Mitski at the Moore Theatre in Seattle (2022) | Public domain / David Lee

Mitski Miyawaki is a 33-year-old indie singer songwriter, currently living in Nashville, Tennessee. In an interview, she said that it felt like a good place to observe the human condition, given that “there’s always a woman crying on the street and five other women in matching T-shirts comforting her.” This phenomenon is produced by the sheer number of bachelorette parties the city hosts every year.

Women crying and comforting each other is an important scene in Mitski’s work. Mitski is known for her moving songwriting abilities, conjuring up lyrics like “I’m holding my breath / with a baseball bat” or “Toss your dirty shoes / In my washing machine heart.” When I listen to her, it’s as though she can conjure up memories of my own life or even the memory of a life I’ve never lived. Her compositions range from slow ballads to brassy pop. Her voice is similarly wide-ranging. In one moment, she’ll be murmuring to you all kinds of confessional secrets: “If I could, I’d be your little spoon / And kiss your fingers forevermore…”  In another, she’ll be roaring with rage: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I think I do…” 

Her seventh and latest album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, is full of country ballads. She calls it her most “American” album. This seems right, given the imagery its songs evoke: “Buffalo Replaced” chomps repetitively through steady guitar riffs that evoke an image of a freight train, chugging along some middle American plain, rolling through a mountain range as the buffalo disappear from the landscape. “The Deal” begins with gentle guitar strums that build towards a symphonic passage that concludes with the sound of a fiddle. Of course, one need only to look at the title to see Mitski’s ambivalent feelings about the shared nation we call home. As much as we may desire something as simple as a place just to rest at the end of a workday, this home is inhospitable, economically and environmentally.

Mitski has, at certain moments, expressed discomfort with the emotional projections of her fanbase. In certain interviews, she has rejected the “sad-girl-schtick” description of her music as reductive. She’s expressed ambivalence about the virality of her music on TikTok. She’s expressed frustration that fans will spend entire concerts filming and has asked fans to put down their phones in order to be present with her. And then there’s some fans’ disturbing identification of her as their “mother,” as though they expect some kind of parenting. 

For an artist to feel unsure or confused about these moments of transference from fans seems fair; it’s a way of re-inscribing the very forms of fetish or idolatry that her music critiques. But considering the conditions of possibility of this kind of emotional investment helps me think about discussing my relationship to Mitski’s music as a fan and mixed-race Asian woman, one who has felt really at home in the singer’s storytelling.

On Monday, February 26th  2024, a gray and chilly night, my partner Zac and I stomped through Prospect Park to see Mitski’s Brooklyn concert at Kings Theater. When putting on his Doc Martens, Zac had teased me for wearing Timberlands: “You’re missing the uniform.”

Doc Martens are central to signaling you are part of Mitski’s young, queer and racialized indie audience. On the walk over, I asked Zac if he thought the singer would be proud of us for walking to her concert. He answered that she would, but suggested I stop worrying: “She’s just a musical artist,” he said. “Don’t be worried about impressing her.”

When she began her concert with the song “Everyone,” from her previous album Laurel Hell, I found myself tearing up—as if something very private to me had suddenly become very public. 

Hearing her voice live felt like listening to the voicemail of a former lover or a friend who you haven’t spoken to in a while. I felt pulled back into memories of listening to her on my bike, thinking about what I cared about in the world, who I loved, and what I could do for them. And I felt maybe I was having this feeling with several hundred other people simultaneously. I felt a little embarrassed.

But this shared process of responding intensely to a piece of music that pierces our souls and activates our imaginations is perhaps the most salient aspect of Mitski’s music. Though Mitski has held the world at an arm’s length—keeping many details about her personal life private—we can’t help investing ourselves, not just in her lyrics but in the multiple lives and worlds that she creates in each little song. We have no ability to tell which one is about her, so they all become her, and they all become us. It is this dynamic in her music that lifts you out of your individual narrative to care and invest in the world around you. The process of occupying a story that is not yours is part of the imaginative power of her songs. Fans don’t know that much about her past relationships, heartbreaks, and losses, and yet these topics emerge again and again in the songs. She’s written extensively on divorce, ambivalent feelings of romance, the excitement of doing your makeup getting ready to leave the house. 

But Mitski does more than create apparently confessional lyrics: she also powerfully evokes an oppressive and dying social context. She undermines the sentimental romantic themes of the indie pop genre. We are individuals who fall in and out of love, and this is a huge part of our sense of meaning. But, as expressed in Laurel Hell’s “Working for the Knife,” we are also tired and sore at the end of a workday, feeling our own precarity in our mundanity. Trudging endlessly forward to maintain our function in a workspace, we are terrified of the thoughts inside our heads while we wait out the clock of our shift under fluorescent lights and linoleum floors (as described in the world of “I Don’t Like My Mind”). We break our bodies and minds to find homes in an inhospitable world. Mitski tells stories about people grappling with homes and spaces inadequate to the task of caring and sustaining them. We have been sold a dream that romantic love can save us—pop songs being the central commodity towards this ideological vision—and yet, as she sings in Nobody, “Venus planet of love, was destroyed by global warming / Did its people want too much?”

Mitski’s music tells an individual’s story, love songs and the like, but she also gestures towards the structural and systemic production of that story. And this is why her young fan base is so loyal: she takes seriously their political cynicism and grief towards their disappearing future. In these songs she acknowledges what it feels like to inherit a dying planet, devastated by economic exploitation and the genocidal war crimes of settler colonialists. 

One of most critically acclaimed albums is called, cryptically, Be the Cowboy. Mitski has often said she likes to parody the Americana genre by imagining herself to be a cowboy roaming over the plains. But she also has shared a deep ambivalence in this image. What kind of cowboy, roaming over whose land?

Mitski is a storyteller, one who reminds us that we are a storytelling species. We imagine ourselves inside of a narrative, and have the ability to travel multiple potential worlds through a narrative process. And yet she undermines the static quality of a traditional narrative structure by evoking an experience of liminality, or in-between spaces. Hiro Cho calls this the quality of the “ineffable” that is present in Mitski’s music. Cho claims that the emotional significance of her work emerges from a quality of esotericism—in contrast to the realm of what is sayable and symbolic. Many have commented on Mitski’s ability to evoke a sensory experience that feels in between concepts, signifiers, language. She is often credited for creating a mood or feeling of what it may feel like to occupy different worlds, locations, cultures. She evokes the sense of feeling ghostlike as the world moves around. 

I think that the liminality of Mitski’s work and its diasporic quality are related both to her mixed-race heritage and her scattered cultural upbringing, which she has discussed extensively in interviews. “I grew up moving around, nothing felt permanent, I wasn’t from anywhere, everything was temporary and nothing felt like it was mine,” she has remarked. Zac Huang has noted that, “Asian diasporic sociality … is an uprooted way of life and is always situated on the outside of the universal and abstract subject and confined in an inscrutability.” As Asians, we emerge before the Other as alien or foreign; our opaque origins can be seen as either a remarkable disruption or as a threat. With cultures, nations, family, and ancestors so far away—through time and space—we feel groundless, uprooted. And we find ourselves without a stable set of concepts, narratives, or identities to take refuge in. 

Growing up mixed race allowed me to take on the view that the self was discontinuous, multiple, liminal. To watch my father and my mother move and comport themselves differently in different spaces—and to learn a different set of norms from one pair of grandparents to the next—gave me a kaleidoscopic approach to love and intimacy. And yet I relate to Mitski’s yearning for something permanent, stable, and eternal. When you are socially scripted as in-between, you still feel a desire to either stay at point A or arrive at point B.  

“My Love Is Mine All Mine” is one of the more popular songs from the new album. It’s gone viral on TikTok but also seems to be embraced beyond the 30 seconds that are normally looped on that app. It’s a softly crooned lullaby in which Mitski expresses a desire for something deep, permanent, and powerful. She writes, “Moon, tell me if I could / Send up my heart to you / So when I die which I must do / Will it shine down here for you.” In these lines, she expressed an awe and wonder at the permanence of a moon in the night sky, expressing a wish for love and devotion that will survive with the same kind of permanence. She recognizes that she can hold little in the world, that most of what she values is temporary: “Nothing in the world belongs to me, but my love is mine all mine.” On this line, she explained, “I realized, ‘Oh, but I have this thing in me that is actually fully mine,’ and there’s something so wonderful and gleeful about that realization.” For Mitski, this thing that is hers is her love. Her love of her life and her love of her people.

In the second book of Augustine’s On the Free Choice of Will, he writes about how the difference between a good will and a bad will is the orientation of desires. He argues that we, as human beings, are motivated by our desires: they drive us one way or another. How we know which one to follow is based on the permanence of the object of our desires. When we desire temporary, non-spiritual things, we find ourselves driven towards evil actions. And when we desire deep, spiritual things, we desire what he calls an eternal good. If one comes to possess an eternal good, such as the cultivation of their virtue, they need not fear losing the object of desire. 

When I teach this theory to my students, I show them the Mitski song analysis, telling them that Mitski has an Augustinian moment of shifting her desires. And here is where I think the movement of her music is headed—towards the production of something permanent and eternally good. I’m sympathetic to the readers of Mitski who emphasize her grief, cynicism, and critique of fixed identity markers. I think the ineffable or liminal aesthetic experiences she produces undermine the homogenous forms of sense-making that confine our ability to see alternative universes. But her work also gravitates towards a sense of collective common good, collective common peace. It is world-building as much as it is world-destroying. It is aimed at the cultivation of human virtue. For Mitski, her sense of permanence emerges in the material practices of taking care of her loved ones. She finds meaning and permanence in the tending to her communities. The small intimacies of her loves provide her with that sense of home she was missing. 

At the sight of my tears, a girl next to me at the concert wordlessly handed me a tissue, giving me a shy smile. Mitksi’s music has the capacity to make you see when the people around you are sad or suffering—and may impel you to feel like there is something you can do about it.