The Misreading of Mitski
By Jia Tolentino
Mitski, the twenty-eight-year-old singer-songwriter who, this past August, put out “Be the Cowboy,” one of the best albums of the year, is a star. This isn’t a question of crowd size—although she did open for Lorde on an arena tour earlier this year and, at the beginning of December, play four sold-out nights at the eighteen-hundred-capacity venue Brooklyn Steel. (She just added a new U.S. leg to the tour, which will begin in March.) Her stardom has more to do with how intensely her audience projects its desires onto her, how much narrative hunger is generated from the isolated snippets of herself that she presents. “I love you more than anyone in the world,” someone yelled, last Monday, at the last of the Brooklyn Steel performances. The crowd was rapt, screaming every time she did a half-step of her quasi-choreography; the low conversational murmur that sometimes runs beneath the music at shows like this was entirely absent. She comes across, onstage and in interviews, as both elusive and genuine, qualities that are, lately, in short supply. Leaving the show, I heard a young woman tell her friend, “I just feel like Mitski is exactly what our culture needs.”
As happens with stars, people seem to love the idea of Mitski as much as the fact of her. She was born in Japan, to a Japanese mother and a white American father; she is firmly private about her personal life, and has declined to provide details about her father’s career, but she grew up moving around the globe. Her first two albums, which she recorded when she was in college, were self-released, in 2012 and 2013, respectively. She started attracting wider attention in 2014, with the album “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” which established her as a writer with a knack for the intimate and the specific. Her sonic idiom was guitar-heavy, crunchy and melodic, somewhere between Liz Phair and the Pixies. Lyrically, she could sketch in an entire relationship with a few details—socks on a bed, an Austin breeze, Charles Reznikoff on the brain. And then she could deliver a hook that lodged itself like a hatchet: “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony,” she sings on “Townie.” “I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground.”
Two years after “Makeout Creek,” she released “Puberty 2,” which recomposed the D.I.Y. melodrama of its predecessor into something larger, subtler, and sharper: the album sounded both tough and tender, like a bruise blooming across the knee. Wikipedia will tell you that the album is about “longing, love, depression, alienation, and racial identity,” but, to me, it still sounds like it’s mostly about Mitski. Its breakout song was “Your Best American Girl,” an instant-classic pop-rock anthem whose chorus alluded to a relationship obstructed by cultural mores: “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 best American girl.” The song was interpreted as a political statement. Mitski was catapulting a boulder into the moldy walls of our national bigotry! She was challenging a music industry in which Asian women were so rarely visible—and sometimes fetishized, by bands like Weezer, which the song’s chord palette cuttingly nods to—as well as a genre, rock, that ignores the women in its midst! Eventually, Mitski posted a note on Facebook explaining that, as far as she was concerned, “Your Best American Girl” was a love song. A lot of reviews had decided that she had written the song to “stick it to ‘the white boy indie rock world’,” as Mitski wrote. But “I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I was writing it,” she countered. “I wasn’t trying to send a message. I was in love.”
With “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski went out of her way to dispel the image of her as someone out to make pronouncements about our times. She also emphatically de-centered her personal life. “For this new record, I experimented in narrative and fiction,” she wrote in a statement announcing the album. Her intention was reiterated by the album’s title, with its suggestion of role-playing, and by its cover: a closeup of Mitski in an old-fashioned bathing cap, black cat-eye liner, and matte red lipstick, with a disembodied hand attaching a false eyelash to one of her eyelids. The sound of her music changed, too: on “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski’s voice emerges from behind the distortion of her previous two albums; she often sounds as sweet and lonely and hopeful as a Disney princess. The album is fourteen songs long, of around two to three minutes each, and it rolls out like a series of set pieces, or a short-story collection knit together by a winsome, minimalist style. “Me and My Husband” is a vignette of gleeful romantic self-abasement, channelled through the vision of a fifties housewife restocking the bar cart in a full skirt and pumps, sung over a half-earnest, Beatles-esque chord progression. “And I’m the idiot with the painted face / In the corner, taking up space / But when he walks in, I am loved, I am loved,” Mitski sings. The album closes with “Two Slow Dancers,” a ballad about a couple who are left alone with the years that have aged them. “Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here?” Mitski sings. The narrative fills out, unspoken: the couple dancing, and the gentle regret, the sense of transience, that fills the air.
Reviews of “Be the Cowboy” have interpreted the album as an insight into Mitski’s views about gender, or have suggested, as a writer for Billboard said, in reference to “Me and My Husband,” that it “seems to invite speculation about her love life.” Others have read “Two Slow Dancers” as a riff on her personal desire—and, apparently, our universal one—to reinhabit the nights we wrapped our arms around a crush at a middle-school dance. A short profile for GQ declared that “Geyser” is “about the loneliness that accompanies new romance,” but Mitski told NPR three months before that the song was about “music, or a music career, or the ability to make music.” Artists don’t get to decide by fiat what their work means, but there is a notion, informed by lasting preconceptions about women artists, that Mitski is revealing more of herself personally with every album when, in fact, she’s revealing more of herself musically, which is not at all the same project.
What’s remarkable is the way that her persona itself obscures this—the way that her aura of authenticity makes people think that she’s a confessionalist when she is working through character and the manipulation of craft. Even on “Makeout Creek” and “Puberty 2,” she seemed to treat self-exposure as a readily available tool, almost a red herring, rather than a compulsion. Those albums identified her with a lo-fi sound that suggested a sort of alone-in-my-house intimacy, but it was just a stopover. Her first two studio albums were more in the vein of chamber pop, and “Be the Cowboy” is full of idiosyncratic, genre-blurring statements that establish Mitski’s ability to move in whatever direction she pleases. For as skilled a lyricist as Mitski is—and for as often, on “Be the Cowboy,” as she sets her lyrics at odds with her arrangements—the songs can come off like pure sound, so aesthetically coherent that you can’t tell the words apart from the melody at all.
Mitski’s latest has more in common with St. Vincent than with any other big figure in the pop-music world: she’s toying with projection and obfuscation, using rigid creative structures—the country ballad, the disco hi-hat accompanied by vamping guitar—to simultaneously conceal and expose. Yet the concealment only appears to heighten her fans’ desire for exposure. Mitski is the careful architect of the music her fans fall in love with; once they’re in love with it, they sometimes seem to view the music as a delivery mechanism for her. “You’re the love of my life,” another woman said, at Brooklyn Steel, in the crowd next to me. She didn’t even yell it. It was just what she felt.