These days, a palpable tension is crisp within any environment where people congregate. You see it on people’s faces (or if they’re wearing a mask, through their eyes) that many of us have forgotten how to “be”. For those who see our local music venue as a temple, the continuously evolving pandemic has hindered our ability to feel whole. It’s not just the music; it’s the restorative sensation of knowing that you are with your “people”. That so many of us from varied lived experiences can find a commonality through four chords, a microphone, and strategically timed lighting has always felt like a miracle.
For those who have been historically disenfranchised, this connection carries disproportionate weight. Not only is it about restoration, but it’s also a feeling of belonging. It’s a feeling of safety. And safety, as we have been incessantly reminded in the last few years, is a currency that is in short supply. These considerations were omnipresent throughout the night as Mike Hadreas, otherwise known as Perfume Genius, graced the stage of The Wiltern. Hadreas has been the affirming flame for those in the queer community — creating art for himself and for people that see themselves in him. Though his lyrical narratives explore grim themes such as loneliness translated into sex, sex translated into trauma, and the confounding feeling of peace through nothingness, there’s an undeniable whimsy and joy through the shape of his music.
These contradictions are further pronounced via Hadreas’ prowess as a live performer. More of a three-act play than your standard rock show, tiny vignettes contoured by a sinister spectre of red light filled the stage. In Act I, Hadreas reintroduces himself to his chorus — reminding us of the comfort and warmth that permeates his music, despite the heavy themes he’s become known for. In “Your Body Changes Everything,” Hadreas prances across the stage in a David Byrne-esque blue suit, as he opines on how the confines of gender norms can feel like a pair of cement boots. At the end of Act II, Hadreas feels fully formed as he pairs up two of his most well-known and catchiest songs — “On The Floor” and “Slip Away”. Both pieces electrify the audience as their limbs flail as if independent from their bodies. Though the sweetness and energy of the songs are caveated by the inherent pain of its lyrics — sentiments that point more towards longing and escape.
In the final act, Hadreas renounces any presumption of joy as he plunges deep into a form of controlled chaos. Starting with “Otherside,” Hadreas gently croons, “Why can’t you miss me from the otherside?” only to be exorcised by a blistering shroud of smoke and lights accompanied by a raucous cacophony. Hadreas bends and breaks his body throughout the rest of his final act, occasionally wrestling with other men, bouquets of flowers, and a white veil fit for a wedding day. The entire show ends with his breakout hit, “Queen,” a song of fiery rebellion mocking the puritanical state of this country — best encapsulated by the line “No family is safe when I sashay”.
As the show ended, a collective sense of calm and wonder washed over the audience. For a moment, the mass isolation, both figuratively and literally, that we’ve all experienced in the last three years (and still going for many) was absent from our lives. Not because we were burying our heads in the sand; instead, it was that restorative remedy that comes from being part of a community, anchored by a singular vision of grandiosity and introspection that provided the catharsis necessary to find our shape again. As Hadreas sings in “Normal Song”, — “Help him understand that no floating sheet (no matter how haunting) and no secret (no matter how nasty) can poison your voice, or keep you from joy”.
Words and photos by Eric Han