Like a lot of other girls with vaguely international backgrounds, I’d played “Best American Girl” over and over, letting it echo out of my tinny laptop speakers. It was my first introduction to NYC’s Mitski, a Japanese American musician whose acclaim is wholly deserved. Addressed to an all-American love interest, there’s quiet heartbreak in the first verse of the track, a declaration of “You’re the sun, you’ve never seen the night/But you hear its song from the morning birds.” It’s a testament to Mitski’s gift as a songwriter, where she grieves having a complicated identity, while noting that the American boy she adores has never felt the weight of this particular heaviness. The choral line of this song leads to swelling triumph: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I finally do/And you’re an all-American boy/I guess I couldn’t help trying to be the best American girl.” It’s painfully relatable, a vulnerable and unflinchingly honest confessional. Beyond “Best American Girl,” Mitski has a talent and penchant for exposing the roots and nerve endings of fraught emotional landscapes.
There’s a voiding brutality in self awareness, in understanding where one stands in the world, the psychological mechanisms behind any movement. Any apathetic boy who has read too much Nietzsche, lighting a cigarette, sighing into some night will probably tell you this. But as female artists and artists of color continue to produce work that shine searing fluorescent light on their own introspection, new emotional worlds are created, narratives upended. Now with a body of work spanning four albums, Mitski has produced new architectures of desire, longing, and anxiety, colored with her own outsider perspective. I’ve gotten very into her discography lately, considering the messiness of power dynamics between people, the clinical ugliness of self examination and the beauty that might emerge following.
Mitski’s work dwells in the transformative calculation of a life bent between object and performative subject, actor and the acted upon, a girl staring in the mirror, baring her teeth, counting her ribs, assessing what power can be bought with the image. It’s a uniquely female perspective, an ability to have a bird’s-eye view on how the world sees you at all times. In “Fireworks” off of her latest release, she describes a fossilized sadness, but notes in lilting tones “you won’t see a change/except for a slight gray in my eyes.” In “A Burning Hill” she describes disappointment, embodied as a forest fire, while going on to sing “So today I will wear my white button down/I can at least be neat/walk out and be seen as clean.” There is a softness, a pretty resignation to her vocal delivery. Yet, she considers a deep kind of wounding distension: the grim strength of quiet, upkept femininity. Stare in mirrors long enough and one learns how to control one’s features. Even through psychic bleeding and rupturing, there is nothing that cannot be self-contained, nothing that cannot be stitched shut while the flesh crawls back into place underneath.
There’s a conceit to this, the gruesome insides and the steadfast exterior. In “I Don’t Smoke,” Mitski’s vocals plead with a romantic prospect gone awry against scuzzy guitar: “If you need to be mean, be mean to me.” She darkly notes “I’m stronger than you give me credit for.” Denial and control are their own forms of power, the ability to absorb cruelty without complaint. In “Real Men,” her voice pitches with “Real men don’t flinch and bleed in public/I think I am a real man.” Femaleness is as smooth as a porpoise, as unflappable as a prowling cat, performative until the end.
Happiness, or the endgame of this tableau, is another point of fixation. She considers it as a matter of lurid sensation, akin to a body-licking flame, rather than something sweet or consumable, the fleshiness of a fruit. In “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” the dream-pop vocals of the track sigh out “I bet on losing dogs/I know they’re losing and I pay for my place/By the ring.” The metaphor is followed by a sweetly drawn out “I wanna feel it,” the muted tragedy of chased emotion. “Crack Baby” describes the sickliness of this, an eerie “wild horses running through your hollow bones” making up the refrain. There’s a ghastly underside here: look too deeply and love or pleasure are simply the high points on a topographic map. They are release following tension: pure motion without symbolic meaning, a giving away of the self for the sake of temporary feeling. No Dostoyevsky (or Dostoyevsky worshipping art-bro) could express these concepts nearly as efficiently. It all feels especially dire against the contexts of these tracks: explorations of sexuality and romance.
Musically, Mitski is a chameleon, oscillating between a volatile grunge-punk flavor, and the warbling melodies of a 60s girl group. She screams, she yowls, she whispers, in angular confessional or harmonizing smoothness. There are so many geometric dimensions to her work. The strings in “Shame” could soundtrack a nightmarish walk down to the basement, the breaths of a girl hiding from something supernatural in a dark wood. “Abbey” soars with lush chorality. Meanwhile, tracks from later work are noisy frenetic landscapes; “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” and “Drunk Walk Home” are populated with shrieking vocals, jangling guitar with persistent fuzz and rattle. “Happy” rollicks with driving, rhythmic saxophone.
Lately, my social feeds have featured a deluge of feel-good progressive content, women and minorities making strides in public and cultural life. Of course, life is not as glossy as an Upworthy video praising female empowerment, or a NowThis clip humanizing the immigrant experience. Such positivity exists as a two-dimensional stand-in for the emotional worlds of their subjects. It’s well intentioned of course, but it’s not quite enough, bloodless and shiny for today’s day and age. Mitski is brilliant for her own sake, but has gifted her listeners with cathartic explorations of mental realities that haven’t been visited before, pulling the ugliness and humor out of them to produce a gorgeously expressive body of work.
“Best American Girl” didn’t exist when I was an adolescent. But I wish it had. There’s a beauty to these meditations on the self, feelings of inferiority and complexity, longings and regrets that are made new in the context of fresh perspective.
If you weren’t lucky enough to catch Mitski at Boston Calling this past weekend, literally click all the links in this article and/or find all her discography ASAP on your favorite streaming sites.