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Untangling the Unique, Private and Meteoric Rise of Mitski in the Age of TikTok

Once an indie darling, Mitski’s 2023 hit “My Love Mine All Mine” has taken her to brand new heights. Over a billion streams later, and she remains offline and unwilling to give into the machine that pleads for her to enable parasociality.

[Paste Magazine]

By Leah Weinstein

Mitski’s meteoric rise over the past year of her career has been nothing short of an anomaly. Last September, the former indie darling garnered her first Billboard-charting single with “My Love Mine All Mine,” peaking at #26. It doesn’t seem like Mitski (or her team) did anything in pursuit of this song becoming the hit that it is—it just sort of happened, which is even more confounding, considering that “My Love Mine All Mine” wasn’t even one of the album’s three pre-release singles (“Bug Like an Angel,” “Star” and “Heaven” were given that designation). If anything, Mitski and her team took the opposite approach to promotion than what is typically advised; their distant and hands-off approach is truly a testament of two things: Mitski’s prowess as an artist, and the significance of luck in the music industry.

For the week of May 31st, 2024, Mitski’s The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We was the 193rd-most streamed album on Spotify globally, and peaked at #37 last October. The record was sandwiched between two blockbuster rap albums, Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2 and Bryson Tiller’s T R A P S O U L, and, since its September 2023 release, remained in the Spotify Global Top 200 chart until the week of June 13th, 2024—which is especially rare but perhaps not for an indie label release like Mitski’s, which came via the ever-timeless Dead Oceans (Wednesday, Japanese Breakfast, Phoebe Bridgers). “My Love Mine All Mine,” in particular, has become a giant, as it recently crossed the 1 billion streams threshold on Spotify after being out for just nine months. For context, Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” did not hit that milestone until last November, despite having been on the platform for six years.

Mitski is no stranger to the “indie darling” title. Her first label-distributed record, 2014’s Bury Me At Makeout Creek, captured the eyes and ears of many in the music journalism sphere—and for good reason. The record scored a write up from Rolling Stone in which her guitar work was likened to Black Sabbath and Liz Phair, and Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen ended his review of the record saying that “the craft here is obvious, as is the accruing confidence of someone who’s developed a compelling voice in obscurity.” Makeout Creek is a raw and vulnerable record, with a spectrum of emotion that is only bolstered by its charmingly low-budget production. Mitski’s masterful songwriting can be found in any song on the record, but “Last Words of a Shooting Star” may be the most poignant: “And did you know the liberty bell is a replica silently housed in its original walls? / And while its dreams played music in the night / Quietly, it was told to believe” is a hauntingly beautiful lyric about insecurity and the questionable worthiness of perseverance, and Mitski’s range with both is what allowed her to maintain and grow that indie darling positioning as her career continued. Her music was known to be patently sad, but in such a way that replayability was not jeopardized. Listeners knew what they were going into Mitski’s work for, but they also knew she had the drive and capacity to innovate her sound on future releases.

Consistent growth in critical appreciation is exactly what happened for Mitski. 2016’s Puberty 2 and 2018’s Be the Cowboy both have an aggregate critic score of 85 out of 100, and both ended up topping several year-end and decade-end lists (Puberty 2 clocked in at #5 on Paste’s year-end list; Be the Cowboy was voted the sixth-best LP two years later). Songs like “Your Best American Girl,” “Nobody” and “I Bet On Losing Dogs” became cult classics for their evergreen lyrics about the struggles of finding love and feeling inadequate. By 2020, Mitski had built a massively dedicated fanbase and her records sold well among the music obsessives who adored her, but her name had yet to reach the ears of the general public.

During the album cycles for Puberty 2 and Be the Cowboy, Mitski was considerably active on social media, especially Twitter. While all of those old tweets are now deleted, the Internet Archives show that she was posting several times a day—either by responding to fan questions or musing on her own personal qualms with the world. Her profile picture was her pouring NyQuil into a Starbucks cup, and she would tweet things like “I am always amazed by how ‘peekaboo’ really does work on children.” She was reachable; she was one of us. That would all come to a halt at the end of 2019, when the Be the Cowboy album cycle was nearing its end. Mitski deleted her Twitter, and it would not come back until the announcement of her sixth studio album, Laurel Hell, in 2021. Even then, the account ceased to be run by her, and all of its posts were now written in the third person.

Towards the end of touring for Be the Cowboy, Mitski toyed with the idea of retiring from music entirely. She did not feel cut out for the fame she was garnering, and the pressures of a growing fanbase were gnawing at her. She announced that her 2019 Central Park show would be her “last show indefinitely,” and she moved to Nashville to become a ghost songwriter. If it weren’t for the pandemic forcing everyone to rethink their lives and livelihoods, that might have been the end of Mitski’s story. She later admitted that the pandemic made her realize that she had made a mistake, and her urges to quit making music for herself were misguided by the turmoil of fame—an engine of reckoning explored further in “Working For the Knife,” the lead single of Laurel Hell. “I always thought the choice was mine / And I was right, but I just chose wrong / I start the day lying and end with the truth / That I’m dying for the knife,” she sings atop sparse, industrial synths, letting us in on her internal battle between passion for making and sharing her music (and the anguish that comes with said music having to be a commercial product). And yet, Mitski marched on.

Laurel Hell became Mitski’s worst-received album critically, but that tepidness is still far more revered than the career high-points of many other artists. Still, its critical aggregate score was 80, and many members of her core cult fanbase were disappointed with the direction she took on this record. Much of the album was inspired by ‘80s synth pop, a genre that both doesn’t suit Mitski’s writing very well and has also been accomplished much better by other albums in this past decade (Paramore’s After Laughter, Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion, and Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time, just to name a few). Up until that point, Laurel Hell generated the best first-week sales of Mitski’s career (debuting at #5 on the Billboard 200), but the record had no staying power. It dropped off the chart immediately after its debut, and two years removed from its release, it’s failed to hold anything resembling a career highlight. This is especially interesting, considering that, in theory, Laurel Hell is Mitski’s most “commercially-viable” record yet.

The Laurel Hell album cycle also ushered in the beginnings of Mitski’s hands-off approach to her career. Her social media pages were reactivated, but it was made abundantly clear that Mitski put down the bottle of NyQuil in favor of another way to get better sleep: staying off of Twitter. Her accounts became solely a vehicle for announcements and promotion. The reason that Laurel Hell charted at all in the first place was because certain songs in Mitski’s back catalog had been gaining traction on TikTok from 2020 onward. “Washing Machine Heart,” “Nobody” and “Me and My Husband” from Be the Cowboy, in particular, struck the algorithm the hardest—with the songs having 186,300, 321,600 and 117,000 videos using them as audio, respectively. Because of this, Mitski’s music has now reached an entire new audience of chronically online Zoomers, in addition to the fanbase she had already accrued through theatrical shows, a legendary Tiny Desk concert and a gig opening for Lorde on the Melodrama World Tour. While that may not be a particularly fortunate outcome for someone who doesn’t enjoy extensive media attention and overly parasocial fans (I was in the room when the “mother is mothering” incident happened), it is ultimately the cause for The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We becoming her best-selling record by a landslide.

What makes Mitski’s music so susceptible to “TikTokification” is something that has plagued the internet the entire time I’ve been alive: People can never seem to get enough of women suffering. Singer-songwriter Eliza McLamb articulates this phenomenon succinctly on her song “Modern Woman,” singing that “they love me when I’m miserable / ‘Cause I’m super marketable / Sad girl sings a simple song / And all the others sing along.” Teenagers being the plurality of active TikTok users—along with them being the most active consumers of music and its ancillary products—became the perfect storm for Mitski to reap the rewards of TikTok’s algorithm. Other acts like Pavement and boygenius have unwittingly fallen to a similar fate, just in different ways. Pavement’s “Harness Your Hopes” earned the band their first RIAA Gold certification 16 years after the song’s initial release, but this seemingly happened in isolation. Sadly, very few people are making fancams of Stephen Malkmus, but “Harness Your Hopes” has soundtracked countless “fit checks” over the past year-and-a-half. Conversely, boygenius have struck TikTok’s algorithm in such a way that the group as people and as a “brand” have almost superseded the music itself. The “suffering woman” motif comes into play for them as well which, in my experience at their shows, opened up the door for some of the most asinine crowd behavior—similar to some of Mitski’s recent concerts.

What’s ironic here, though, is that Mitski’s breakthrough hit in question, “My Love Mine All Mine,” is not a sad song at all. It’s actually one of the happiest songs Mitski has ever written—a profession of self-love. In an interview with Genius breaking down the song’s lyrics, she sums up that the idea behind it is “this love I feel in me, that I’ve created in me, that I’ve built in me, that I’ve held onto. And it’s mine for as long as I want it, for as long as I don’t give it up or let the world take it away from me.” While this sentiment is antithetical to why her music gained traction on the platform in the first place, it is also why “My Love Mine All Mine” specifically catapulted beyond the scope of her other spikes in the algorithm.

The chorus (‘Cause my love is mine, all mine / I love, my, my, mine / Nothing in the world belongs to me / But my love, mine, all mine, all mine) harbors four vital aspects: a catchy melody, easily memorable lyrics, minimalistic production and versatility for the sake of content creation (even though the latter was likely not Mitski’s intention while writing it). “My Love Mine All Mine” could truly be used for almost any kind of TikTok format, which is why it’s been used in 2.2 million videos and counting. It also helps that The Land is Inhospitable and So Are We was released by Dead Oceans, whose popularity has persisted through the period where all UMG distributed music was restricted on the platform, as well. The short-and-sweet nature of the song, too, allowed for it to become the streaming giant that it is.

While the success of “My Love Mine All Mine” certainly eclipses that of the rest of The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, that is not to say that the record performed poorly at all. All 11 songs have each surpassed 10 million Spotify streams, and it’s the most critically-celebrated of Mitski’s career, with an aggregate critic score of 88 (and a Paste review score of 8.9)—making it the second-highest rated album among critics in 2023, only trailing Sufjan Stevens’s JavelinThe Land is Inhospitable and So Are We’s heavy Americana and chamber-folk influence actually is a step back from the commercial accessibility of Laurel Hell, but it happened to also align with the indie music’s current alt-country trend. Bands like Wednesday and Big Thief have been met with considerable critical acclaim in recent years, as they added some extra twang into their already-country-influenced sounds.

Mitski and her team have not leaned into the song’s successes whatsoever, though, having simply allowed it to continue growing organically. Artists like Alex G and Faye Webster have had similar boosts in notoriety from TikTok, but they have also largely continued on with their career without feeling the need to release an EP of the same song at varying speeds. Mitski herself has maintained her vow to stay off the internet, and her social media platforms chug onwards as merely a vehicle for her tour updates. She has no plans to give into the machine that pleads for her to enable parasociality, despite her fame and popularity continuing to grow. Her music is fantastic, and people can appreciate that on its own. Mitski has a voice, and she has every right to contain it within her art and within her art only.