Everyone processes trauma differently: some people move towns, some start a baseless relationship, on “Dirge,” Perfume Genius prefers to bury himself, literally.
In the pantheon of queer media, there is plenty of exemplary content to personify the “queer experience.” Yet, that being said, there is some work that not only plays to its own tune but also articulates an undiscussed perspective. The aforementioned perspective is generally more poignant, palpable, and intrinsically solemn. Perfume Genius’ Put Your Back N 2 It, written in 2012, is one that completely holds up to this idea.
His newer work in mind, Perfume Genius born Mike Hadreas, might be described as an experimental, house musician known to belt ballads of love and euphoria. Although that notion is not completely inaccurate, it does discredit a huge part of Perfume Genius’ journey. With his first two albums Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It, the tracks relay feelings of doubt, internalized homophobia, and self hatred. The latter two attributes being especially true of his sophomore album, Put Your Back N 2 It.
As an avid fan of Perfume Genius’ work, I had also completely relegated him to a title of a specific musician with a very specific sound. I kept that belief in mind until I dived, head first, into this album. In fact by the sixth track, “Dirge”, I found myself in tears driving home on 110 South. Never before had an album, echoed such transparent thoughts about what it means to rationalize “queer” at such a young age. He, rather than harping on past nuances of queerness, navigates the internal struggle and the inherent disgust that comes with the battle for self worth.
Of course, Perfume Genius’ perspective is that of one a white gay man and that in no way endows him the arbiter of queer youth. I, however, personally feel that this album hits on topics and tenants that are either brushed off or told in a very heavy handed way. “Dirge” is the farthest thing from heavy handed, as he hints at disavowing idealize perceptions and growing up too fast all in 3 minutes and 16 seconds.
Listen: “Dirge” – Perfume Genius
For context, a Dirge is often a lament sung as part of funerary services. Perfume Genius completely reinvents this concept as this dirge is one for himself. Even more specifically it is a dirge for a past version of himself.
“Boys that held him dear,
Do your weeping now,
All you loved of him lies here,
Do your weeping now.”
Obviously the “him” is in reference to Perfume Genius himself, and the weeping would be done by his funeral attendees. He goes one step further, however, and writes “Boys that held him dear”. He is trying to say that specifically the men in his life are the ones who will be weeping, no one else. These men will be weeping because all they loved of him lies there, in this metaphorical burial plot. It feels safe to say that the boys he is referencing are not just past loves. Instead they are men who have known him, befriended him, and more importantly tried to understand him. Unfortunately, the person they think they understand is dead, and the only thing to do is cry over subjective memories. While it may be a bit of a stretch, since Perfume Genius is the one singing his own dirge, the feeling comes out like he is a spectator for this funeral. Almost like he knows something about himself that, once discovered, will alienate him from the men in his life.
“Sing whatever songs are sung,
Wind whatever wreath,
For a playmate perished young,
For a spirit whose spent in death.”
Not only does Perfume Genius know his sexuality will alienate these people, but also he has succumbed to it. In his next verse he quietly, yet with gusto, gives orders and tells these people to do whatever you need to do to get all of your feelings out. Whether that means singing whatever songs, placing a wreath, anything they feel necessary to say goodbye.
After the second verse, it becomes inevitable to ask why. Why is Perfume Genius asking all these people to say goodbye? The answer lies in his diction, notably a “playmate perished young.” In other words, say goodbye to a version of himself that has been romanticized by adolescence; ie people that have known him since a young age.
To put it boldly, Perfume Genius has asked the men in his life, platonic or not, to say goodbye to the him they knew.
He has realized he is gay and rather than play up the idea that he is “still the same person but one thing is different,” he goes to the diametric opposite. Furthermore, Perfume Genius knows that who he was, prior to the cognizance of his sexuality, is different and that that version cannot stay. No matter how much the men in his life loved his “arrogant brow… And the withering tongue,” those parts were falsehoods and must be permanently forgotten. Therefore leading to the most permanent act of western civilization, a funeral.
While “Dirge” still contributes to the complex that most queer media can only be “sad” or “tragic” to be accessible, it still discusses a significant topic. Rather than a coming out narrative filled with hope and optimism or even disarray and danger, “Dirge” is one of honesty, cynicism, and austereness. Perfume Genius says his queerness is a part of him and that will always mean leaving someone behind. Of course his mentality is a hard pill to swallow but, that doesn’t make it far from what many queer kids have had to unconsciously do.
Put Your Back N 2 It is an album I would encourage all queer individuals to at least give a chance.
If you start and something triggers you, take yourself out of it, but an attempt itself may come back more fruitful than one assumed. At least for me, seven years later, I found myself getting goosebumps, tears, and everything in-between after every track, “Dirge” being absolutely no exception.
📸 © Angel Ceballos