When I first heard Mitski’s songs, I recoiled from what seemed like pining frailty. Now I see how radical her angst is.
On her new album Be the Cowboy, Mitski Miyawaki sings about a push-pull kind of love that will sound familiar to longtime fans: “Sorry I don’t want your touch,” goes the singer’s glum fourth track. “It’s not that I don’t want you.”
This ambivalence — the desire for an intimacy that must be measured and carefully controlled — has inspired much of the Japanese American singer’s previous work, yet the inner struggles recounted on Be the Cowboy feel tauter, more strained. In the flurry of press that accompanied the album’s release, Mitski said that she channeled the record through the persona of an “icy repressed woman” whom she envisions as a mutation, or perhaps radicalization, of certain parts of herself. On Be the Cowboy, Mitski leaps from this persona to riff off other fictional voices, telling the stories of a housewife and a melancholic old couple. Fact Magazine called the record a “deft experiment in narrative.” For its own review, NPR ran the headline “Mitski’s fiction is your truth.”
The word “persona” — in its Latin and ancient Greek variations — used to literally mean mask, or the face an actor would wear while performing a stage role. With its spinning rotary of female angst, Be the Cowboy explores the limits of personas, allowing Mitski to swap faces between songs and showcase herself as an artist whose imaginative empathy is matched by a deep exploration of her own emotional range. But of course, masks must eventually come off, and when they do the wearer will reckon with her true self underneath. Be the Cowboy accepts this possibility, but also seems to hint at a darker, more subterranean fear: Sometimes you take the mask off and get a glimpse of your own soul. Other times, however, all you see is “Nobody.”
I first came across Mitski’s music maybe a year or two ago, when I clicked on the video for “Your Best American Girl” while aimlessly browsing the internet. I remember watching her sing, and the surprise of clocking a face that looked more like mine than most others. I remember not really liking what I heard.
Mitski’s sad music seemed indulgent, crooning out an encouragement for lonely girls everywhere to dwell in their own defeat. All I wanted, meanwhile, was permission to feel good. I had already been out of high school for several years and was exhausted by my own confused identity politics, which I’d assembled from the debris of privilege (American, well-educated) fractured by otherness (Asian, female). I wished badly not to worry about any of it anymore. I wanted to listen to carefree music, fuck-you-pay-me music, “Bodak Yellow” music. When I heard Mitski’s songs instead, I recoiled from their melancholia, intuiting that the experience of hearing another Asian woman sing over and over again about not getting what she wanted was probably something I wouldn’t endure well.
But this was only the beginning. In 2017, seemingly everyone began talking about the rise of indie rock’s Asian American women, naming Mitski alongside Michelle Zauner, of Japanese Breakfast, as stars at the helm. Though the two performers differed in important ways, their songs were emotionally earnest and interested in the aesthetics of Americana and the suburban high school experience. They combined poetic lyricism with a more existential loneliness that had something to do with being part of slim ethnic minorities in America. Mitski, the premier example, wrote about universal emotions that resonated with thousands of fans, and yet her videos also hinted at the alienating experience of being a racial other. Hers was a compounded pain, both transcending race and somehow bizarrely tethered to it. Whom was she singing to? Did I resent her because her songs matched too well with my own experiences as an Asian woman, or not well enough?
Mitski wrote about universal emotions that resonated with thousands of fans, and yet her videos also hinted at the alienating experience of being a racial other. Hers was a compounded pain, both transcending race and somehow bizarrely tethered to it.
The burdens that we — the underrepresented — place on both artists and ourselves can be deeply unfair. I tried for a long time to cultivate a taste for Mitski, telling myself that I should be grateful for her success. Not since Karen O, and the brief teenage period when I overrode all available evidence to convince myself that Björk was of Asian descent, had I seen so many women like me performing. Yet I couldn’t shake my unease. Indie rock possesses an undeniable proximity to whiteness, and its fans often seem to demand a certain degree of cute, quirky harmlessness from their female singers. I knew that too often, the alternative sensibilities of the genre can act as a softcore disguise for rampant misogyny. Many lead indie women find themselves deified and turned into something more or less than human. Their angst becomes a fetish, used to stroke and validate the brooding self-images of white male listeners.
In popular media, Asian American women are already stripped of personality, made to look trembling or servile. I fretted over how Mitski’s vulnerability might be interpreted by fans while also resenting her sadness — her celebrated status as indie’s most emotional songwriter — for more personal reasons. It had been a long time since I’d finished high school and moved out of suburbia, after which I’d spent years trying to clamber out the pool of my own racially tempered angst. Mitski’s music felt like a hand from above, pushing me back in.
It can be difficult to separate Mitski’s music from the real live person performing it. In a 2018 interview with the Fader, Mitski recalled once passing through a concert crowd without security present in order to get to the stage. She had thought explaining the situation “would make everyone understand.” Instead, fans started grabbing at her. “It was like everyone’s eyes were sort of glazed over, and they didn’t see me as a real person telling them to stop. And that’s weird.”
The anecdote is vivid, almost eerie, but Mitski isn’t making the point in order to chide fans. “I think humans need symbols,” she says in the same interview, noting that she herself has never quite decided how to negotiate her new status as a beloved, sometimes aggrandized, performer. In Mitski’s view, stretching out a famous person’s human proportions and rendering them into a symbol can be a “healthy” mode of catharsis for fans. Besides, she points out, even in everyday conversations we are “projecting onto each other.” The fulfillment we seek from our idols, we also gain — in small and sometimes damaging ways — by distorting the people around us.
This inevitability is a recurring refrain in Mitski’s music, which explores how relationships beget projection, and how we ourselves are implicated in the ways people hurt us. “‘Cause nobody butters me up like you, and / nobody fucks me like me,” goes the fan-favorite line on “Lonesome Love.” Similarly, the slow-burning track “Remember My Name” dramatizes the anxiety of predicating one’s existence on the presence of others: “I need somebody to remember my name,” Mitski sings, like a person in danger of dissolving.
Mitski’s fans have long appreciated her music’s portrayal of failed or unrequited love. But as Be the Cowboy wheels between different personas and beloveds, the album hammers home a more foundational truth: It’s equally as painful to just try and be present with others. There’s a futility in hearing and seeing a person when you’re constantly using them to prop up versions of yourself. As Mitski sings in “Washing Machine Heart,” “Baby, though I’ve closed my eyes / I know who you pretend I am.”
Listening to Be the Cowboy, I am reminded of a quote from George Eliot’s 19th-century masterpiece Middlemarch: “Will not a tiny speck very close to our vision blot out the glory of the world … ? I know no speck so troublesome as self.” Roughly 150 years later, Eliot just may have reframed the problem like this: Who ever fucks you more — or better — than yourself? If this all sounds a little masturbatory, perhaps that’s the point. In the video for one of the album’s singles, “Geyser,” Mitski raises her hand and sings her yearning lyrics to it, an action reminiscent of the famously funny moment in the video for “Your Best American Girl,” when she makes out with her own palm. At the bottom of any search for a partner, she seems to suggest, is the self. We’re compulsively driven toward the presence of those we love, and yet we remain obsessed with how our varied deficiencies and identities rebound off of them, back toward us.
I’d spent years trying to clamber out the pool of my own racially tempered angst. Mitski’s music felt like a hand from above, pushing me back in.
Even as Be the Cowboy speaks eloquently about loneliness, Mitski isn’t necessarily reaching for other people. Often her own personhood appears to be the most elusive, sought-after destination in the album. Who can I be, she seems to be asking, and who — or what — will help me get there? It is almost miraculous that an Asian American singing this type of music has achieved both popularity and critical acclaim in the US, where mainstream culture rarely assumes that the problems of Asian women are philosophical or spiritual, if they exist at all.
One of the most wonderful ironies of Be the Cowboy is that Mitski has proven herself to be a better sad white boy than all the real sad white boys of her genre. Women of East Asian descent, who in America form a relatively affluent minority, are perhaps the true heirs to indie angst, best positioned to harness its requisite dual staples: a sense of unbelonging that borders on the existential, and the time and privilege necessary to sing about it.
Though commentators have said that Mitski’s music is “seldom explicitly political,” her songs remain novel in their questioning of how one should hone a personal, marginalized identity while having relationships with others. This involves a self-centeredness that, for any oft-effaced Asian listener, can border on the revolutionary. At times, watching her perform in front of fans with her eyes closed, it seems as though Mitski is singing not just about but also to herself.
It was a long time before I could see the radical potential in Mitski’s turmoil, and even now I am unsure if I have been able to look past the speck of myself to truly understand what she’s aiming to do. Mine was a particularly gnarly speck, complicated by various political and racial hang-ups. I wanted something specific from Asian American women in music and was unable to accept it when, instead of modeling strength, they revealed their weaknesses.
When the moment finally came for me to meet Mitski on her terms, I was unprepared. It was while watching a clip of her NPR Tiny Desk Concert. During the second song of the set, “Class of 2013” I watched Mitski hold up her guitar and shout her lyrics into its strings: “Mom, would you wash my back? / This once and then we can forget / And I’ll leave what I’m chasing / For the other girls to pursue.” She looked subdued, pared down to the bare necessities in a long skirt and tank top. The vibrations on the strings caused her voice to rebound, and maybe it was in this thrown echo that I first finally heard her. I am tired, she seemed to be saying, and I am ready to come home.
Onto Mitski I had projected a pining frailty, believing that the lovesickness in her songs prefigured a neglect of the self, a docile masochism. I didn’t realize how wrong I was, and how so much of her music’s yearning was, in fact, the opposite . Mitski’s songs are at base an interrogation and protection and holding of the self. I replayed the video as I teared up, pausing on the still of her lifting her own guitar: Where have you been, I wondered. And what took me so long?
Our favorite musicians have frequently disappointed us in how they choose to express themselves, but since Twitter came along to amplify their voices, the debate has become trickier. We argue endlessly over how much importance we should assign to the political statements of our idols: Shouldn’t they know better? Is it unreasonable of us to expect them to? Just how problematic is your fave? We are, in short, talking about the musicians we deeply love and cherish while trying to be rational in our disappointment. Meanwhile, no one wants to admit that what we want from a musician politically, we often also want from them personally, emotionally, in the desperate way that a child wants something from a god they still believe in and pray to at night. We want a person bigger than us to vouch for our suffering and magnify its profundity. We want to hear someone knowing that they, having never met us, can somehow hear us too.
Mitski’s music seems to hint at the perils of these expectations. The ricochet of different identities in her songs reminds us to treat one another — and, by extension, the artists we follow — a little fairer, while her mature understanding of fame suggests that the symbols we crave can’t always be rationalized. Be the Cowboy emphasizes the difficulty of separating one’s search for the self from one’s view of the other, and it is Mitski’s use of the ecstasy and immense pain in this entanglement that makes her music so exhilarating. Or that’s what it seems like here, at least, from where I stand. ●
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