Photo Courtesy of Mitski, Illustrations by Liana Chaplain
Preview by Marie Lachance
“Mitski is totally subverting her genre by being a woman of color in indie rock.” That’s one reason why Brown Concert Agency (BCA) selected the American-Japanese musician to perform at Spring Weekend, according to BCA member Alex Westfall. “She’s a total trailblazing pop artist, and other people are following in her path,” Alex explained, viscerally excited. It’s hard to disagree: Mitski songs have a tendency to resonate and stick with you like gum on your shoes. The combination of her gut wrenching narratives and vibrant, funky melodies are magnetic, especially for young people, struggling with their identity and place within the world. Alex feels like Mitski resonates with her because “her songs are about these very in-between spaces of identity, which a lot of people at Brown – or people our age in general – have a lot to think about. So many of us feel stuck in the middle, and she brings that to light so beautifully.” Mitski gives us the vocabulary to express ourselves in ways we didn’t know were possible.
Despite some uninformed grumblings around campus, Mistki is not simply another Pitchfork accredited artist your pretentious-indie-soft-boy friend is trying to get you to listen to. I firmly believe that Mitski is, and should be, representative of the bright future of pop music. One of my friends put it simply: “She just has that rare talent so many people try and fail to emulate.”
Mitski Miyawaki is a 28-year-old musician from pretty much everywhere. Although she was born in Japan, she grew up moving from place to place, as her father’s job demanded. In an interview with Pitchfork, Mitski admitted that she “didn’t even make friends because I knew it would be goodbye in a year. Everyone else just thought I was different in weird.” In an unstable world, Mitski clung to the stability of her music -- as a way to define her herself, for herself only.
It wasn’t until Miyawaki went to college (at Hunter and SUNY Purchase in New York) that she recorded and self-released her first and second albums. However, her third studio album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, released in 2014, began her long journey to mainstream recognition. Mitski’s voice cuts clean throughout the entire album, her lyrics intimate and resilient. On “First Love / Late Spring,” Mitski heartbreakingly sings:
“And I was so young / When I behaved / Twenty five / Yet now I find / I’ve grown into / A tall child.”
The entire album beams with uncertainty and isolation, and strikes me as the poetic confession of a broken heart. Ridden with fuzzy guitars and impulsive vocals, Bury Me at Makeout Creek is possibly Mitski’s most passionate and least cohesive album to date. In an interview with Fader, she admitted that she “didn’t have resources, but I made it happen, and I used whatever was around me to try to express myself.” The result is as tear-jerking as it is furious, and that potent combination is what has made Mitski’s fans stick by her side.
But by her fourth studio album, Puberty 2, released in 2016, Mitski says she had “figured out what to do.” When asked what had changed within these years to make this album even more successful, Mitski plainly replied, “I was touring more, doing more press – just learning how to be a working musician.” Puberty 2 is filled with salient narrative. Pitchfork described each song as containing “its own universe, with Mitski as both its queen and sole resident.” Although it carries over themes of isolation and love, or more commonly the lack of love, Mitski emerges as powerful as ever. The most popular song on the album, “Best American Girl,” deals with the in-between-spaces that I spoke with Alex about, and explores what it means and feels like to not ever feel American enough. She wails, longingly, “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I think I do.” Grappling with self-love and respect, identity and confusion, and a world that demands to put you into one box or the other, Mitski rises above and gives her fans more questions than answers.
Mitski’s fifth album, Be The Cowboy, has been her most-popular album to date, rising to #3 on the U.S. Indie Rock charts. The album is feminine in the truest sense of the word. Not soft and pink and precious, but feminine, in Mitski’s words, “in the violent sense.” In an interview with The Guardian, Mitski describes the feminine undertones of the album as “desiring, but not being able to define your desire, wanting a power but being powerless and blaming it on yourself, or just hurting yourself as a way to let out the aggression in you. It’s a lot of pent-up anger or desire without a socially acceptable outlet.” This album is the catharsis that many women need and relate to, especially in such turbulent times. Even the name of the album signals at something many women want but can’t have: The ability to put aside our identities and be a demanding, reckless, aimless cowboy. Mitski says she fantasizes about obtaining this much freedom and power: “I can make it on my own. I ride into town. I miss seeing that swaggering cowboy onstage. I miss being mesmerized by that, and I thought, ‘Well, I should just be that cowboy that I want to see onstage.’ I’m just going to be the thing that mesmerizes me.”
On Be The Cowboy, Mitski proves herself to be a masterful storyteller. The album opens on “Geyser,” a fatalistic cry to her one true love: Her music career. She sings of her tumultuous relationship with herself and her career, crooning,
“And hear the harmony / Only when it’s hurting me / It’s not real, It’s not real / It’s not real enough.”
Yet, soon enough, Mitski has transformed into an exhausted housewife on “Me and My Husband,” who is just “In the corner, taking up space.” Although the song is near-gimmicky in its use of show tune and pop elements, Mitski is getting at an idea that is quite terrifying – the feeling that no matter how hard she tries, she will always be living in a man’s world, taking up a man’s space, judged by a man’s standards. As she “steals a few breaths from the world for a minute,” the song becomes increasingly less gimmicky, and more reflective on the society we inhabit and perpetuate. “Nobody” is Mitski's most popular song to date, with over 13 million streams on Spotify. It is a perfect pop song, with bright, glorious disco elements and melodies that force you to get up and dance. In it, she takes on yet another role of a lonely and desperate woman who just “needs someone to kiss.” Just give Mitski one stupid kiss and she’ll be alright, she tells us. The entire album is flooded with pop and disco, stories and personas, feminine guilt and internalized pain. For me, it’s close to perfect.
Mitski has also been working with choreographer Monica Mirabile to put on a “more involved show.” Rather than playing an instrument on stage, which Mistki believes had become a “crutch” for her, she expresses herself through movement on stage. In an interview with Billboard, she admitted that she doesn’t “have any experience in dance, and [she’s] actually very shy and scared of being looked at, and so much could go horribly awry.” When I asked one of my friends who had seen Mitski this fall in Boston what her movement was like, she replied “Her performance itself was very methodical in the sense that she’d walk across the stage back and forth over and over and also had things she almost used as props repeatedly and it worked!” Another described the same performance as “hauntingly beautiful and viscerally moving. It didn’t put me in my feelings, it threw me in them.”
Full disclosure: I am a HUGE Mitski fan. On Christmas day, I was clicking through my social media feed and saw photos of Mitski with pop artist Empress Of and rising indie-synth goddess Sasami on the beach in California. For some reason, these pictures immediately made me emotional. I looked at them together, dancing in the water with their pants cuffed up, and I viscerally felt their talent, love, and support. This is the future of indie, this is the future of pop. In a space that has for so long been dominated by sad, scrawny white men and their guitars, there is a bright and pink horizon. These are beautiful and strong women of color who love and support and dance with each other. They hold space to tell compelling stories about their lives and identities with each other. They are overflowing with talent, and they are helping one another bubble to the top together. I have no doubt that when Mitski graces the green this Spring Weekend, you will be emotionally moved as well.