Arts & Entertainment
Why Sharon Needles Still Pierces Our Hearts
The former winner of RuPaul's Drag Race reflects on love, death, and Taxidermy, her new album.
October 31 2015 11:50 AM EST
November 01 2015 11:57 PM EST
The former winner of RuPaul's Drag Race reflects on love, death, and Taxidermy, her new album.
Picture this: "A teenage girl who had it all floating in the bottom of a pond that was never going to be found."
No, it isn't the plot of the new Twin Peaks movie. Rather, it's the apparition that Sharon Needles, the most ghoulish winner of RuPaul's Drag Race, imagined when she sat down to conjure a concept for her new album, Taxidermy.
Naturally, the ghost visited during a Christmas holiday in snowless California, which during the season is "one of the most depressing things ever," says Needles. Usually, she adores the "big old drag queen" of that yuletide time of year, when "even the fucking Christmas tree's wearing a skirt."
But there, broke and sitting in a "shitty Burbank hotel," with the carols of Lana Del Rey and "crybaby" soul singers ringing in her ears, the "melancholy reality" poured forth on the page.
"Our time is borrowed. We're all just skin and bones. What is forever? You're my addiction and heaven is fictional. Baby, no place to go," Needles wrote, with what one could imagine was a quill pen dipped in blood and glitter, a bewigged raven perched above the chamber door.
For fans of Needles's music, Taxidermy is a marked departure from her debut record, PG-13, which boasted tracks that spun around sass and witty one-liners, a staple of the musically aspirational RuPaul's Drag Race alum. The new album, an electronic assemblage influenced by disco, early '90s, and dark EDM, is deeply personal, lyrical, and autobiographical.
"It's a love record," she declares. "In the time of PG-13's release, I had love lost, and love gained, so I was very inspired by love. Love is a universal, attractive element. And other than death, love is the one thing that binds all of humanity. So I think it's a record for everyone."
The public's love of Needles, now 33, began over three years ago, when she skyrocketed to fame as the winner of RuPaul's Drag Race with a velocity perhaps greater than any other contestant in the show's prior history. Her predecessors -- BeBe Zahara Benet, Tyra Sanchez, and Raja Gemini -- were poised and pageant-perfect. Needles, who left a bloody trail on her first runway as a drooling drag zombie, was clearly an undead horse of a different color. And fans adored her for it.
Until Drag Race, however, Needles had spent her career being, as she calls it, "scrutinized" by pageant queens and booed offstage. Her rival that season, the showgirl Phi Phi O'Hara, also sought to diminish her drag by telling her to "go back to Party City." This history led Needles to remark, off the cuff, that boos are just applause from ghosts, during the season's reunion special. Actual, thunderous applause ensued when Needles was crowned the winner.
"That just flew out of my mouth," the Pittsburgh native reflects on the now-famous remark. "It resonated with a lot of people... It's my way of saying, 'Pay them bitches no mind.'"
The spotlight, while empowering, may have also been blinding in the beginning. In an interview with Out magazine shortly after her win, Needles made waves with some hubristic remarks about her newfound status as drag royalty.
"I'm bigger than fucking RuPaul -- I have no qualms saying that. It might not last -- my reality fame might be as temporary as fake tattoos -- but I am determined and have never been more certain about anything in my goddamned life," she said at the time.
Clearly, Needles has never lacked for passion, or "nerve," as RuPaul might call it, given the requirements of "charisma, uniqueness, nerve, and talent" to be America's Next Drag Superstar. But much as her sound in Taxidermy exhibits a more mature quality, so does she, demonstrating powers of reflection that come with growing older. These powers have helped her in her art.
"PG-13 was written by an entitled, excited brat," she says. "And this one is written by a more precarious, more aware adult. It's much more glued together."
The glue between sex and death runs through Taxidermy. In the song "Dracula," the video of which was released this weekend, Needles sings of sharing a body bag as a bed. Throughout the album, love is a dead dandelion, a scream, a light pulsing in the darkness. Even the title track, "Taxidermy," has a heart beating under its glass eyes and formaldehyde.
"I love taxidermy," Needles says about her reasoning for choosing this track as the name of the album, in addition to the word's composition of "masculine letters" like T, R, and X. "I collect taxidermy. I'm fascinated by the art of taxidermy. But on a more artistic level, I look at taxidermy as pulling something from the wild and taming it, and posing it in a style of your own personal pleasure that will last forever, and ever, and ever. And that's kind of how people [in love] treat each other."
When Needles speaks of love lost, she alludes to Alaska Thunderfuck 5000, a spectre that haunts a few of the tracks on Taxidermy. Drag Race fans will know that Needles and Alaska dated for over four years before ending their relationship, and fame was certainly a factor. Alaska had auditioned for every season, and was selected as a contestant in the fifth season, after Needles's win. They broke up that year in December 2013.
"I saw [how] a relationship in the public eye affected me and Alaska's relationship," admits Needles, who has since striven to guard her heart against the hazards of fame. "And I also saw how it affected the way about how our fans saw us."
"When I and Alaska decided to break each other's hearts, we didn't really realize that we were going to be breaking tens of thousands teenage hearts as well. A lot of people used our relationship as a template of what other freaky weird gay kids were looking for, and we unfortunately had to be brutally honest: that some things don't last forever."
Afterward, Needles wrote about the experience of "love lost and loving again" in the lyrics of "Glow in the Dark" on Taxidermy: "I was lost in outer space, trapped in the darkest place ... my heart was black and blue, the rumors were all true, and I knew all I had to blame was me." The song, says Needles, was about "being a little honest and taking responsibility, or at least taking my responsibility of why me and Alaska didn't work out."
"I think she has an identical song on her record Anus as well, which is fascinating, because we weren't corresponding on our artistic adventures with our records, yet they both have a similar tone in some of their tracks," Needles marvels about her ex-partner's recent album.
Ultimately, the singer finds hope that they and another soul will once again "glow in the dark." And for Needles and Alaska, who performed together last year in the Battle of the Seasons tour and recently went on a shopping trip together in Brighton, England, there is still a light in the darkness.
"I'm not gonna lie. I did interviews right after the breakup and said we were fine, and we certainly were not. It was a nicer answer just to get off that topic," she says. "But now I can most certainly say, if you're lucky enough, you may lose a boyfriend, but you can gain a best friend for life. And that's most definitely what she'll be. We'll always have each other's backs. And still, no one makes me laugh as hard as her."
"We just don't fuck!" she clarifies.
However, there is no lack of sex, or death, in Taxidermy. Their juxtaposition here is only natural. The French have been calling an orgasm la petite mort, or "little death," for time immemorial. But Needles is attuned to the unique ties that bind horror to the gay community, and how the violence inflicted upon gay people, and the demonizing of gay people as monsters, are connected.
If a gay man loves a horror film, he loves it for a different reasons from a straight person, Needles reasons. In this universe, jocks and the cool kids, who are often the torturers of queer youth, become the victims. And it's the tortured souls, like the villains in Halloween and Friday the 13th, who become empowered.
"Jason Voorhees was a kid who was picked on at summer camp, and Michael Myers was someone vilified by his own family," says Needles, who recently shared several of her favorite horror movies with The Advocate. "I think that's why gay people like horror movies, because it's seeking revenge on the privileged."
As to the gay community's cultural connection with vampires in particular, as also referenced in her song "Dracula," Needles explains that the association is more sexual.
"I think we associated sucking blood with sucking dick," she says. "And out of all the monsters, vampires tend to be the sexiest, or the more sexually driven monsters."
"No one really wants to have sex with a zombie. Well, plenty of people have had sex with me. But no one really wants to have sex with a werewolf. Well ... I guess I can't say that either ... I'm sure gay men would probably even sleep with Frankenstein if they got drunk enough."
The fusion of fear and attraction, love and death, lies not only under the skin of Taxidermy or gay men. It is part of the DNA of all of the human race. And in her new album, Needles unravels these strands as expertly as a treasure hunter might unwrap a mummy.
"Love and death are the only things that bind all of humanity. And love and death are the only inevitable things I suppose," Needles says. "But they have a great contrast. Love is the one thing everyone is looking for, and death is the one thing everyone's running from."
Taxidermyis now available on iTunes. Watch the music video for the song "Dracula" below.