When peering into the life of musician Mike Hadreas, better known as Perfume Genius, one would think he has everything figured out. A loving partner, five critically acclaimed albums, and a loving fanbase. However, things aren’t so simple for him. In his newest album Set My Heart on Fire Immediately made this year on May 15th, it’s clear that Hadreas is still gritting his teeth through both new and residual emotions. Mike has already addressed many of his personal struggles in his earlier albums revolving around domestic violence, Crohn’s disease, and substance abuse. Now, Perfume Genius still hasn’t had time to relish the finer things in life, such as self love, a healthy relationship, and his spirituality. His album has both positive and negative messages, leaving us mystified as he rises from the ashes, wavers, then is reduced back to rubble once more.
Perfume Genius’s first and second albums, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, were somber albums where he utilized his skills on the piano and poured his heart into his lyrics. For example, “Dark Side” was an ode to his mother for the abuse she endured while he was growing up. From there, Hadreas’s lyrics brightened up his discography. In his third album Too Bright, he expressed newfound confidence with proud sliding guitars and a wide range of sonic beats. Then, in his fourth album No Shape his creative expression sky rocketed as he incorporated sounds resembling Prince, Queen, and other queer pop artists.
When driving to my new school in 2017, my junior year of high school, I would blast his song “Queen” from Too Bright. “No family is safe when I sache,” he would chant to the dropping beat of an electrifying keyboard riff. After his first two albums, Perfume Genius has utilized sounds pertaining more to the songs of the 80s with his own maximalist or “f*cked up” twist. However, in his newest album Set Me on Fire Immediately, Hadreas uses a wide range of musical styles including some of his previous influencers resulting in an unstandardized sound. To give you an idea, the song “Describe” has sliding guitars, and metallic grinding, while another song, “Jason,” includes the harpsichord and other romantic instruments delicately playing. Everything in this album contradicts itself in terms of sound, even Hadreas’s vocals. He goes from a macho, Elvis-like voice in songs like “Your Body Changes Everything” and “One More Try” to a higher pitched soprano in “Moonbend” and “One More Try.” It seems his inconsistency in sound is part of the message he is trying to send. With both masculine and feminine personas that he’s taking on, Hadreas must be trying to understand his softer versus his bolder parts of his identity, rather than simply “queen” or “gay”. Though there is this variance, the album’s sounds come together cleanly in how they’re presented. I attribute this to the consistent inconsistency that simply lends itself to the way that Hadreas is struggling to express himself.
With the ongoing pandemic, we are all going through changes and have more time to reflect on the past with many of our future’s plans being disrupted. Perfume Genius is no different from others. With his opening track of “Whole Life,” he is using a deep, Elvis-like voice as he sings, “Half of my whole life is gone, watch it drift away… it was just a dream.” Sure enough, Elvis also sings in his “Can’t Help Falling in Love”, “take my hand, take my whole life, too” in his iconic love ballad. Though Hadreas’s version seems a bit more forlorn, both are flowery and focus on beautiful vocals. The messages are also similar, Hadreas sets his album up for a yearning love story.
Hadreas expresses both the fright and excitement of his life being on the back end, and so much has already happened. With the ongoing crisis, this might be a more mystical and frightening feeling, and he’s now in a state of sorting through everything that has happened. His writhing, deep opening songs give way to a mix of lighthearted and mystical songs. Perfume Genius presents numbers such as “On The Floor”, “Your Body Changes Everything”, and “Without You” all catchy, and danceable pieces. They also all focus some attention on the body and movement. Having suffered from Crohn’s disease, a condition that weakens the body due to the inflammation in the digestive system, he speaks of body parts in the album ina borderline medical manner. Part of this album’s meaning is to express the strength he feels in his body despite having Crohn’s. In the music videos that he has made for these songs reveal Hadreas’s skills with moving his body in dance. Just like the rest of his album, he is both tough and tender at unexpected times when he dances alongside his partner, Alan, or with other people in his music videos. Following these exciting songs are a sequence of witchy songs including more references to the body. In “Moonbend” he sings “Carving his lungs, ribs folded like fabric… burrowed in his spine,” alluding to parts of the body that can’t even be seen. With the final songs on his album, Perfume Genius descends back into a longing and introspective expression. He draws away from the abilities and disabilities of his body and focuses on himself from a psychological and relationship standpoint.
Being a part of the queer community, Hadreas has had his fair share of homophobia sent his way. It’s fitting that much of his music is connected to 80’s and early 90’s artists for this reason. During that time, LGBTQ rights started to be recognized more and more in the US, and not always because of activists. While musicians were expressing their more feminine sides, the trauma from the AIDS pandemic was an ongoing battle with the queer community. Hadreas may not have lived through this experience when it would have affected him, but he seems to have lived through a life filled with trauma that reflects similar hardships as what Tim Lawrence describes in Life and Death on the New York Dance Floor. For example, while Perfume Genius would make visual artwork (before making music) out of pubic hair and his own blood, the boundaries were tested in the New York downtown lifestyle during the 80’s, “was like a kaleidoscopic smorgasbord of activity” before disaster hit due to the sexual nightclubbing scene. Not only is Perfume Genius’s work kaleidoscopic, but it certainly throws the listener back to the times when the LGBTQ community was suffering the most. His beats have been tied to Talk Talk, Queen, and Prince, but with more reminders of the struggles he has faced that mirrored their time in the 80’s.
In addition to the historical connection that Hadreas’s album has, his gushing of emotion is similar to a phenomena that Ann Cvetkovich describes in her introduction of An Archive of Feelings. Here, she describes how she wants “to place moments of extreme trauma alongside moments of everyday emotional distress that are often the only sign that trauma effects are still there.” Cvetkovich similarly had gone through an identity crisis for multiple reasons, and had a realization that she wasn’t the only person experiencing grief. She attributes this to how our trauma can often reveal how the environment we’re in can give us a better understanding of the way more global trauma encapsulates us. Like Cvetkovich, Hadreas has experienced homophobia and other traumas that led them down a dark path, but they don’t fully relive that trauma everyday. Instead their struggles reveal themselves in little parts of life and fill their creative endeavors, inspired by others who understand. In his song “Describe,” Perfume genius is both mournful of all the tragedy he has faced, but he expresses how the love he feels for Alan “felt like ribbons” that perhaps keep him down to Earth. Now that he has a secure and accepting relationship with someone he loves, he’s able to traverse the feelings that come after a storm. Despite the injustices that Perfume Genius, Ann Cvetkovich and other LGBTQ members face, they have much to give when their voices are allowed to be heard.
Perfume Genius concludes his album with what he claims to be his saddest song, “Borrowed Light.” In this track he contemplates whether his production of music has nothing to do with a special ability that he possesses. “No sun hangs outside,” he laments, “just borrowed light,” from the people who helped him get to where he is today. Regardless of how much light he has borrowed, Perfume Genius has given back in full with Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. We may all have these dark thoughts surrounding us during the pandemic, and those sentiments haven’t avoided even the most Perfumed of Geniuses.