Exploring why the songwriter's music is so profoundly moving to so many of us
Photo by Alex Broadwell
This is an essay about a fairly new line of communication between me and a fellow artist who I cannot get out of the front of my head.
With a voice like a giant bell’s chiming, Mitski unveils, “I’m holding my breath with a baseball bat / though I don’t know what I’m waiting for.” The line, from her song Townie, puts to words so many of the feelings we all hold about what makes us feel vulnerable. And that is an exceptional use for music. To tell us something so profound over a mind-sticking composition is really hard work. And Mitski works the hardest. Her hard work is everything, and it’s a sacrifice for her:
“I give a lot; I give everything,” she told me in an interview. “Making music is what I sacrifice everything else in my life for, yet time and again it’s treated like a child’s cure performance at a dinner party. The guests politely sit through song and clap, and then expect me to be done and keep being cute and obedient. When I say ‘no I’m not done,’ I’m scolded and told I’ve had my moment and that’s enough. When I further say, ‘no, this is my art,’ I’m told that I’m throwing a tantrum, that I need to go away and be quiet.”
The feeling of ‘that’s enough,’ ‘never enough,’ ‘almost enough,’ is so much of what has created every desire in the pit of my stomach and the back of my brain. Many of us share this experience because of the misogyny that hits the shields of bravery and salts the wounds of our vulnerability.
“Making music is what I sacrifice everything else in my life for, yet time and again it’s treated like a child’s cure performance at a dinner party. The guests politely sit through song and clap, and then expect me to be done and keep being cute and obedient.”
As a woman of color artist and writer for Spark Mag, I self-interestedly wanted to ask Mitski something about being a person of color. Mitski expressed unease with the question, but acknowledged that there was a level of trust between us and that she knew I was coming from a genuine place. Her answer will forever change the way I see this question that’s often posed to artists of color in white spaces:
“I get asked this often in interviews, and I’ve always been addressing it in earnest thinking it’s important for other East Asian and mixed race people to see me doing this, to see me out here making music and addressing this question. But I’ve come to see that my being vocal about this in the press has only seemed to benefit white people. I find that I’m often used as the token ‘woman of color’ artist, where the publication congratulated me for being a ‘woman of color’ and also making music, and in doing so congratulates themselves for featuring a woman of color. They feel like good progressive people, and their predominantly white indie rock scene readership feels like good progressive people, and everyone feels like they’ve done their part. Meanwhile, I’m half white and half ‘model minority,’ I am probably their least threatening person of color option- and brown and black audiences still feel unsafe or uncomfortable in many music spaces just the same. I’m sitting here afterward going ‘wait, did they even ask me one question about my music?’ And I feel used and cynical.”
That is part of what Whiteness does–it turns non-white people against each other, making us segregate ourselves into a spectrum of the most to least oppressed. And it ends up being a huge race to the bottom and we are left using the colonizer’s tools against each other. So we don’t take up too much space in the meeting, or we don’t take on the oppressive sound guy. Those divisions are exploited by those in power. Mitski explained the effect on her:
“As a mixed Asian artist, the biggest wall that I’m faced with is that it’s always assumed that I deserve less. It always seems to come as a shock and a big offense when I ask for more in exchange for what I’ve offered. I’m always confronted with the attitude that I should be grateful for what I’m given, and when I disagree, I’m called a greedy and ungrateful bitch, when very often that ‘more’ that I’ve asked for is simply more professionalism, more respect, or plainly an equal amount to what I’ve given.”
And that is the cost of being relentlessly true to her position of power relative to others in the game. People of color who are seen as more threatening to the status of many music spaces need to be represented more. It is not that there is a dearth of musicians of color; there is a dearth of relationships between white people booking shows and people of color. When artists who are not white men do assert ourselves, we are punished for our ‘attitude,’ our ‘demeanor,’ and respectability politics make it that much harder to get the wage we deserve for our work.
Often our desire to do something we are passionate about is sedated by self doubt. We become convinced we should not defend ourselves, that it’s better to placate everyone and simply ‘keep calm.’ Part of that doubt might be real, but there are also institutional forces out there that make our mind manager tells us to ‘go away and be quiet.’ Despite her obvious talents, Mitski too has not escaped that judgmental inner voice:
“I think being confronted with this over and over has bred an unhealthy habit in me, where it’s made me immediately go on the defensive in all my relationships, whether who I’m working with is actually being disrespectful or not. I feel the need to be in control and understand everything that’s happening at all times, because otherwise power and control can be taken from with such ease. It made it difficult for me to be open and vulnerable, and this in turn feeds into narrative that I’m a conniving control freak. So now I’m fucking paranoid and second guessing all my decisions, which is the opposite of what one should do as a band leader, and head of business, and artist. Every action I need to take is stunted by doubt–am I really being unreasonable and ‘crazy,’ or am I being told so in order to keep me from power? Am I asking for too much, or not enough?”
Such warping of reality must be considered within institutions of gender, race, and sexuality. But Mitski fends off any generalization, adding, “And I think this is what it’s be like for me specifically as a mixed Asian cis woman.”
That paranoia is potent when trying to say or do anything with a conscience. It is present in so many relationships and between conditions of our reality. It’s a paranoia that creates so much gravity. It makes work radioactive and it is struggle to push a feel of insufficiency to an acknowledgement of a pattern of external and internal power structures. And it’s not all going to work the same for everyone.
“Every action I need to take is stunted by doubt–am I really being unreasonable and ‘crazy,’ or am I being told so in order to keep me from power? Am I asking for too much, or not enough?”
Back in her song Townie, Mitski pleads, “Change, change, change is gonna come / But, When? When? When?” As alienation tries to numb our vision of change, Mitski’s music pulls my eyelids back up. Her music works against what tries to sedate our chanting desires and reaches for a world beyond what we already know. But Mitski’s music alone, as with as anyone’s music, film, rally, or piece of legislation, is not going to be an ends to any sort of madness. As fans place heavy emotional and social expectations on her and her work, how does Mitski see her role as a musician? What intentions is she bringing to what she is putting out there?
“Actually, I often think about not making my political opinions public anymore. Not because I don’t care about all these issues anymore, but precisely because these issues are so important, and I’ve been finding that my being vocal may actually be hurtful to these causes, or may twist them and shift the focus away from the issues themselves and unknowingly turn them into aspects of a brand. I’m in the public eye in whatever small way because I’m a musician, my skill is making art and performing. I’m not nearly as informed or involved enough to be an activist or a politician, but because I’m being vocal about my political opinions while being in this very public sphere, I’ve inadvertently made people view me as some kind of political figure. Again, I’m not educated enough at all to be responsible for political leadership–my skill is to write and perform music! So I’ve been naively talking about political and social issues, simply because I believe they are things that people need to be aware of, without thinking that people would then register what I’m saying as being part of a ‘brand’ that can then be exploited, and further without realizing that what I say as a public person can then be taken, twisted, and used to suit other people’s and organizations’ agendas.The whole process of slow realization has been making me feel sick and sad, so I’ve been thinking that I should stop talking, look around, and not open my mouth again until I figure out a way to use my position to make people aware of important global goings-on, while keeping in mind that this very position I’m in could also potentially aid in the exploitation of such important causes.”
“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”- James Baldwin
Like so many of her obsessive fans, I’ve read all the amazing interviews Mitski has done where she talks about her experience in the music industry, I’ve screenshoted all the Facebook posts about how she is “a girl with a band not in a band,” and I’ve literally laughed out loud at so many of her tweets. Her music and what she decides to share with the public are essential in an industry that doesn’t want to realize that artists like her are the present and future of music. They are not outliers or something “special” or “lucky.”
Mitski is on tour all the time. She works hard and deals with a lot of bullshit. Yet she still puts it all out there because as she has said every time I have seen her perform, “I am happy that I have found something that I love to do and that I get to do it here.” What would happen if more people felt this about their work? It would be a threat to everything we currently know about labor. A lot of anguish would have to be vomited up.