The Duet Between Mitski and Her Mirror Image

In her new album “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski Miyawaki knows that she’s playing a character—and she wants us to understand how it is constructed.

by Larissa Pham
Aug 8 2018, 7:45pm

Mitski in the red suit. There she is, in the music video for “Your Best American Girl”—the single that, two years ago, launched a thousand Asian girl groupchats—seated on a stool in a coral power suit. Hair pin-straight, sleeves too long, hands peeking out. The suit has a silhouette simultaneously aggressive and awkward, its almost David Byrne-esque, oversized cut made risqué by a stripe of bare skin that peeks out between the jacket’s lapels. The suit’s lines are so anachronistically sharp as to be nearly timeless, a kind of costume. It’s unclear if Mitski’s wearing the suit or if it’s wearing her.

The video begins with a flirtation between the singer and a sparkly-eyed, hipsterish white boy. But after being rebuffed by him in favor of a Coachella-styled white girl, the narrative changes. Mitski turns away from the couple to kiss her own hand, running the other through her own hair, the way kids jokingly do to appear, from the back, like a couple in love. She kisses herself, suddenly, and as if overcome, as though she’s finally captivated by her own intensity. A guitar riff surges in the background as the chorus kicks in for the first time: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of the way my mother raised me / but I do, I think I do,” Mitski belts. “And you’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.” The first time I watched this scene, I cried. It’s a turning point in the video, a raw, vulnerable moment, where the gaze pivots from that of Mitski regarding the object of her affection to Mitski seeing herself. In being unloved, loving one’s self again.

Still from “Your Best American Girl.”

There’s a similar moment in “Geyser,” the first single off Mitski’s new album, Be The Cowboy, which was released this week. Emerging from a pulpy, hot red haze like the heroine of a Kurosawa film, Mitski stands on a beach, dressed in dark clothes. She turns, facing the ocean, holding up her hand, pointing out to sea. She takes hold of her wrist—gently, as though her own limbs were wild—and as the camera spins, it’s her hand that leads her further down the shore, where she breaks into a run, shedding her coat, heavy boots churning up sand.

Mitski drops and begins to dig with the desperation of an animal, her fingers leaving long tracks in the wet sand. In the side of her shapeless dress, there’s a vent, revealing a sliver of her back—functional more than sexy, a gap to let the air through. To keep the dress whole would be too perfect; the break catches the eye, makes the viewer pause. It’s a minuscule detail in a beautifully stripped-down video, but it’s emblematic of the specificity that characterizes Mitski’s visual choices. She’s a singer and songwriter, but she’s also a deliberate, thoughtful performer, with each creative choice angling the light on a certain kind of truth.

In all of her videos, Mitski is styled wildly differently. The songs range from the indie-rock power anthem of “Your Best American Girl” to the lonely, piercing ballad of “Geyser” and the disco-inflected dance beat of her song “Nobody,” accompanied in the video by a surreally playful set of yellow and vivid blue, its props exaggerated to the point of parody. Notably reserved in interviews, in performance Mitski is a cipher, carefully keeping her distance, perfectly dressed up, protectively wrapping up the kernels of emotion at the center of her songs. Yet each time, Mitski returns to her own vulnerability as an artist—however momentarily—and in doing so, she pulls us in with her. She remains her own compass as she balances on the border between private life and public consumption.

“I was always bothered when people say, ‘I cry to your music, it sounds like a diary, it sounds so personal,’” Mitski said in a Pitchfork profile published earlier this year. “Yes, it is personal. But that’s so gendered. There’s no feeling of, ‘Oh, maybe she’s a songwriter and she wrote this as a piece of art.’” And indeed we do love making icons of our artists, putting them on pedestals where they can fully absorb the heat of our attention. It’s doubly so if they’re women, and not white—there are so few places to see ourselves reflected, so we cling to the idols we do have, projecting our own desires and hopes onto them. Yet as writer Jenny Zhang notes in Be the Cowboy’s liner notes, “we’re quick to put women on pedestals and even quicker to knock them down”—once enshrined, there’s no room for an artist to grow. Puberty 2, and “Your Best American Girl” especially, cemented Mitski’s place in the hearts of fans as a dynamic, emotional, Asian-American voice—how thrilling to hear such a specific kind of love song, performed with such vulnerability. But with the release of Be the Cowboy, Mitski has sidestepped her characterization as a bleeding-heart exhibitionist, though the rawness is still there. She’s drawn the curtains halfway shut, and stands in the shadows, aware she’s being filmed and consumed.

Be the Cowboy offers listeners a mature, startlingly intimate portrait of Mitski, a lounge singer twirling alone under a hot spotlight. Recorded while she was on tour, the sprawling album feels surprisingly succinct. Most of its 14 tracks are barely two minutes long—glimpses into a feeling, brief journeys rather than odysseys. The short, dense songs give the album the feeling of a book of short stories. In “Me and My Husband”, Mitski sings a fairy-tale love song, one long run-on sentence over a rollicking piano; in “Washing Machine Heart,” a thumping, synthy track with echoes of Depeche Mode, the lyrics are pleading, even abject: “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart / Baby, bang it up inside,” Mitski sings.

Mitski is an artist who turns to herself for answers, even when she’s in disguise. She creates characters at every turn, not just in her videos—white face paint messily smeared on her cheeks on the cover of Puberty 2, or the swim cap she wears in the artwork for Be the Cowboy, the hand of the makeup artist included in the frame. Throughout this new album, you can feel her stretching, offering another performance; she’s working hard to make us understand that she is and isn’t what she offers to us as an audience—that there is a tiny, bright gap full of air between the artist and the person. That the emotions are true but their shape, perhaps, has changed.

At the end of the video for “Your Best American Girl,” Mitski has discarded the red suit: she’s now clad in a form-fitting, brilliantly gold dress and strides offscreen as the camera zooms out. There’s more to this story, her exit implies, though that’s for her to know—the camera doesn’t follow her; she leaves it behind. In the video for “Nobody,” she does the same thing: as the music fades, the camera pans out, revealing the artifice of the scene—darkened spotlights, the backs of cardboard cutouts, tape marks on the floor—and Mitski drops character and walks off the set. She stays in the frame, though, and we watch her, barefoot, as she gently lifts herself into a director’s chair. Her bare feet dangle for a second, then she crosses her legs, leaning back to observe her created world from the outside, where she can see the seams. The back of the chair says “NOBODY,” but we know better: we know who’s in control.

be the cowboy