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Mitski's “Be The Cowboy”: the portrait of the artist is a portrait of us

Aug. 30, 2018
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I listen to Mitski everywhere. Her music fills my brain even when I’m not wearing headphones. It has anointed the mundane with a vastness. The mundane is colored into poetry, blue and cragged; the mundane a landscape of shame, beauty, self-crisis. Mitski’s music doesn’t go away. My brain is awash in her voice, her words. In her music, feelings I’ve never had language for come to life. 

The Yellowstone National Park Service’s website page on geysers states, “Sprinkled amid the hot springs are the rarest fountains of all, the geysers. What makes them rare and distinguishes them from hot springs is that somewhere, usually near the surface in the plumbing system of a geyser, there are one or more constrictions.” Mitski’s new album Be The Cowboy begins with a song called “Geyser,” but really, that is the whole album: “the rarest fountain of all.” It’s a crescendo of aching, pining, feeling. You immediately feel a bursting in this album. She shows us constrictions that ultimately flatline, and the geyser bursts. 

Mitski makes art that amplifies and colors my existential dread, but somehow does it tenderly. Her songs can be jarring, cragged, and brittle, locking you into yourself and all your drawers full of sharp objects. They provide a glimpse, suddenly, of the violet rooms in ourselves—the rooms into which we can step only through art like hers. While listening to her music, we crawl through self-reckoning into a vibrancy that lives in the recesses of ourselves. We crawl into open wilderness, breathe in an aliveness so supple and real our eyes sting. 

What do we want, there, in our secret selves—often secret even to us? In “Why Didn’t You Stop Me?” Mitski tugs at that question: “I know that I ended it, but / Why won't you chase after me?” Leave us, we say. When they do, though, they should’ve known I didn’t mean it. We want to be known unconditionally and everywhere. We want to be known better than we know ourselves; at least then someone will know who it is we really are. Maybe, though, who we “really are”—the girls who tell you to leave but want you to stay—aren’t knowable, not truly. Maybe people fluctuate too much to be known. 

In “A Pearl,” shame takes shape: “You’re growing tired of me / And all the things I don’t talk about / Sorry I don’t want your touch / It’s not that I don’t want you.” 

The music erupts and the tension cuts when she sings, “It’s just that I fell in love with a war.” 

Mitski employs metaphor to express something not easily comprehended, lacing a song with apologies that feel, in a way, like a clamshell. She has a way of not only writing metaphor, in her lyrics, but embodying it in the structure of her songs. In her words: “You still don’t talk to them about what’s toxic in you. You just roll around this pearl in your hand every night and just look at it, like it’s a pretty thing.”

A cowboy, as Mitski notes, is a symbol for recklessness, total and steamy abandon. A liberation from yourself. To hold in hurt and knead it into a pearl, to tighten your grip on it instead of loosen, to clam up because wrenching the hurt open damages too many walls. “A Pearl” is so magnificent because Mitski makes the cowboy figure unattainable; we want to “be the cowboy” but our toxicity won’t let us. Our “pearls” won’t let us. 

“Lonesome Love” is the suture we scratch at in ourselves, constantly stitching up again, constantly reopening: “And you say hello / And I lose / Cause nobody butters me up like you / Nobody fucks me like me.”

We put ourselves together—warrior-like martyrs, heartsick and unstable but pretending not to be, pretending to live in effortlessness, in not caring for someone. But then we see them, start with a curt stride in our “high heels” until they say hello. They speak, and the put-togetherness collapses. This song is the smack in the forehead. How stupidly inevitable we are; self-awareness cannot cure our self-destruction, Mitski hints, not quite. I know how I’m crazy, but it’s not enough to stop me from being crazy. What a perfect, true line: nobody fucks me like me

Who does a song belong to? The artist or the consumer? Can it be both? Or neither?

That wilderness Mitski’s music pricks open inside of me—I take the key. She does not give it to me. The artist is not their art. The music is not a confessional, a broadcast of our similarness. I want Mitski to be her art, I want her to confess, but she’s not a construction of my desires, and there’s a violence in this album that swerves from taking that road. In “Remember My Name,” Mitski, on a noticeably repetitive and breakneck beat, defies us our ownership of her art: “I gave too much of my heart tonight / Can you come to where I’m staying and make some extra love? / That I can save till tomorrow’s show.”

There is a Mitski we cannot excavate through her art alone. A person is not wholly knowable through their art. We want them to live in us, to breathe through their lungs, to cry in their tears, but art transcends the artist. Art is not really about the artist, and at the same time, of course it is. Through the voice of another person, through a different life, we think we see someone, but it’s really what we reflect. It’s a one-way mirror. 

“Cause I need somebody to remember my name / After all that I can do for them is done.” 

In other words, art, according to Mitski, cannot be read so easily as a diary. In an interview with Pitchfork, she notes: “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 that’s so gendered. There’s no feeling of, ‘Oh, maybe she’s a songwriter and she wrote this as a piece of art.’” 

Then there’s “Nobody,” the second single released from the album, and one of Mitski’s best: “My God, I’m so lonely/ So I open the window / To hear sounds of people / To hear sounds of people.” 

Aloneness thrums in our veins almost like morphine, almost a pleasant sort of numbness. Almost. Mitski belts out nobody like an anthem, a celebration, but the upbeatness of the song, the jumpy drums and skittering tempo, hold the melancholy at bay only so much. 

In “Pink in the Night,” desire trembles, cyclical, whirs us around ourselves like a dragon-red ribbon clung to a ceiling fan. Round and round, our need circles itself until the containing of it becomes a sickness. This need cannot be uniquely female, but the anger that comes from its quieting, its repression, could indeed be a symptom of existing as a woman wanting anything too much. 

Maybe being not just a woman, but a person, or an artist, is like that too. Mitski is complicated, capable, sharp-edged and soft-edged and all of it at once. She lives in layers upon layers, but what we tend to do with “woman artists” is congeal those layers into what we want from her. Men can sing about anything. Their art can be about anything. And yet women, we are told, cannot stray from their own experiences when making any art. Women’s art is confessional, memoir-like. When women sing, exasperation follows: why won’t she stop writing songs about her ex-boyfriends? Why doesn’t she move away from herself? 

There is an element of dehumanization when we listen to music. The artist is who we conceive them to be, who we need them to be. People fluctuate. Fiction embodies the fluctuation. Yes, every artist inevitably becomes a part of their art. They leave an impression of themselves in the songs, like we leave the specific warmth of our specific body upon a couch. Yet our warmth changes shape, color. We can make art that reaches outside of our immediate experiences. We can make universal our own fluctuations in storytelling. 

On Genius, artists break down their music for us. They explain their intentions behind lyrics. They reveal. I scour the website, devour these annotations in search of the person I think I can understand in the music. I do this, but after this album, after I freeze in my nosiness, I realize: do their intentions even matter

Maybe in theory. Art, though, is like a place. We go to certain places and do not love them or hate them for necessarily what they are in themselves, but what they bring out in us. What they unearth in our hearts. We know Mitski only as much as we know ourselves. 

I only wrote about a handful of songs on Be the Cowboy, for the sake of brevity, but to listen to the album in its entirety could be likened to your ribcage expanding, making room for a swollen jittering heart, purpled and too big. Bigger than we thought we were allowed. With Mitski, everything is bigger and smaller than we thought was allowed.