Perfume Genius Finds Inspiration in Lil Nas X and Redefining Masculinity

The singer talks to Thrillist about growing up gay and the next queer generation.

perfume genius
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist
Design by Maggie Rossetti for Thrillist

When I talk with Perfume Genius over Zoom, real name Mike Hadreas, he's at home in Los Angeles. He will soon fly to New Zealand to perform, before playing some shows in Australia too. As we chat, he alternates between irreverence and seriousness, which feels typical of someone whose entire career has been spent being Very Online. There's also a distinctly gay swishyness about him—I can say that, because I'm also very gay and swishy. When he tells me about his rough childhood, and how much he yearned to be free to be able to be himself, it's impossible not to find him endearing.

The cover of Hadreas's new album, Ugly Season, depicts an obscured and supernatural-looking figure. Two piercing blue eyes, presumably his, are its only obviously human qualities. The artwork contrasts with his visuals from his last album, Set My Heart On Fire, which conjured familiar caricatures of hyper-masculinity, borrowed from iconic rock imagery. He tells me both records were made back-to-back. "We actually made this one first," he says, telling me that record has "a very physical feeling attached to it."

In response to a world that was often unforgiving toward him, Hadreas has created an escapist, dream-like space in his music, where anything is possible. His songs make people feel protected, nourished, sexy, joyful, and heartbroken—simultaneously, and one after the other.

Hadreas has an affinity for social media too. He first made it big on MySpace in 2008, when he started uploading music under his professional moniker after moving back home to Seattle to get clean from drugs and alcohol. His Twitter presence mirrors his demeanor in-person, with recent posts ranging from a rat hiding under a mushroom, Queen Latifah eating hot wings "like a pimp," and threats about "pivoting" to being straight. "I read the news, but when I go on the internet, I just want to laugh," he says.

When we talk, our conversation frequently comes back to our identities as gay men—and how we are expected to look, act, and move through the world. As he prepares to drop Ugly Season, Hadreas talks to Thrillist about about creating his own world, feeling inspired by Lil Nas X, and being kinder to himself—and don't worry, fellow queers, he's not "pivoting to straight" quite yet.

Representing queer people in his music

I feel a responsibility, because at one point I was growing up and I was desperately looking for and seeking out things to make me feel a little less lonely. My experience really didn't have a mirror anywhere else in my daily life. So I wanted music, movies or anything I could find online to make me feel more realized, or less lonely in the feelings I was having. And I feel a sense of responsibility to think about that idea, and about queer people specifically, when I'm writing. You know, if I see two men kiss on TV, I start crying. It doesn't matter how low the production value is, it doesn't matter if I hate them. Just seeing them, I'm crying.

Knowing he was queer from a young age

I remember being like, 3 years old and just moving through the world and thinking about things the way that I think and move. I didn’t have to be censored, or even know to be subconscious at all. But then that quickly turned into being aware of every movement and the way that I speak and talk. I learned that could potentially get me into trouble in all kinds of different ways. A lot of my dancing and making music feels like I'm a little kid again, because it feels like I'm trying to get to a place where I'm just purely following instinct, being nice to myself, and being warm about my ideas.

lil nas x performing
Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Stanning today's trailblazers

I love Lil Nas X. I love everything about him. I love how he's approaching everything. I love how funny he is, how smart he is, and how hot he is. It just feels like he's following his ideas. And if he's met with any sort of resistance, he's utilizing that as a way to fuck with everybody. That's really inspiring to me.

Serving looks

If I wasn't packaging my work and giving it to people, I don't think I'd think about the visual side as much. I have to organize everything and go through a bunch of channels, so I'm thinking about it more critically while I'm doing it. I thought a lot about that specific idea of reappropriating masculine signifiers a lot while making this album, because that was such a part of my experience: thinking about myself as a man, or whatever that meant to me. Weirdly, people think I'm thinking about gender all the time, but I'm not really. I think about it as a lived experience much more than an idea. Like, what is it like for me in the world right now? And just things like getting older and my sexual currency kind of shifting.

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Deciding to be hot

Even if I'm not feeling [sexy], I make sure I can, even for an hour on stage. It's therapeutic. And sometimes I just am feeling that way, and I'm like, "Do you know what? I am feeling like this and I don't know why I got it into my head that I shouldn't?" I have so many ideas that I've made up and so many that have been told to me, but there's no real rules for being hot. It's just a decision you make.

Finding inspiration in today's queer youth

When I see all these young people crowdsourcing mental health stuff on TikTok, it can be really heartwarming. Like, they shouldn't be having to do that, and develop all of this [alone] and their own language. There should be systems in place! But they're still doing it. They're trying to figure out how to make it work and how to live. There's so many fucked up things, but thinking about how deranged and silly and smart and weird the young people are—how differently they think than my generation does, even now, or used to when they were that age—it really makes me feel good. All these old men are going to die, you know? It makes me feel really hopeful.

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Louis Staples is a contributor to Thrillist