Upon arriving on stage, Mike Hadreas of Perfume Genius was nervous. Not only was this Hadreas’ debut televised performance, but he would be reaching out to a wide audience unaware of who he was. Walking on stage with heels, a white power suit, a black harness around his neck, and wearing bright red lipstick, Hadreas sang “Queen”. Beginning with the line “Don’t You Know you Queen?” building up to the chorus “No family is safe/when I sashay” Perfume Genius brilliantly embraced his queerness on stage. The same song lauded by Slate last year as perhaps “the year’s best gay anthem” saw the performance just like the song to not conform to heteronormative views on what he does. Inspired by “gay panic” and his previous experiences towards feeling uncomfortable for simply existing as he is, the performance self knowingly wasn’t for everyone but it was definitely for someone. For Hadreas, the realization of how different his performance was from any others didn’t come until he was completely finished.
“Yeah, it was right after I was finished, and in that moment, I kind of relaxed. For weeks I had been nervous about it and up until then, the way that I deal with things that make me nervous is that I completely detach and pretend that they’re not happening, so while performing, I was not really paying attention to the fact that I’m on that show or that these people were there. Then he walked up to me, and I realized that I just did this big thing,” Hadreas stated to Transitional Queer Underground.
This isn’t the first or last time such a performance has been done. We can go all the way back to Elvis Costello’s rebellious move of switching mid-song on Saturday Night Live that caused him to be banned thirty-seven years ago. This was due to his label wanting him to play the fan favorite, “Less Than Zero”, instead of debuting his new song “Radio, Radio” that was against media. Even more infamous is Sinead O’Connor’s performance on the same show in 1992. While singing Bob Marley’s “War”, she presented an image of the Former Pope John Paul II to the camera and ripped it while stating the word, “Evil”. While both of these performers went creatively against the show’s preset guidelines and their record label (Or in Sinead’s case–the general public), artists today have more freedom than ever with their performances.
Over just the past few months, several musicians have gone on to reflect the civil unrest of Ferguson and many other cases of possible discrimination. Run the Jewels performed their song “Early” on Letterman asking the audience to “throw their fist and fingers in the air if you have ever lost someone too early”. Devonte Hynes of Blood Orange while performing on Kimmel wore a “Black Lives Matter” sweater with the outline of the continent of Africa. His girlfriend, Samantha Urbani, who also performed wore a sweater saying “Justice and Liberty for All”. When Kendrick Lamar received the honor to be the last musical performer on Stephen Colbert. Performing an untitled song, beginning with a minimal beat escalating to mile-a-minute-rapping, he ended the song with the repeating outro of “Tell ’em we don’t die, we multiply”. The strength of the song alone spoke to how well music can communicate national tension and the need of making a statement. Lamar has gone on to say that the untitled song he performed may not even make it on his next album. “I just like the energy of the song. I didn’t go on there to sell a single. I just did what I felt,” Lamar said. Lastly, on SNL recently D’Angelo performed his song “The Charade”. With his background singers wearing shirts saying “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe”, D’Angelo couldn’t show the sentiment any better with the line: “All we wanted was a chance to talk, ’stead we only got outlined in chalk”.
Whether speaking to the civil unrest of a nation or making a statement on gender roles and sexuality, the importance that music holds cannot be understated. Reflecting on his performance, Hadreas does not regret anything.
“It didn’t go over perfectly, I’ll be honest, with a lot of people. It’s not just people who read Pitchfork who are gonna see that show, so I got some mean comments but I got some really nice ones too. I’m glad something came from it – it’s funny, some people were telling me it’s not that big a deal to play Letterman, nothing really happens, nobody cares. But it was a big deal to me – I never thought I could get on a show like that, especially when I first started out, and I’m glad I sang that specific song and wore that exact outfit when I was on TV,” Hadreas said.
Bringing something new to the table and letting someone’s voice be heard, artists are reaching the point where they no longer have to ask for permission. An artist can perform in front of a wide audience well knowing the message they are conveying may not reach everyone but it may reach someone. Any artist can try to dress up and play the part of conveying something different but very few artists are able to own it like Perfume Genius or any of the aforementioned artists have. It’s what truly makes such performances feel remarkable and a visionary standout representation of where we are in the world.
Time will tell, how we up evolving, but it’s through the power of music that real conversations begin towards what needs to be changed.