Mitski and the Art of Vulnerability – Harvard Political Review

Posted: November 9, 2019 at 10:50 am


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Japanese-American singer-songwriter Mitski plowed her way through an hourlong Capitol Hill Block Party set with none of the frantic hype or endless appeals to the audience that characterize most festival acts. Her oeuvre is difficult to describe: at once a restrained, controlled masterclass in storytelling and a howling maelstrom of emotion, she moves from indie rock about the Asian-American diaspora experience (Your Best American Girl) to dance-pop about loneliness (Nobody, her biggest hit to date). A quick scan of critical pieces about her reveals the tendency on the part of her audience to read her work as autobiographical and project their private griefs onto it. She told Pitchfork: I was always bothered when people say, I cry to your music, it sounds like a diary, it sounds so personal. Yes, it is personal. But thats so gendered. Theres no feeling of, Oh, maybe shes a songwriter and she wrote this as a piece of art.

Her set played with the tension between performance and emotion and between audience projection and artists privacy. Unlike the other artists I saw at the Block Party, Mitski got on stage half an hour before her set, checking her equipment and putting tape on the ground. She joked with technicians and band members but is a consummate professional. Although her setup is not part of her set, it establishes for the audience that her performance is her job: not an organic outflow of emotion but a calculated and choreographed ritual. Mitski stands on stage in a uniform: white shirt, black pants or shorts, and kneepads the last of which hammer home the athletic nature of her work and the toll performing takes on her body.

Mitski dances through her entire set. Her motions are at times balletic, at times mime-like, telegraphing the artifice of the familiar movements of club dancing and yoga and all the other ways in which womens bodies are presented to and consumed by the public. During Liquid Smooth she positions herself like a butterfly pinned. Wailing and haunting, it is the most explicit song in her repertoire and yet the farthest possible thing from slow R&B song or a club banger I am an organism / Im chemical, thats all that is all, she sings, and feel my skin is plump and full of life, Im in my prime.As she gyrated and sang, I watched the security guard in the front turn away from the stage and fix his eyes on the ground. I felt the same discomfort, an awareness of a hungry voyeurism that thoughtlessly and endlessly consumes. Shes aware of the jarring effect of the obvious calculation of her movements juxtaposed against the normal laissez-faire throwing-around of the body that characterizes festival audiences and artists alike. Halfway through her set, she stops churning out the music to acknowledge the crowd and notes their confusion. This is it! she says. If you dont know me, this is what the whole set is like.

Other than that as well as the flippant Im Mitski. Bye. that closes out the set she doesnt acknowledge the audience. Mitski doesnt crowdsurf or jump into the pit. She looks not at, but through the crowd. A man beside me keeps reaching out to her, shouting her name; she doesnt reach back. All this negation of the parasocial relationship of the audiences desire to connect with her creates something else entirely new. The audiences relationship with her pain, her deliberate constructed onstage vulnerability, her moment with herself, feels intimate because it is their own mirror image. The stillness of the water, if you will, is not breached; you are free to project yourself entirely onto the artistic experience she has created.

Other critics have commented that Mitskis most dedicated fans are by and large young Asian-American women and gay men. I, a young Asian-American woman, staked out a front-row spot to the left of another Asian woman who made room for me as the moment the previous act finished up. To my right a young man texted his boyfriend, trying to find him in the crowd. Further back, the latecomers begin to look more and more like the majority-white demographic of the festival at large; they also look more and more confused by whats going on onstage. Mitskis appeal to young Asian women seems obvious, as she has acknowledged the influence of Asian-American identity on her music. Most notably, Your Best American Girl is an ode to an American boy whose mother wouldnt approve / of how my mother raised me / but I do, I finally do. Mitski disapproves of the public reaction to it, which focused on the songs uniqueness in the overwhelmingly white world of indie rock. On Facebook, she wrote: I wasnt trying to send a message. I was in love. The assumption that her lyrics are entirely personal and the assumption that they are inherently political, although seemingly opposite, both represent a refusal to think of the marginalized artists as capable of producing on multiple levels, a refusal to treat their work as worth inquiring into.

Indeed, its common to hear from her fans that Mitskis appeal is not in her explicit political statements, but something more abstract: she just gets it. She pins down a kaleidoscope of very specific experiences. If you need to be mean, be mean to me / I can take it and put it inside of me is perhaps a familiar feeling to many, but silent suffering holds a specific meaning for Asian women, who are too used to being its vessels. The cultural expectation that Asian women are willing to undergo duress in order to preserve social harmony or personal relationships is insidious. Mitski captures our perverse pride in our ability to suffer. In Brand New she sings, If I gave up on being pretty, I wouldnt know how to be alive / I should move to a brand new city, and teach myself how to die might sound dramatic to the casual listener, but for her young female Asian fans the line might capture exactly the experience of wasting your teen years trying to look beautiful the way the white majority wants you to. I spent all my teen-age years being obsessed with beauty, and Im very resentful about it, she told Jillian Mapes. Its a timely message in an age where influencers act like the bare requisite of beauty is ten steps of skincare routine at night and an hour of hair and makeup in the morning.

Her most recent album, Be The Cowboy, is an ode to the mythical American cowboy ethos of freedom, of doing what you want. Implicitly, it claims that ethos for people who have never had it before. For me, Why Didnt You Stop Me (I know that I ended it, but / why didnt you chase after me / You know me better than I do so / why didnt you stop me) is her most cowboy-ish song on the album: for once, the onus of vulnerability, owning up to mistakes and loss, sacrificing your pride to save a relationship is not on her.

Remember My Name captures a complicated relationship between public performance and private, intimate self: cause I need somebody to remember my name / after all that I can do for them is done. As an artist, she is expected to strip herself bare for public enjoyment. I gave too much of myself tonight, she sings, and then turns around to ask for more: Can you come to where Im staying and / make some extra love / that I can save for tomorrows show. The truth about the cowboy ethos is that it means being allowed to be selfish, to demand love, to stop giving yourself. As Zoe Hu put it for BuzzFeed News, Mitskis music is imbued with a self-centeredness that, for any oft-effaced Asian listener, can border on the revolutionary. Its a far cry from Puberty 2s evocation of trapped desire: I wanna see the whole world / I dont know how Im gonna pay rent / I wanna see the whole world / would you kill me, Jerusalem? she howls on My Bodys Made of Crushed Little Stars.

I came alone to her set, so did half the other people in the front row. We shared an experience so personal that none of us wanted to invite anyone else in our lives to it, and we get the sense that Mitski has too. Ive tried sharing and Ive tried caring and Ive tried putting out / but the boys, boys, boys keep coming back for more, more, more, she sings in Townie. Watching her up onstage, I wished I could be what she was: closed off, fully in control of what she gives out and what her viewers take from her. Asian women in America are expected to be obedient, passive, vulnerable, giving, endlessly grateful for scraps; female artists are expected to be open, authentic, raw, personal. Mitski refuses.

Image Credit: Unsplash/BrunoCervera

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Mitski and the Art of Vulnerability - Harvard Political Review

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November 9th, 2019 at 10:50 am