Why has Per­fume Genius become the sound­track of teen angst?

The performer’s fragile vocals have recently appeared in teen properties like The Goldfinch, The Society, 13 Reasons Why and Eighth Grade.

There are few things in this life that pair as per­fect­ly as angst and ado­les­cence. It’s hard to cap­ture the broad spec­trum of sad­ness that comes with being a teenag­er enter­ing young adult­hood, which might be why the com­ing of age” nar­ra­tive has been a draw for direc­tors since the dawn of cul­ture. There’s always a new source of sad­ness to tap into.

There’s a sub­tle art to craft­ing the com­ing of age” nar­ra­tive in films and tele­vi­sion, and one of the quin­tes­sen­tial pieces to dri­ving home angst isn’t in the scenes of awk­ward first kiss­es or vom­it­ing at the cool kids’ house par­ty. It’s in the music – and there’s no bet­ter vocal­ist to cap­ture the soul-sear­ing pil­low scream of teenage exis­tence than Per­fume Genius. That’s not just me say­ing that as a stan of musi­cian Mike Hadreas’ per­pet­u­al­ly somber sound either. Sure, I’ve spent my fair share of time cry­ing in bed while mouthing the words to My Body and even stood out­side after his 2017 Brook­lyn Steel con­cert for two hours to let him know how incred­i­ble his show was while blast­ed on an edi­ble, but there are also unde­ni­able facts to back up his claim to the throne of teenage emotion.

Since qui­et­ly enter­ing the music scene with his 2010 debut, Learn­ing, his songs have appeared in an excess of sound­tracks for tele­vi­sion shows and films that tap into ado­les­cent angst. For teens deal­ing with their shit, Per­fume Genius’ music is the Ghost of Trau­mas Past. Last year, guess what track punched every­one in the gut dur­ing Bo Burnham’s paean to ado­les­cent awk­ward­ness, Eighth Grade? Slip Away. And guess what track again returned this year in Olivia Wilde’s Books­mart for the most crush­ing pool scene since Shai­lene Wood­ley screamed under­wa­ter in The Descen­dants? Sur­prise bitch, it was Slip Away.

It’s not all that shock­ing, per­haps, since the lyrics Don’t hold back, I want to break free cause it’s singing through your body / and I’m car­ried by the sound” are 100 per­cent some­thing I would’ve writ­ten in the mar­gins of my col­lege ruled com­po­si­tion note­book about one of the straights I want­ed to see naked in gym class. As Twit­ter user @fitsofpleasure cor­rect­ly stat­ed: Every indie com­ing of age movie is required to have slip away by per­fume genius on the sound­track or else sun­dance will lit­er­al­ly not let you put it out.”

But Slip Away isn’t Per­fume Genius’ only angst-rid­den song mak­ing the rounds in pop. Oth­er­side has also been used to ratch­et up that sweet, sweet teen anguish – most recent­ly in the trail­er for the much-hyped film adap­ta­tion of Don­na Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning nov­el, The Goldfinch, and Netflix’s cur­rent crop of teen dramas.

In the upcom­ing sea­son of 13 Rea­sons Why, Oth­er­side pro­vides the son­ic back­ground to a very pow­er­ful and very time­ly episode,” accord­ing to the show’s music super­vi­sor, Sea­son Kent. It’s emo­tion­al from such an hon­est and vul­ner­a­ble place,” she explained over email. It’s so cin­e­mat­ic [and] vocal­ly haunt­ing with emo­tion. It gives me all the feels!” The con­tro­ver­sial show that prob­a­bly con­tributed to a spike in teen sui­cide isn’t the only one get­ting a piece of the Per­fume Genius sad music” pie. 

In the new, less con­tro­ver­sial show The Soci­ety (a bunch of Con­necti­cut prep school kids go Lord of the Flies when all the adults dis­ap­pear from town), Oth­er­side shows up in the very first episode and in the sec­ond, the show’s music super­vi­sor Jonathan Leahy slips in an instru­men­tal ver­sion of Alan, an ode to his key­boardist and boyfriend Alan Wyf­fels, whom he met in AA before his debut album and has been with ever since. It’s a tes­ta­ment to Hadreas’ abil­i­ty to har­ness the years of trau­ma we’re unpack­ing in ther­a­py and dis­till them into a song that even an instru­men­tal of his track is enough to car­ry a scene. His mind! For Leahy, using Per­fume Genius’ intense­ly per­son­al” sound for the show was a no-brain­er, con­sid­er­ing that it feels like an invi­ta­tion into an artist’s bed­room, an offer to read from a pri­vate journal.”

That’s an almost a per­fect descrip­tion of how I try to describe Per­fume Genius to friends (albeit with a bit more it’s emo but more baroque and queer”), but also hits at the heart of Mike Hadreas’ son­ic evo­lu­tion. When he first began to make music in 2008, his first album was record­ed in his bed­room and his songs were a salve craft­ed to heal the trau­ma he’d endured through an ado­les­cence that wouldn’t be out of place on HBO’s new con­tro­ver­sial dick-filled teen dra­ma Eupho­ria.

Hadreas began tak­ing anti­de­pres­sants at age 12; spent most of puber­ty shut­tling between school and a hos­pi­tal deal­ing with Crohn’s dis­ease; came out to his mom at age 15 after con­stant bul­ly­ing; dropped out of school after death threats went ignored by his admin­is­tra­tion; made paint­ings with his own blood at an arts col­lege; and was hos­pi­tal­ized after being attacked by sev­er­al men in his neigh­bor­hood. And this was all before he moved to Williams­burg, Brook­lyn; got addict­ed to drugs; moved back home to Seat­tle to live with a mom and step­dad who were recov­er­ing from alco­hol addic­tion; and now attend fam­i­ly AA meet­ings together.

It’s unsur­pris­ing that Hadreas’ frag­ile voice would sound­track ado­les­cent angst in films and tele­vi­sion shows, because in a way, it feels as if he was des­tined to become the poster boy for ado­les­cent angst. Mike Hadreas has found a way to cre­ate beau­ti­ful, haunt­ing music out of the trau­ma, music that has res­onat­ed with young fans going through the same strug­gles he over­came as a teen. Real­ly, there’s no oth­er per­son I’d want to give voice to that dark peri­od than a queer artist from Des Moines, Iowa, who has lived the sto­ry­line of 14 Degras­si char­ac­ters com­bined and come out stronger on the Oth­er­side.

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