Wearing an immaculate white suit, bondage collar, heels, red lipstick and nail polish, resembling a queerer version (if that’s even possible) of David Bowie’s The Thin White Duke, Perfume Genius conducted a jarring, wonderfully subversive and slightly terrifying intervention on the David Letterman show in October. Performing “Queen,” an abject anthem articulating an embrace of stigma and homophobic fears, Perfume Genius, the stage name of Mike Hadreas, projected an radical vision of male femininity and queer sexuality to the largely middle American late night television viewers.
Reflected in this confrontational and fearless performance infiltrating the late night airwaves, Perfume Genius’ haunting album Too Bright is similarly defiant, projecting not pride, assimilation and affirmation, but, as writer Sianne Ngai would describe, “ugly feelings.” Rather than depicting an It Gets Better-style representation of queerness, Too Bright portrays feelings ranging from disillusionment, melancholy, shame, stigma, loss and frequently a deep engagement with the sense of being trapped in one’s body.
While many of these themes were mined on Perfume Genius’ previous quieter and more melodic albums, Too Bright appears somehow different: angrier, more in-your-face and all-consuming with feel-bad anthems such as “Grid,” containing wild wailing screams or “My Body,” which always reminds me of the lost, highly romanticized New York sex clubs such as The Anvil or The Mineshaft. In addition to these negative feelings, Too Bright also reflects a type of nihilism, particularly in its repeated lines in “I Decline” and “Grid”, which lend the album an almost circular structure. Beginning the album with the quiet rejection of “I Decline,” Hadreas croons, “I can see for miles/The same old line/No thanks/I decline/Angel just above the grid/Open, smiling, reaching out/That’s alright/I decline.” Conversely later in the song “Grid,” whose title references the early term for AIDS–GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency), Hadreas revises and repeats these lines, singing “I can see for miles/The same old line/There is no angel/Above the grid/Maybe baby/This is it.”
Even though I am a rabid music nerd, I rarely write at length about music; however, Too Bright seems too important to go under-analyzed, particularly from a more theoretical queer perspective. Too Bright communicates a significant and challenging aspect of queerness: an embrace of negative feelings, which are frequently directly counter to the progressive trajectory of mainstream LGBT politics. One of my favorite albums of 2014, Too Bright audibly expresses the position of contemporary queers who continue to deal with the immense losses of the previous generation due to HIV/AIDS and the continuing stigma against same-sex desire, as well as the reductive erasure of ugly feelings from mainstream LGBT politics.
Similar to Perfume Genius’ musical investigation of uncomfortable feelings, Heather Love’s Feeling Backward: Loss and The Politics of Queer History also discovers the power of these negative feelings by looking back to representations of same-sex desire in modern literature. In the introduction of Feeling Backward, Love states, “The history of Western representation is littered with the corpses of gender and sexual deviants. Those who are directly identified with same-sex desire most often end up dead; if they manage to survive, it is on such compromised terms that it makes death seem attractive. Looking back at these texts and images can be painful” (1).
In many ways, Too Bright is also a painful listening experience. Although the music and Hadreas’ voice are undeniably beautiful, the narratives reflected in many of the songs are also littered with death and violence, ranging from the tragic “No Good” to the narrator bleeding out on the couch in “Fool.” For example, the final devastating lines in “No Good,” reveal the death of the narrator: “Traced in the park/Now lying in chalk/Where I took his hand in mine/For a little while, everything was alright.”
Describing the troublesome nature of these violent and negative representations of queerness to progressive politics, Love explains, “The emphasis on damage in queer studies exists in a state of tension with a related and contrary tendency—the need to resist damage and to affirm queer existence. This tension is evident in discussions of the “progress” of gays and lesbians across the 20th century. Although many queer critics take exception to the idea of a linear, triumphalist view of history, we are in practice deeply committed to the notion of a better life for queer people” (3).
Similarly rejecting this affirmation and linear view of progress, Perfume Genius on Too Bright also appears dedicated to representing the feelings that have been understood as counter to a “triumphalist view of history.” Analyzing modern literature, Love observes that she pays “particular attention to feelings such as nostalgia, regret, shame, despair, ressentiment, passivity, escapism, self-hatred, withdrawal, bitterness, defeatism and loneliness,” which can all be found on Too Bright (4).
One of the main themes on Too Bright, which touches on many of these same feelings examined by Heather Love, is the ongoing process of dealing with, as transgender and AIDS activist Lou Sullivan termed, “an uncooperative body.” From “Queen” to “No Good,” which contains the line “The fact that I’m trapped in this body,” Too Bright frequently portrays the self-hatred, shame and stigma connected to the body. Perhaps the song that best and most obviously articulates this body trouble, as well as a connection to desire, is “My Body.” With lyrics such as “I wear my body like a rotted peach/You can have it if you handle the stink,” “My Body,” with its heavy breath-like noises and driving beat, reveals a sexually-charged depiction and embrace of duel self-loathing, abjection and desire for abjection.
In mainstream LGBT politics, these negative feelings are largely rejected in order to support the post-Stonewall era sense of pride, visibility and self-acceptance. As Love states, “Of course, same-sex desire is not as impossible as it used to be; as a result, the survival of feelings such as shame, isolation and self-hatred into the post-Stonewall era is often the occasion for further feelings of shame. The embarrassment of owning such feelings, out of place as they are in a movement that takes pride as its watchword, is acute” (4).
Love continues, “Contemporary queers find ourselves in the odd situation of ‘looking forward’ while ‘feeling backward’” (27).
Like Love’s evocative observation, Too Bright represents this unique state of “looking forward” and “feeling backward.” Even more than passively representing backward feelings, Too Bright is defiant in its celebration of the negative, seemingly uncaring whether the entire audience understands. As the final line in the almost Lynchian torch song “All Along” concludes, “I don’t need your love/I don’t need you to understand/I need you to listen.”
that SNL appearance was very special…his combination of awkwardness and assertion is utterly unique,yet i too found myself thinking of the thin white duke as well…i loved reading your take on it all…i very much agree how the ‘it gets better’ business is a trifle sugary and patronising…i’d say it gets as tricky and thrilling as you need it to be,but it’s deep shit for anyone in this life,no matter who or what we are.
Yes, I love his awkwardness in that performance as well. Thank you so much for reading!