Sometimes, you encounter an artist or a movie or a book that you immediately need to share. You feel compelled to spread the reach of this wonderful, transformative thing you’ve found. Other times, you discover some art or artist that seems to nestle itself right beside your heart, taking you by surprise by how much it makes you feel. You find these things harder to share, only disclosing your feelings to a select few.
The musician Mitski (born Mitski Miyawaki) is one of those latter cases to me. In recent months, I’ve found that her music is the perfect complement to so many situations. It’s wistful, precise, heartbreaking and passionate. Reflective in an uncanny way, like looking deeply into a pool of water and being taken aback by your own mirror image.
I tend to resort to numbing out my emotions when life gets busy, but Mitski’s music has convinced me to embrace vulnerability and poetry once again. Her music is immediately transformative: every song teases out memories, and enhances them with new meaning. Her voice is alternatively honey and shrapnel; whispers and biting observations and perfectly calibrated noise.
“Townie” (which has a perfect music video BTW) takes me back to fumbling, stumbling drunken nights. It transports me back to high school and trying to make every experience feel like one from the movies. “Carry Me Out” and “First Love / Late Spring” are both a surefire for me to spontaneously start crying on public transit. And each line of “A Burning Hill” has verbalized things that I feel better than I ever could. Everybody’s felt this way about a musician at some point, and knows how bittersweet each listen is.
What I love about Mitski is that her lyrics slip in moments of real, specific millenial struggles. An example that particularly gets to me is “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” which goes:
“My body’s made of crushed little stars
And I’m not doing anything
I wanna see the whole world
I wanna see the whole world
I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent
I wanna see the whole world”.
She also spins out musings, commentaries, and slivers of feeling daily on Twitter. This is the medium through which I was first introduced to her, by a thoughtful friend with good taste. This is where she speaks out on issues of feminism, life advice, race, and more, always in a relatable and frank way.
So rarely do I see someone who looks like me, an Asian-American, who so visible and outspoken in the indie world. So rarely does it happen that I fear I’m latching on too tightly. I love Mitski, but I’m afraid that if I project too much unto her, idolize her too much, I fail to treat her like the human she is. Through her social media presence, she creates an intimacy that I really enjoy, but it lulls me into the false sense of knowing her. When in real life, she’s just a warts-and-all human and not the liberator of all Asian-Americans.
Asian-Americans are often misrepresented and underrepresented media across the board.* And when they are, they too often fall into stereotyped, one-dimensional caricatures who exist as comic relief, or fetishized women who are just exotic enough but never threatening. And I strongly suspect that my idolizing of Mitski grows directly out of this representational void.
The wonderful writer Jenny Zhang summarizes all of this, and explores so much more, in her amazing essay “They Pretend To Be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist”:
“I know my heart still beats faster whenever I see a woman of colour onscreen on on the page getting to Do Stuff. Looking for that representation feels like searching for a wifi signal in the desert, all of your internal circuits lighting up when you finally find it. Suddenly all of the hopes you’ve held onto for so long get pinned to that one character. Because if she’s not what you want, what you’ve been reaching out for so desperately, how long will you have to wait for another character to come along?”
Although I’m happy to have an artist who I look up to, who makes me appreciate emotion and music in refreshing ways, I can’t relax quite yet. There’s a nagging feeling that I am clinging too tightly to this musician who happens to look like me. That I’m minimizing the struggles and nuances of this person’s life in order to make it feel like we’re alike. Plus, as mentioned in her interviews, one’s tendency to emphasize the confessional nature of Mitski’s songs can minimize the technical composition process that’s been put into her music.
If only there were more representation, if there were industries which supported people of colour on the merits of their talent and craft. If only there was such a plentiful amount of people who looked like me and had upbringings like mine in my media, maybe I wouldn’t have to project myself to heavily onto Mitski. When positive, robust role models are so scarce, no wonder the scraps we get still leave our stomachs grumbling for something fleshier.
Note: There so many other marginalized groups who are even more poorly represented than East Asians in our media— indigenous populations, middle eastern people, those of Asian descent who aren’t east Asian, disabled people, people across the LGBTQ spectrum— and this generalized list goes on. I hope for change, and am ready to be an active participant in promoting these voices and stories.
Further reading and listening: