behind the music

How Drag Race’s Resident Composer Is Bringing a Queer Sensibility to TV Music

In addition to being the de facto house composer for the last few seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Leland has written multiple tracks for The Other Two and Love, Victor. Photo: VH1

When “Break Up Bye Bye,” a song performed by the Frock Destroyers, became an unlikely U.K. top-ten hit late in 2019, it felt like a watershed moment for Leland, one of its co-writers. Initially written for the inaugural season of RuPaul’s Drag Race U.K., the single’s success signaled to the Los Angeles–based musician that two worlds he tries to keep mostly compartmentalized were finally crashing into each other. For Drag Race’s de facto resident composer is also one of the most prolific out gay musicians working right now. In 2020 alone, Brett Leland McLaughlin has co-written songs for Troye Sivan (“Take Yourself Home”), Selena Gomez (“Rare”), Ellie Goulding (“Slow Grenade”), and BTS (“Louder Than Bombs”). That’s in addition to working on the music for Hulu’s Love, Victor and Quibi’s Gayme Show. 

It’s not lost on Leland how enviable his 2020 sounds, and he’s quick to thank the person who made it happen: Tyler Oakley, who first connected him with Sivan, and set the stage for the connections that led Leland to meet the World of Wonder crowd who have since made him an integral part of the Drag Race family and to land the plum job of creating the music for Comedy Central’s The Other Two, a show all about a Bieber-esque tween turning a viral hit into a music career. His work on those shows may feel miles removed from his pop output, but in his eyes, that foray into camp and comedy speaks clearly to interests that run all the way back to his childhood, when he loved watching the likes of Mrs. Doubtfire, The Birdcage, SNL, and MadTV.

If there’s something that brings Leland’s budding discography together, it’s his exploration of an expansive queer sensibility. The fabulousness that runs through his Drag Race songs (sample lyric: “Don’t-don’t-don’t you wish you could be that bitch? But you ain’t that bitch”) complement the melancholy feelings he and Sivan unearth in their collaborations. (“The people danced to the sound of your heart,” Sivan coos in “The Good Side.” “The world sang along to it falling apart.”) His songs capture the ecstasy of being at the club, the joy of a great drag show, and even the heartache of a breakup, marrying glitter and camp, often within the same beat.

The Biloxi-born performer recently walked Vulture through some of his musical TV highlights over the last few years, from producing those funny “Rusicals” and writing for a fictional tween pop star to championing up-and-coming queer artists in Love, Victor.

RuPaul’s Drag Race

“PharmaRusical” (Season 10)

You’re always trying to write a catchy song. No matter whether it’s a song for Selena Gomez or a song for Drag Race. But the additional challenge with Drag Race is making it funny and giving equal opportunity to every queen to have a potential moment for them to make it memorable. It doesn’t happen every time. But you really try to fairly spread out the comedic opportunities for them to take advantage of if they can.

The genius of a lot of these musicals begins with Tom Campbell, one of the executive producers, who I consider a mentor and has been there since the beginning. So we will be given challenge ideas and then we take it and run with it. But it’s very collaborative. And, you know, the queens give a lot of input. The goal is to always play to the queens’ strengths.

“Drag Divas Live” (All Stars Season 3) 

Those were Ru songs made into versions of songs for this specific purpose, so it’s always fun to just mismatch and to think, What would be the absolute most ridiculous thing? And for that moment it was Julie Andrews rapping “for a bitch to be this endowed.” And then the fun part is finding vocalists, who can replicate these divas’ voices.

It’s not easy putting a challenge like that together because typically, a Rusical can be six or seven different genres in one seven-minute performance. We’re doing country for 45 seconds, then doing hip-hop for 45 seconds. And there have to be transitions and then each vocalist has to sound great and the comedy has to be fairly distributed across the Rusical, so you have to have producers that are extremely versatile and incredible musicians. Thankfully we found that in Freddy Scott and Gabe Lopez, who are the two main producers I work with whenever I’m given a project for Drag Race. It’s really challenging, but it is such a good exercise because I feel like it trained me to be able to better take on other projects.

“Errybody Say Love” (All Stars Season 4)

My instincts for writing pop songs is to get to where the chorus could stand alone as a catchy pop song. And then we pair that typically with a message that Ru wants to get across — whether that’s “everybody say love” or “pussy on fire” or whatever. We try to marry the pop sensibility with drag and Ru’s messaging. And then the queens are responsible, typically when they’re writing their own verses, for making it funny. That’s always true: the number one thing that I say, and I think that the judges say — I know Michelle [Visage] has said it many, many times — is just make everybody laugh. Make Ru laugh. Don’t take it too seriously. So I love helping when they’re writing their verses.

Always, especially when I’m working with queens — whether it’s girl group challenges or them writing their own raps the beginning of a season, or even later on in the season — I always tell them: My goal is to make you look the absolute best, give you something to be confident in and something that is going to match the energy. Because when we’re recording these they’re not usually in drag. And so I just say, “Give yourself a vocal performance that is going to match the energy that you’re going to give on stage once you’re in drag and the adrenaline is racing and the lights are on and the cameras are rolling. Give yourself something that you’re going to be happy to perform.”

“Break Up Bye Bye” (U.K. Season 1)

I think I was in Germany, in a dressing room — I was opening for Troye on the Bloom tour. And I wrote the chorus for “Break Up Bye Bye” in a voice memo, with no chords or anything. It was just me saying in my phone, “I want to break up, bye bye, see you in the next life.” Then I texted that to Freddy in L.A., who then put the chords to it and expanded on the song from there. But I did not interact with the girls on set or anything because Drag Race and World of Wonder, and we all, wanted to keep U.K. talent on screen. And so I was so excited to be able to call MNEK with that opportunity [to appear as a coach on the episode] and, I mean, there were so many special moments from that episode: His reactions were unbelievable, and Divina doing whistle tone! It was beyond what I could have imagined.

You don’t really know the reach that something like this has, because I’m always so focused on the next thing or what’s next. There’s really not a lot of time to sit back and reflect on it. I haven’t even been to the U.K. since “Break Up Bye Bye” came out and it seems like that song has really infiltrated culture there. That was really fun to see remotely, especially because we haven’t been able to go out. But that song was apparently being played at all the gay clubs in the U.K. It’s fun to see when those things translate to a bigger audience and take on a life beyond the show.

“I’m That Bitch” (Season 12)

I did know [Nicki Minaj was gonna be there] and I was very excited by that. And also very excited at Ru being on the song. For most of the challenges and episodes that I’ve worked on, Ru had not been involved. So to now be working so closely with Ru on “I’m That Bitch” and even “Clap Back” on this latest finale, is — I don’t take for granted that I was stepping into the show during what feels like its Renaissance.

The Other Two

“Marry U at Recess” (Chase Dreams)

It was all just so much fun. [co-creators] Chris [Kelly] and Sarah [Schneider] are incredibly talented songwriters. So that was a very collaborative process of them knowing exactly what they wanted to write about and giving me the majority of the lyrics. And I would tweak the lyrics and say, “I think this rhymes better,” or, “What if we tried this?”, and then came up with the melodies and brought in Gabe Lopez from Drag Race to produce those songs with me. We had such a good time and it’s been crazy wanting to get started on the next season, but obviously many things have happened.

“My Brother’s Gay” (Chase Dreams)

What we discussed with Chase’s career for season one was pivoting dramatically from song to song. Instead of how pop artists — even Taylor Swift — will shift from genre to genre between albums, we wanted to do that song to song. And so we found that really funny, doing a One Republic/Americana song for “My Brother’s Gay” to an over auto-tuned dance song, where you can hardly hear any human in his vocals whatsoever. We just really played around with how drastic that was. And that was really fun to shape, going from something wholesome to going too far. It’s also very funny because it mirrors what happens sometimes with new artists when the labels are just trying to get them to break. and so it’s try this! try this! try this! But we wanted to take that and go to the absolute extreme with it.


And then that moment where an artist takes themselves very seriously and performs a ballad, orchestral piano version of their big hit, like when Rihanna performed “Diamonds” with an orchestra. And so we were like, okay well, we have to do an orchestral version of “Stink” for the VMAs and the season finale. We were just creating these moments that we grew up loving watching, and taking them to their absolute most ridiculous place.

Songs From Love, Victor (Original Soundtrack)

“Athlete” (Greyson Chance)

There is a wonderful music supervisor named Season Kent. She and I started working together over the past year and a half. We wanted to use it as an opportunity to spotlight up-and-coming LGBTQ talent. I had just started working with an artist named Isaac Dunbar, who is signed to RCA and who is a superstar and fucking fearless. And I had been working with Greyson Chance. It was fun to be able to be given scenes and write songs for specific scenes, and know that Fox and Disney were so trusting in me saying, “You know, this artist may not be well known right now, but in six months or a year, I feel like they will be.”

“Somebody to Tell Me” (Tyler Glenn) 

Whenever I’m writing with another artist for a specific moment in a movie or a TV show, it needs to feel authentic to the artist and it needs to propel the story and help emotionally capture this moment. For the theme song, I wanted to capture the feeling of when I was growing up closeted in Mississippi and started having same-sex attraction thoughts, of not knowing what to do with them and not having anyone to talk to about them and not having representation on television or within music that I was aware of, of someone setting an example for me. That it was okay, and that you can live a beautiful incredible life as a queer person. And so the song “Somebody to Tell Me” is simply just saying that, it’s having this internal dialogue of just, I wish I had someone to look up to. I wish I had a good example of what it means to come out on the other side of this. I know that that spoke to Tyler, from Neon Trees, as well, who came out later in life, and speaks to the narrative of Love, Simon and Love, Victor.

“God, This Feels Good”  (Isaac Dunbar) 

Where “BITE,” which I wrote with Troye and Allie X, was about maybe going to a bathhouse for the first time (which at that point, none of us had been, we just sort of let our imaginations run wild), “God, This Feels Good” was about going to a gay bar for the first time. And having Katya in that scene was wonderful, and writing from Isaac’s perspective was really exciting and genuine and authentic.

Gayme Show

As we all know Matt [Rogers] is a very talented vocalist, with a very wide range. He can sing very high, and has a full belt. And so Matt would send me voice memos of what he was imagining for different snippets of the songs, and even the theme song. I think I ended up turning in, like, 47 pieces of content for Gayme Show, but each one of them were, you know, six, seven seconds long. And then we would shave them down even shorter and I think that was the overall theme of making that show: Shorter! Shorter! Shorter!

RuPaul’s Drag Race Live!

“I Made It/Mirror Song/Losing is the New Winning (Las Vegas Live Medley)” (The Cast of RuPaul’s Drag Race, Season 12)

We had worked on Gayme Show with Vonzell [Solomon]. That’s how I met Vonzell and then from there, I hired Vonzell to be the singer for RuPaul’s Drag Race LIVE! So on the Vegas episode of this last season of Drag Race, where they performed a medley of songs, that was Vonzell singing the choruses. But in the actual version for Vegas she’s singing the verses as well.

When I got the call about this Vegas show, it was so exciting and scary. But I had the team and the resources to help bring this to life. I moved to the Flamingo in Las Vegas for a little bit while the show was being built. We would sit in the empty theater while the queens were rehearsing, and now, as has been announced, while shooting a TV show on top of it. There was a lot of opportunity for me to give input in this show and feel heard and help shape the show. I’m so proud of it. It was amazing the three weeks that it ran [before the pandemic shutdown]. The show was doing so well, too, and the cast was just iconic. But it will open back up. It will.

Meet Leland, the Composer Behind Your Favorite Gay TV Hits