No family is safe when I sashay.
With that thundering, sardonic chorus off “Queen,” from his 2014 breakout album Too Bright, Mike Hadreas skewered the absurd, flimsy argument that fuels heteronormative fears of queer love and identity, mocking their hate and dismantling it in the same lilted breath. Perfume Genius has been Hadreas’ musical identity since his 2010 debut, the brief, bedroom-pop album, Learning, and though he’s had a cult following since that record’s release, it took another record, 2012’s Put Your Back N 2 It, before his 2014 record earned him mainstream attention.
Three years after that, Hadreas is singing Elvis in Prada ads, covering popular youth culture magazines like Fader, and selling out shows at historical, coveted venues like LA’s El Rey Theatre. When it comes to the upward trajectory of a queer singer/songwriter who lives in Tacoma, Washington, he has arrived. Last week’s set at the El Rey was the final proper date of Hadreas’ stunning North American tour behind his latest record, No Shape, and simply one of the most intimate shows I’ve ever seen.
“I think people come to my music just to feel less lonely,” Hadreas told Fader in this year’s cover story, which was conducted several months prior to the release of his 2017 album, before the record even had a name. “To just see these happy, contented, joyous gay men was a really powerful thing,” he noted, later on, perhaps not realizing, that he is now showing that same example to thousands of potentially confused and lost queer kids around the world.
It was those kids — whether they were old in years, or not — who congregated at Perfume Genius’ show last week, a gaggle of queer and outcast people who knew they’d be right at home on the edge of their proverbial seats (the El Rey is a standing-only venue), lapping up all the contentment Hadreas could give them in a night.
Hadreas inhabits his role as Perfume Genius on the stage with a pleasure that is rarely so openly expressed by a performer, every move of his body feels like a caress, even when he’s touching no one but himself. He plays his own body like a violin, or like a lover still discovering the beloved, he manages to be enamored with himself as an object of affection, a radical act for a queer singer in 2017, or ever.
While he sings these strung out songs about pain and recovery, trauma and romance, addiction and joy, he turns everything from the mic cord to a palm frond into an object through which to broadcast his own sexuality. It’s sexy in a way that precludes specific desire; it is a statement of intent about the queer self. It is love, not of the personal, but of the self in abstract.
At 35, Hadreas is on the other side of his own addiction and trauma, and No Shape is the fullest culmination of that recovery to date. But the lapping memories of pain still linger at the bottom of his songwriting, which is like a pond, full of green growth atop old darkness. At one point, singing an early songs from one of his more broken periods, he stopped to explain how painful it was to re-encounter the memory — the crux of how f*cked up he’d been writing the track — a re-entry marked more by the stronghold of his new stability than the power of his past pain.
Perhaps he is able to see himself as so desirable, so lovable, because of another presence on stage, his longtime domestic partner and musical collaborator, Alan Wyffels, who in some sense, helped Hadreas onto the pedestal his fans have now placed him on. There is no bigger fan of Perfume Genius, and the man behind the name, than Wyffels.
Wherever Mike himself is at, that is his business; I hope he is doing well and he seems to be. Perfume Genius, though, struts the stage like a peacock. Perfume Genius invokes the thundering dynamic of Springsteen, thundering down the streets of queer America with the same kind of rallying cry that a New Jersey nobody roused for working class American kids. Perfume Genius is a chandelier, a bit of light made more fanciful to prove the point. For the queer kids still working it out, in the audience at a Perfume Genius show, and, elsewhere, Hadreas is a mirror, a notepad, and a brazen reminder, that even within the changing political climate of this country, our queer community is still here, bright and forceful, whatever shape and sound that takes. Perfume Genius is a piece of vulnerability, embodied on stage. Perfume Genius is a queer icon.
At the El Rey, Perfume Genius played tracks from various albums in pockets, or mini-sets, alternating between songs so sad you can barely stand up, to ones so rubbery glam that you can’t stand still. “He wants to be the musician he would’ve [needed] as a teenager,” Wyffels explained to Fader of his partner. “And I think he’s doing that. He’s singing about things that no other gay male singer is singing about. About his pain, about his experiences.” In fact, Hadreas might be the fullest, richest, most expressive queer performer currently working.
So often, particularly lately, the queer identity is subsidized and folded into musical acts to make them more “relevant” as our culture strives at the best of its borders, to be more inclusive. For far too long, queerness has been borrowed and abused, costumed out for straight women (hi Demi) or hetero men with a penchant for wearing masks of vulnerability (shall I really start a list?).
Taking no heed of any of this, No Shape insists on its own space and time, working baroque chamber pop out and into the ballad form at will, blending synth pop with samba, cycling through keyboards, guitars, bass and drum nearly every track. Some need the extra parts and instruments, some don’t, but all of these short, fractured songs are sung in Hadreas’ near-perfect, angelic tenor.
Or is angelic a projection from my own mind? Hadreas has pushed back, before, on the description of “near tears,” — “That’s just my resting face,” he blurts in a 2014 Times interview — but the delicacy of Hadreas is one of the most compelling parts of his expressive identity. Its obvious, unspoken indication of his sexuality, or something like it, is certainly part of what spurred kids to bully him back in middle school, unsure why, perhaps, only knowing something about him was a different shape, a different brightness than their own.
Or, maybe it’s that those who have been through the extreme pains of addiction and abuse, and emerge on the other side, still creating, still finding vulnerability in strength, feel closer to heaven.There are always shades of death in Perfume Genius’ music, but it is not macabre, and it is much more concerned with the eternal than the mortal, even when it fixates on the tiresome lived experience of our queer family.
In a fairly simple wife beater and khaki pants, prancing and sashaying in front of a brown background like an old faded map — green fronds and plants cast shadows became the de facto backdrop for Perfume Genius in 2017 — Hadreas cycles through a slower, airy midnight section of his oeuvre, before delivering a lengthy encore and finishing with his now-signature “Queen.”
He sings here (sardonically, of course), of a family, threatened by his very existence, with all the force and glam of Guns N Roses, and with all the pain of a kid who knows he might be killed, simply for existing, if the wrong person finds him alone on a dark street. Yet, if there is a single performer who is rewriting the shape of what a family means, how it can function, and how it should uphold safety — especially for queer kids in America — it is Mike Hadreas. In fact, his sashay has made all of us safer.