|A mirror to what?|
The internet’s portrait of a Mitski fan is rarely an Asian woman. Online, they’re imagined as faceless, breathless hecklers who declare their love for Mitski in between songs at her shows. Memes portray them as overcome and battered by Mitski’s music, as if their lives were no more than echoed notes of the star they love so much. Across all channels, Mitski is an artist with a devoted following. She bewitches them with melancholic songs that explode in cathartic passion. Journalists often tag her music as “confessional” and “raw.” Similarly, Mitski’s sound carries a violence that fascinates her fans, despite her tender melodies and lyricism. The push and pull between intimacy and distance predicates this strange artist-audience relationship, where Mitski becomes the target of her listeners’ desires and projection.
When an audience believes that the artist under the spotlight is earnest and true, they invest a great deal of psychological energy into the artist’s presence. It’s an emotional and to some extent, financial transaction on the audience’s end, and they begin to respond as if the artist is speaking directly to them. With the release of her third album Bury Me at Makeout Creek Mitski's fans seemed to believe that they were peering into Mitski’s life through her music. Crowd favorite, “First Love/Late Spring,” supposedly discloses the details of a first love that Mitski experiences as an adult: “And I was so young when I behaved twenty-five / Yet now I find I've grown into a tall child.”
|Bury is a strong emotion|
On the track, Mitski croons over her bass guitar and sets the scene: it’s dark outside, and the sweet scent of a peach tree is wafted in by the night breeze: “Wild women don’t get the blues / But I find that / Lately I’ve been crying like a / Tall child.” The narrator is acting out of character. Someone has a tight grip on her neck, and she’s desperate to break free without getting hurt. The song builds into a glittery chorus, where she recites a lyric in Japanese:
It roughly translates to, “my chest is about to burst.” The calm she sets up is easily shattered by the threat of what follows. “One word from you and I would / Jump off of this / Ledge I’m on / Baby”. The feeling of a heart-rending love is not quite as unique as the way Mitski imagines it, and in many ways she questions these feelings throughout the song: “What do you do with a loving feeling if the loving feeling makes you all alone?” comes to mind. Mitski’s lyricism is the foundation of her relationship with her fans, a building block towards knowing more about their beloved artist. The audience continues to listen under the assumption that her music is an open diary, a first-hand account of her life experiences. Mitski’s writing is lauded by both critics and fans as unique and singular for her willingness to engulf herself in desperation, self-sabotage and loneliness. These qualities are seldom separated from her persona, even when Mitski herself conceives an album and persona based on a fictional stereotype.
|Alone at last?|
“Nobody” was the second single to introduce her 2018 record, Be the Cowboy, an album written in the spirit of the American cowboy’s “arrogance and freedom.” To the uninitiated, “Nobody” may well be the only Mitski song they know; the music video for it garnered a smidge over eight-and-a-half million YouTube views, making it her most popular release to date. On Spotify, it is her most played song with nearly forty-two million streams. On the track, Mitski seems to be desperate for intimacy. Loneliness feels like an inescapable curse after yearning too much, “Did its people want too much too?”, and she’s looking for someone—anyone—to fill the void of an empty seat. Over an ascending disco beat, she sings, “And I know no one will save me / I just need someone to kiss / Give me one good honest kiss / And I'll be alright.” Mitski is well aware that a simple kiss won’t satisfy her, but she wants one anyway. It is a straight-faced demand, akin to the emotionality in “First Love/Late Spring,” albeit clearer and more concise. Perhaps the balance of this and her desire for proximity is what made the song so appealing to new listeners in the first place; it’s not a lack of vulnerability, it’s an abundance of it with no one to offer it to.
This inability to contain such emotion and need for catharsis essentially solidified Mitski’s “brand,” or whatever constitutes the meme pages and energizes TikTok users to revisit “Strawberry Blonde”—a song from her sophomore effort Retired from Sad, New Career in Business—to accompany the queer aesthetics and imagery of Cottagecore. Back on “Nobody,” there’s a key change that occurs in the last minute of the track while Mitski sings the hook in a blissful loop: “Nobody, nobody, nobody”. Her voice reaches an exhilarating high, as if she’s running towards someone who can pull her out of her existential dread. Alas, Mitski never truly attains the catharsis the listener believes she’s trying to get at; her voice steps out of time, floating in and out of the music, until it is just the static of her voice. Mitski’s expression invites reciprocation; her recurring examination of loneliness lures listeners in need of a mirror, especially one that’s able to uncover new types of sadness and being to them. Listeners develop a greed for confessions and feel the need to dredge the depths of their own psyche, in order to face the artist again and say: “we are the same.” But this exchange only serves to validate the perceptions of the audience; this love is not a two-way street.
|Who am I?|
Viewing Mitski as the sum total of her melodic stories makes room for her audience to project onto her. Frequently listed alongside the artists of Spotify’s “Badass Women” playlist (which has since been renamed to just “badass”), Mitski attracts listeners who crudely identify with the “feral woman” trope. On “Drunk Walk Home,” another song from Bury Me at Makeout Creek, Mitski dawdles through intrusive thoughts: “I will retire to the salton sea / At the age of 23 / For I'm starting to learn I may never be free.” Mitski yearns to find a place far and repelling enough for her to gain a semblance of freedom. Her resentment builds like the track’s percussive instrumentation. She’s bound to determinants like supply and demand, but she remains resistant: “But though I may never be free / Fuck you and your money / I'm tired of your money.” Still, Mitski is tender in the night. She sits on the curb, savoring the dark sky after a night of rejection: “You know I wore this dress for you / These killer heels for you.” The track is punctuated by the same percussion, growing louder and noisier, while Mitski screams into the song’s conclusion. She holds terror and desire closely together; her shrieking laments another failed attempt at love.
Like Mitski, the “feral woman” experiences a flurry of strong emotions. They build on top of one another until she begins to teeter the line between simple upset and pure lawlessness, the latter being the end point. On the track “A Burning Hill” from Puberty 2, Mitski sings, “I am a forest fire / And I am the fire and I am the forest / And I am a witness watching it.” To her listeners, Mitski is just that: a forest fire. She burns brightly and recklessly, conscious of her own mess and giving name to her internal chaos. Listeners want Mitski to be the “feral woman”—someone who lays comfortably in sticks and mud, whose rage manifests as a natural disaster—because her music fits the bill to a tee. Mitski becomes the vessel of her listeners’ longing for a kind of organic disorder; she alludes to the same emotionality she possesses in her songs, so it must mean that she is a “feral woman,” too. Mitski’s audience believes that the artist is her musical persona, thus turning her into the target of their deepest desires and unconscious projection.
To perceive Mitski as a vessel for the audience obscures her artistic agency. Instead of seeing her as a maker, they observe her body of work from one viewpoint, then present monotonous, surface-level analyses of her music. Understandably, listeners aren’t strictly obliged to offer intellectual interpretations of her work, especially with Mitski insisting that she “would like the audience or the listener to get whatever they need out of a song.” She goes on to say, “so, if they need to imagine me writing in my diary, then I guess that’s healthy.” Despite that, this thinking restricts her fluidity as both a person and an artist. A queer Asian-American musician, Mitski gives shape to a specific existence and experience through her music. It delivers catharsis to many, but is that what she’s chasing, too? Without considering this, the artist’s achievements regress into the same motifs that fuel fan activity on the web.
|She's live and real|
As established, Mitski is an incredibly talented and relatable songwriter. She crafts songs with mathematical precision, braiding together sound, story and metaphor; her body of work is refuge to many, in both joy and sadness. However, the terms of this discussion shift once Mitski’s race comes into the conversation. Within fan groups, and in the larger discussion of her work, there’s hostility surrounding race as an essential component in the artist’s discography. It’s as if, once brought up, it makes it more difficult to identify with her, if not already entirely impossible. Assuming those points were always true in sequence would reveal Mitski’s work to have less value than initially appointed by the same audience. Thus, Mitski is only really relatable when she is presented as a raceless vessel. It’s important to note that Asian identity cannot be used as a de facto point of identification for all people; it is perpetually foreign to whiteness.
Non-white musicians who show something akin to the concept of “genius” drift closer in proximity to great canonical artists—a group predominantly composed of cis straight, white men—when they are able to serve the same function as these men did. That is, to stand in for the largest mass of people who you can speak to. It is a feat to stand in community with so many people, but an artist does not need to erase her identity to create an impact.
This line of thinking also completely overlooks the dynamics apparent in songs like “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart” and “Strawberry Blonde” which both illustrate intangible romances. The titular differences between Mitski and her romantic interest alone create a distance that informs the pain and ache of the encounter. On the latter track, she sings, “all I ever wanted was a life in your shape.” Mitski loves this person, but she is unable to fit into his life or be part of them. This could also be read as an inherent lack of compatibility—she is plainly shaped so differently that they couldn’t make it work. This theme reemerges again on Puberty 2’s “Your Best American Girl” which, in their coverage of the lead single, proved that even journalists and critics are not exempt from internalizing the same ideas.
Mitski is habitually distinguished by media and press as an anomaly among the surplus of her cis straight, white male contemporaries. She is subversive because she is surrounded by people who make it more obvious that she can never truly partake in their stories or follow in their footsteps. In the same vein, Mitski’s music is reported on like reactionary declarations to forces working against her. Such was the case for “Your Best American Girl,” a song that received critical acclaim from just about every outlet one could get their music news from, and remains a favorite on best of lists from Pitchfork (7th!), Billboard and NPR.
The song launches with Mitski’s resonant bass, swaying with the tenderness of her words (“But big spoon, you have so much to do / And I have nothing ahead of me”). The instrumentation swells softer as Mitski sings, “Don’t wait for me, I can’t come,” but the song erupts all at once in a swirl of noise and distortion. It cannibalizes itself, almost; no amount of overdrive can come close to the pain of being powerless in love, but Mitski comes close. By the end of the chorus, she arrives content as the person she came to be, and heartbroken at the loss of her partner because of it: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I think I do / And you’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your American girl.” The difference between them was just something that Mitski was not able to overcome.
|All I need is a guitar|
In The Misreading of Mitski, Jia Tolentino describes the reception of “Your Best American Girl” near to that of a “political statement.” “Mitski was catapulting a boulder into the moldy walls of our national bigotry!” she writes. Critics and reporters collectively heard the track as an anthem for women of the music industry, a defiant middle finger to the people in power who consistently snub them. For a following that has steadily pointed out the so-called links between Mitski’s music and real life, they wholly missed the mark. Mitski countered this mayhem with a short Facebook post (on an account that, as of December 2020, is inactive), stating:
A lot of reviews have agreed on a narrative that she wrote this song to stick it to 'the white boy indie rock world'! But I wasn't thinking about any of that when I was writing it, I wasn't trying to send a message. I was in love. I loved somebody so much, but I also realized I can never be what would fit into their life.
She criticizes this reaction again in a Trevor Noah interview, calling it out for being “so gendered.” Even Mitski realizes that her stardom has its limits, that her reception hinges on what Tolentino designates as “lasting preconceptions about women artists.” They believe her to be authentic in her music, which makes her more relatable. But for this relationship to continue, she needs to shed her identity as an Asian woman artist and become the audience’s vessel. Mitski continues, saying:
I don’t think I would get as many critiques where people say my music is confessional or raw if I wasn’t who I am. And I think there’s so much effort in like, taking away my authority or autonomy over my own music. [...] For some reason, people really need to imagine me as some sort of vessel – vessel for emotion or vehicle for music, instead of the creator.
However, if this attitude towards artists is necessary and uncompromisable, Mitski will be repeatedly forced into a corner that takes for granted an integral part of the way she asserts herself as an Asian woman artist—and invalidates it. If an Asian woman’s expression of identity is rejected by her own fanbase, what happens to the Asian women who are fans too? How will you face them, relate to them, or be their ally?
It’s possible that Mitski is simply masking as a “confessionalist” and creating meticulous songs for a specific audience. But this speculation hardly ever takes into account what actual intent Mitski has conveyed to the audience, publicly. In conversation with Matthew Schnipper of Pitchfork, Mitski gives out a well-kept secret: “[...] a lot of my songs are just about music and trying to pursue it, and not feeling loved by it. A lot of the ‘yous’ in my songs are abstract ideas about music.” Like what many geniuses of rock music’s past have explored, music can simultaneously be the medium and the message. Mitski is the maker and nothing more. She affirms that slyly, under the dreamy, Western jingle of Be the Cowboy’s “Come Into the Water”: “Maybe I'm the same as all those men / Writing songs of all they're dreaming.”
©Alex Ramos and the CCA Arts Review