Perfume Genius has always been the king of queer pop
For nearly a decade, Mike Hadreas has been unapologetically himself during an era of LGBTQ progress.
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“Before anybody on here tries to disagree with me they should remember a liiiiiittle thing called homophobia,” Perfume Genius recently joked on Twitter. Irreverent and playful, earnest yet detached, the musician, born Michael Alden Hadreas, is the rare artist whose appeal hits right in the middle of the Gen Z vs. Millennial Venn diagram. For the past 11 years, Hadreas has carved out his niche as an online character while offering a queer representation in pop music that is as subversive as it is relatable. From curating absurdist, homoerotic scenes on TikTok, to writing erotic fanfiction for the TV show Supernatural in his newsletter, the seed Hadreas planted in 2010 has blossomed into mainstream influence.
This contrast is what makes Hadreas so enthralling to his dedicated fans. “Basically I became less terrified of the whole thing,” he tells me over Zoom, addressing his decade-long evolution as a provocateur. In today’s pop culture universe, it sometimes feels like artists have to appear larger than life to cut through the noise, playing with persona, caricature, and hyper-stylized fantasy projections. Hadreas operates differently. He mines careful aesthetics and musical tableaus and draws from queer subculture, synthesizing all of it for our consumption. His work is like a cultural dew that sets in overnight to make everything beautiful, and then evaporates under the harsh light of the sun — which is to say, it might be provocative, but its appeal is in its subtlety.
When Hadreas first came onto the scene in the 2010s, LGBTQ+ culture was slowly becoming integrated into mainstream entertainment after being relegated to sideshows like Queer As Folk, The L Word, and RuPaul’s Drag Race. Cultural juggernauts like Glee, Orange Is the New Black, and even Sons of Anarchy were finally allowing gay characters to surface in their universes. In music, artists like Frank Ocean and Big Freedia were starting to infiltrate hip-hop with their respective brands of queer joy. Anhoni and Christine and the Queens had yet to put out their statement records, and Adam Lambert was starting to familiarize audiences with his own style of glittery emo.
“Even if the world has changed, I don’t think I have,” Hadreas says. While he admits he still has the same creative impulses and fears as he did before queerness became more mainstream, he gets excited by the ways modern queer artists are expressing themselves. “Lil Nas X, that existence is so powerful and important and funny and deranged and hot. I love him bringing all of that, just relentlessly giving them everything every single time.”
In today’s pop culture universe, it sometimes feels like artists have to appear larger than life to cut through the noise. Hadreas operates differently.
In the last decade, the progress that’s been made for the queer community — both culturally and politically — has been significant and hard-won. Hadreas released Learning, his first record, in June 2010, the beginning of a decade that would become known for a “rainbow wave” of legal and cultural milestones for the LGBTQ+ community. Ricky Martin had just come out a few months before, and iconic folk singer Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, which introduced a new generation to the infamous queer photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, was a bestseller. Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright brought queer parents into mainstream cinema, and the military’s oppressive “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was repealed by the Obama administration. In May 2011, Lady Gaga released Born This Way, telling all of her little monsters it was okay to be gay and arriving at award shows in alien cosplay. In July, New York State would legalize gay marriage.
Hadreas emerged onto the music scene in lipstick and with a stunning falsetto, occasionally exposing his chiseled physique while exploring more tenor tones. Learning’s cover showed Hadreas shirtless with a black eye, and the album’s lyrics explored dark themes like suicide, molestation, substance abuse, and rejection from family. It was a record that tapped into queer pain, a rarity at the time, and yet its hypnotizing melodies and finessed lo-fi production made it accessible and alluring to a wide range of audiences, earning it critical acclaim.
While Hadreas might have been operating on the fringe of mainstream back then, both sonically and otherwise, the social climate of the time still saw him facing homophobic pushback. When he put out Put Your Back N 2 It in 2012, he released a teaser on YouTube in which he was held in the arms of a gay porn star. YouTube deemed the ad inappropriate and took it down. “To be honest, I don't understand why it was banned,” Hadreas told the Dallas Observer at the time, “I knew that my videos can make people uncomfortable, but the ad is just a 16-second clip that I thought was kind of sappy, almost too sweet. I think all gay men are used to people saying no to them, to people not giving them choices.”
Luckily, the music video that the ad was taken from is still streaming, showcasing the transgressive artistry that Hadreas pioneered. In the video for the song “Hood,” he deadpans to the camera, singing, “You would never call me baby / if you knew me true,” while a muscular, shirtless man preens over him, applying makeup to his face, brushing his hair, holding him and dressing him in wigs and women’s clothes.
This was a precursor to “Queen,” the 2014 single that centered queerness in the heart of the culture-shifting medium of pop. In the video, when Hadreas sings, “No family is safe when I sashay,” while trashing a computer lab with other queers and writhing on the ground in mesh and chains, the effect feels daring and artful, tender yet rebellious. “Queen” left the cheeky hack of show tunes and the dancey sexuality of club hits at the door, and instead propelled queer rebellion by turning slurs, as the name itself would suggest, into a satire of homophobia. He asks in his lyrics: “Don’t you know you’re queen / Cracked, peeling / Riddled with disease / Don't you know me?”
His fourth album, 2017’s No Shape, brought Hadreas more critical and commercial success, as well as a broader audience. Its ethereal, cinematic pop transcended expectations in a year in which the queer pop atmosphere was occupied by mainstream-courting bops like Troye Sivan’s “My, My, My!” and Tove Lo’s “Disco Tits.” The indie scene, meanwhile, was spinning the melancholic, biblical slow jams of Sufjan Stevens’ soundtrack for Call Me By Your Name. The video for “Slip Away” from No Shape was a euphoric manifestation of Trump-era queer rebellion, as Hadreas and a female companion run through dreamscapes escaping little orange goblins, lavishing in the sunlight eating fruit, and literally slipping away at the end of the chase. Where Hadreas’ earlier work saw him reveling in the poetics of queer strife, No Shape felt almost like graduation, a moment for queer celebration.
Last year’s Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is Hadreas’ most unrestrained album yet. And its subsequent, lively, and dynamic IMMEDIATELY Remixes — where each song was reinterpreted by a different collaborator, including artists like Katie Dey, Koreless, Jim-E Stack, and A. G. Cook — gave the album continued life during a pandemic-era album cycle.
Hadreas is finally touring for Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, and as we discuss the big post-pandemic shift, the existential ennui of quarantine peaks through. Of the remixes, he reflects, “I was not feeling very creative at all during 2020. I was trying really hard, but I was kind of going through it. I didn’t feel very connected to the source or whatever, some divine thing. And then people were sending me these remixes, these inspired things created that year on this timeline when I wasn’t feeling close to that energy, and they were making these beautiful things, and I got to selfishly come along.”
One outlet that’s allowing Hadreas to expand creatively is the medium of dance. Just before the pandemic, he collaborated with choreographer Kate Wallich and The YC dance company for a piece called “The Sun Still Burns Here,” for which Hadreas created an unreleased soundtrack that he hints will be performed in parts at his upcoming shows. The collaboration set something loose in Hadreas that’s alive in a visceral way in his latest music videos for “Describe” and “On The Floor.” In these videos, we see this current iteration of Perfume Genius taking the expansiveness from previous records and turning it inwards to create his own dystopian utopia. In “Describe,” that escape is in a choreographed dueling dance on a communal farm with visual cues to bondage and Sisyphus. In “On The Floor,” he’s alone in a desert dancing ring, twirling in the dirt and using a chained rock as a dancing partner. The visuals feel like a perfect evolution from “Slip Away,” where now the queers are not just liberated, but free enough to create their own worlds instead of finding ways to fit inside the established heteronormative one.
Hadreas admits that the dancing shook him out of his typical creative routine, something he hopes to return to on tour. “When Covid hit I kind of reverted back to this sort of hermit, hidey way that I have been operating in for like a decade or more,” he says. Being seen has helped him claw out of those creative funks. “It’s this little mechanism that I have that’s exciting to me that I’m capable of going somewhere else and being free and open, but I guess it’s kind of a switch. But I’m also capable of being avoidant and detaching and hiding. And that’s what I’m struggling with all of the time, and it’s kind of making me feel paralyzed. I’m in and out at the same time. But the world is kind of built like that right now.”
When I ask how much of the persona of Perfume Genius is just that — a persona — he says, “I’m proud of it, because I feel like there is a lot of me in it.” While he can’t help but think ahead to how his audience might perceive him, Hadreas the person and Perfume Genius the artist have a symbiotic relationship. The persona lifts the spirits of the person, and the person feeds the persona. “If I go to a party and I don’t feel like anybody knows my music, I get really quiet and barely speak. If people know my music then I don’t feel so shy anymore, because I’ve kind of shown my ass already.”
With artists like Lil Nas X becoming the most played rapper on Spotify while celebrating his own flavor of homoerotic imagery, and indie stars like Phoebe Bridgers, K.Flay and Clairo coming out, it’s hard not to look to Perfume Genius as the one who paved the way, a true renegade of the modern pop world. In the end, we all benefit when Hadreas shows his ass.