Perfume Genius Expands Rock's Body Language
Tomorrow Perfume Genius, the band led by singer, songwriter and movement artist Mike Hadreas, releases its fifth studio album, Set My Heart on Fire Immediately. With an eclectic palette of Baroque pop, burbling rock and grunge, combined with a dance-focused visual treatment, the album is being greeted as a benchmark in Hadreas' career. NPR Music writers Marissa Lorusso and Cyrena Touros consider its impact, and the importance of Hadreas' career in setting a new standard for exploration of gender, sexuality and identity in rock, in the following exchange.
Marissa Lorusso: In the lead-up to Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, I've been thinking about the way Mike Hadreas, the core member of Perfume Genius, has used his body as a vehicle for expression. Hadreas has always been thoughtful about the way that his body and physical expression are part of the larger project of Perfume Genius. His songs often contend with a feeling of alienation from the body and the desire to escape it, especially due to his experience as a queer, chronically ill person; you can hear this in the yearning and isolation of his early albums, Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It. And you can trace that thread visually through the confrontational femininity of Too Bright — I'm thinking in particular of the videos for both "Fool" and "Queen" in which he embodies a kind of aggressively carefree femininity for a crowd of suits — and the romanticism and dreaminess of No Shape.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately propels this in a new direction. Dance and movement were always present in Hadreas' work — elements that, much like guitar tone or the pitch of his voice, could be reshaped and deployed to reflect ideas and emotions — but now he has placed his body itself at the forefront of the art. The album cover or any of the videos he's released so far are proof of that. I think that shift started with last year's The Sun Still Burns Here, a collaboration between Perfume Genius and the choreographer Kate Wallich and her company The YC. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately is a restless, beautiful album that feels like the culmination of a particular journey toward movement as an essential element of Perfume Genius.
Cyrena Touros: Over the last few years, I've become interested in the way music is performed on stage, especially by women and queer individuals operating in rock. The way I see it, there are two ways of disrupting the norms in this space: through reimagining what the performance looks like — whether that be Mitski's Be The Cowboy stage props and aerobics or St. Vincent's unintuitive, twitchy choreography — or simply through who is giving the performance — another straight white dude with a guitar, or uh, literally anyone else. I think Mike Hadreas enacts both forms of disruption, and for someone who once said he's "still kinda figuring all this stuff out" about how to move on stage, this interplay between movement and music was the first thing I thought of when I heard that he was composing music for and performing in The Sun Still Burns Here.
When I think of the term "body language," I often associate it with telegraphing an emotional state, or conveying temporary meaning. But in her essay "Performative Acts and Gender Constitution," the theorist Judith Butler argues that repeated movement over time can tell us something greater about a larger state of being, and this is certainly how we cemented a popular perception of the visual performance of rock. But Butler also writes that "in [gender identity's] very character as performative resides the possibility of contesting its reified status." I think we are at a similar moment in regard to contesting the established dynamic between movement and music, too.
I find it radical and exciting that a whole slew of performers witnessed and studied this history of movement on stage, came to an understanding about what it meant and decided they wanted their work to say something different. As the 21st century canon of popular music recognizes more women and nonbinary individuals, more people of color and more artists who identify as LGBTQ, I think we are seeing a fundamental shift in the way rock music is performed. I'm seeing more and more artists use dance as disruption — of social expectations, of the audience's gaze, maybe even of history.
Marissa Lorusso: When I saw The Sun Still Burns Here in Boston in January, I was struck by how both the movement and the music felt quite different from anything I'd seen or heard from Perfume Genius before, but felt obviously like part of a continuum. Musically, Perfume Genius' early songs are so incredibly spare and melancholy. And while Mike Hadreas has never lost that sense of tenderness — or the sense of estrangement — at the heart of his songs, they've grown increasingly lush. Too Bright got weird and menacing; No Shape is decadent and devotional. The music from The Sun Still Burns Here was impressionistic but visceral, made for movement — in the Q&A after the performance I saw, Hadreas said he had the dancers "actual bodies in [his] mind when [he] was finishing the songs."
So I was curious whether the experience with choreography and composing for movement would translate into Perfume Genius' next venture — and when I first saw the video for "On The Floor," it seemed clear that it had. It opens with nearly a minute of Mike Hadreas brooding in a tank top, smoking a cigar in a dusty landscape, before spending the rest of the video dancing, both alone and with a partner. The movements are organic but precise, expressive and fluid; the whole performance exudes the strength and confidence of a person who spent months rehearsing for an evening-length experimental contemporary dance performance.
You mentioned the idea of "dance as disruption," and I think that's apt. But while that disruption can be societal, as you point out, it can also be deeply personal; Hadreas has talked about how making The Sun Still Burns Here felt like a way of inviting destabilization into his life. "I've always been obsessed with leaving and being something else; of restlessly wanting out [of my body]," he told DIY Mag last month. "And with dancing, there was this new language that made me feel really satisfied just being there. I mean, it was mixed with absurdity and fantasy, but we created a world that I felt like I was connected to, and I was in." (This, too, is part of a lineage; from discos to drag balls, dance has long been associated with queer liberation.)
In that Q&A, Hadreas said he was nervous about learning to dance, calling it a "very emotional" process. (Of course, Alan Wyffels, Hadreas' longtime partner and musical collaborator, didn't need to be asked twice, Hadreas added with a laugh.) And when asked if it was a healing experience, he gave a quick, unequivocal "yes" — but carefully added that he didn't mean to say dancing had fixed his relationship with his body; instead, it had brought up more questions and complicated feelings. Music, he said, had normally been a means of controlling and compartmentalizing his feelings; dance forced him to be present in a way he wasn't quite accustomed to. I think you can hear that destabilization on Set My Heart On Fire Immediately, in the way it seeks out new spaces with swagger and moodiness.
Cyrena Touros: As far as I'm concerned, there are two measures of good music: the kind that animates your body, and the kind that erupts out of your mouth against your will. Perfume Genius' music elicits both responses in me.
We live in such a weird age to consider the relationship between the self and the body. Vanessa Taylor did it justice discussing "perception memes" in a recent piece about escaping the corporeal form and embracing the void. In myself, I feel this tension between the desire to fully plug my brain into the Internet to elude the ever-constant struggle of communicating the physical self in a digital society, and swearing off an online lifestyle forever to live in a cabin and take long walks in the woods and think about the body's fragile connection to life. Experiencing music for me — at a live show, singing along in the car, or out on the dance floor — is a way to achieve some semblance of the latter. It's cliché to say that listening to the perfect song is a transcendent experience, but if the definition of transcendence is to "leave the body," I would argue it's the total opposite: Good music recenters the relationship with the body by reminding us we're alive.
I believe in the power of the dance floor on a physiological level. It's a space where music has physical presence, where you can feel it vibrating through your palms, rumbling through your chest and buzzing in your head. Rare is the recorded song, heard outside the confines of that space, that can give music its body back in the same way, but Perfume Genius understands a certain combination of thrumming rhythm, carefully threaded percussion and real, dynamic accent that embodies it.
It makes sense to me that, as Perfume Genius' discography has slowly built towards this sonic constancy of hope from a beginning point of dejection, the performed vulnerability of the early visuals has reversed now, too. Hadreas' sweat-soaked, oil-slicked, sledgehammer-wielding, muscle-tanked and ripped appearance in the video for "Describe" speaks to me as a performance of confidence, a celebration of the body, as much as a performance of masculinity.
There's also something almost homestead-like about the video, which sees a small commune of people (hello, YC dance company cameo!) pinning laundry to clotheslines and uh, (*checks notes*) artistically knife-fighting in front of a small feast in a wooden shack.
Marissa Lorusso: It wasn't just the personal sense of embodiment that Hadreas took from the dance performance; it was also a sense of community and collaboration. (And though Hadreas is the main force behind Perfume Genius, it's worth noting that it's never really been an entirely solo endeavor; even since the first Perfume Genius shows, Wyffels has been his collaborator.) The dancers in The Sun Still Burns Here often did solitary movements, but just as often touched each other, lifted each other up and rolled around on the floor together. It's one thing to feel grounded in your own body; it's another entirely to understand how it might — or might not — fit with others'. So while No Shape positions domestic stability as a powerful destination after years of trauma and alienation, Set My Heart On Fire Immediately disrupts that, shakes it up, focusing more on continuity, memory and lineage.
Hadreas has said in interviews, for example, that he's always listened to classic ballads from the '50s, '60s and '70s, but never seen himself reflected in that music; on this album, he was interested in creating that space for himself. "There was a swagger to some of [the] singing" of those eras, he told The New Yorker recently, "and a way of being ultra-vulnerable, while still maintaining this confidence and command." He accomplishes that across this album; while his gentle falsetto hasn't disappeared, Hadreas reaches for that swaggering, deeper voice on several tracks. And there's a sense of knowingness in the lyrics, too; "Give me your weight / I'm solid," he sings on "Your Body Changes Everything;" "I got what you want babe / I got what you need son" on "Nothing At All." On "Jason," he remembers being "proud to seem / warm and mothering" to a nervous lover. "Just A Touch" was conceived to be cherished as a memory. "A lot of queer relationships were like that," he said, "they had to exist in secret, they had to be these brief, frantic, passionate explosions, and then afterward you would only have a memory to sustain it."
Of course, even as Hadreas considers his place in this lineage, there's always been evidence of queerness, gender fluidity and outsiderness in the foundational music of the decades he references (I'm thinking in particular about Sasha Geffen's book Glitter Up The Dark, which came out recently and explores that very question). But hearing Hadreas imagine himself into those tropes has, I think, created a world of new sounds for Perfume Genius.
Cyrena Touros: In some ways, Perfume Genius' evolution, musical and otherwise, was presaged on his last album. "Every drum, every single beat / They were born from your body / And I'm carried by the sound," Hadreas sang on "Slip Away," from 2017's No Shape. I heard that song as born of both the joy and fear of aligning the queer self within a broader cultural context and expressed through a beautiful poetry of the body.
Set My Heart On Fire Immediately pushes this conversation further. As Hadreas explores hazy memories of love and lust, the music dances for him on the '60s orchestral pop and galloping percussion of "Without You"; the slow dance, '80s movie prom song atmospherics of "Whole Life"; the glacial halting, almost-waltz of "Moonbend." And I'm not afraid to call "On The Floor," with its primary guitar licks that sound like the flap of butterfly wings and the pitter-patter of an exerted heart beat, the best pop song of 2020.
Due credit to producer Blake Mills, master of a certain guitar texture that curves and wobbles like the heated wax inside a lava lamp. Expert production can elevate a good album to greatness, and there are so many small moments and choices here that have that Disney princess, magic-voice-that-makes-all-the-flowers-bloom effect.
There's this insistency, an undeniability in the lyrics that has been built into the architecture of the groove. A word I repeated over and over again in my notes when listening to these songs for the first time was "inevitability." Of movement, of joy, of endings — of success. Set My Heart On Fire Immediately doesn't feel like a giant creative leap forward so much as the culmination of a meticulously nurtured artistry. "All this for a song?" Hadreas asks on the penultimate track. When it's Perfume Genius' music — when it reaches, swoops, freezes and erupts, when your body has no choice but to match its movement — I think the answer is an emphatic "of course."
Marissa Lorusso: And yet, of course, all this isn't just for a song. It's a gesture towards a larger lineage; it plays a part, as you mentioned, in our shifting cultural vision of performance. It's a reminder of the limits imposed on certain types of bodies and how delightful it can be to see those limits subverted. And it's an open door for other artists who bring their histories and their movements to the forefront of their music, too. And since songs — good ones anyway — make their way deep into bodies, it's a way of extending that lineage to include those of us who listen, and watch.
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