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.