sexually oriented performances” made illegal if they take place in the presence of a minor or on public property., punishable with a $10,000 fine. SB 1601, separately, would cut off state funding to libraries if they host an event in which anyone who is cross-dressing reads a book to a minor.
The CMT Awards had one other topical moment, also introduced into the conversation by Ballerini, albeit in a much more sober mood.
The telecast began with a pre-taped speech by the co-host in which she addressed the mass shooting at a private school in Nashville. Without overtly calling for any specific action in response, Ballerini called for change, addressing the tragic effect of these murders not just on the victims and their families but “witnesses and responders whose lives continue to forever be changed by gun violence. I pray deeply that the closeness and the community that we feel through the next few hours of music can soon turn into action — like, real action that moves us forward together to create change for the safety of our kids and our loved ones.”
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