The Songs That Get Us Through It

Mitski moved to Nashville. She’s not quite sure why, because she didn’t really know anyone there, but she liked how specifically weird it was — a town with stories. A local businessman had recently died and left his substantial estate to his Border collie. Bachelorette parties were a surreal and ever-present cottage industry: “There’s always a woman crying on the street and five other women in matching T-shirts comforting her,” as Mitski put it to me. “It feels like such a good place to observe the human condition.”

Maybe she would never make a record of her own again. Maybe that was OK. She would live quietly and relatively cheaply, she thought, writing songs for other artists, perhaps, in anonymity and blissful ignorance of what people were saying about her on the internet.

When she was touring, her writing process became hurried — a few piecemeal lines or melodic ideas jotted down in snatched moments of downtime. But in Nashville, and eventually in the imposed stillness of the pandemic, she found that she could finally spend entire days writing. She likened the process to visiting a Korean spa: “I got to go into the metaphorical sauna and sit there a while and feel it and relax.” One of the first new songs she wrote was an introspective number called “Working for the Knife,” which put words and droning chords to her experience of creative burnout. “I used to think I’d be done by 20,” it goes. “Now at 29, the road ahead appears the same/Though maybe at 30, I’ll see a way to change.”

The songs kept coming. Eventually she accumulated enough of them that she realized — Hallelujah! Goddamn it! — that she was making another album. She called it “Laurel Hell,” a nickname given to the dense and thorny but deceptively beautiful thickets of poisonous shrubs that proliferate in southern Appalachia. Like those flowers’ siren songs, the record contains some of the most immediately accessible music of Mitski’s career, and some of the most tonally and thematically challenging. Sleek, danceable ’80s-pop-inspired tunes coexist with songs like the eerie “Heat Lightning,” which conjures the stirring, dronelike sensibility that John Cale brought to the Velvet Underground. Mitski insisted that the first single be not a catchy pop song like “The Only Heartbreaker” but the finished version of “Working for the Knife,” with its industrial-tinged synthesizer chords that clank like factory equipment.

That might not necessarily seem enticing, but “Laurel Hell” has been Mitski’s most commercially successful album yet. When it was released in early February, it debuted at No.5 on the Billboard album charts, above recent releases by Drake, Adele and the Weeknd, and it was that week’s best-selling album in America. A lot of that has to do with a strange thing that has happened in the three years since Mitski’s retreat from the spotlight: She has become — for reasons that she does not entirely understand — huge on TikTok.

As of this writing, Mitski’s music has provided a soundtrack for more than 2.5 million user-generated videos on the platform, and TikToks with the tag “#Mitski” have been viewed 1.5 billion times. The hashtag #Mitskiistherapy, referring to her emotionally evocative lyrics, has close to 50 million views. “MitskiTok” is its own unofficial corner of the app, where thousands of users fawn over snippets of her interviews (“1 minute of mitski being a literal icon”) and videos of her live performances (“its her world”) and occasionally post lovingly crafted parodies of her songs, several of which have gone viral themselves. Mitski’s music grants people whom society often treats as marginal the screaming vividness of main characters, and this is a huge part of its appeal. Give me your tired, your awkward, your lonesome masses, a Mitski song seems to say, and I will let them feel all the feelings.

“I don’t get it, but it’s nice!” said Mitski, who is now 31, referring to TikTok with a laugh. “I only know what I’ve been told. All of the businesspeople are like, ‘This is so great!’ And I’m like, ‘Please stop texting me these TikToks.’ It’s like a lot of things I’ve just decided not to think about.”

Whether she wants to think about it or not, though, this influx of new fans meant that she would be playing larger venues than ever, including headlining Radio City Music Hall on March 24. For all her ambivalence about the grind of touring, Mitski realized during the pandemic that she missed performing — that pointed sense of meaning that comes when “every moment of every day is leading up to this pinnacle that is the show.” It would take much physical and mental preparation to get her back into that rhythm, and when I visited her in Los Angeles, she was in the middle of several busy weeks of rehearsals.

One afternoon in late January, Mitski and the choreographer Jas Lin stood in front of a mirrored wall in a cavernous dance space called Stomping Ground L.A., running through the show’s meticulously planned moves. “Stay Soft,” an upbeat but haunting new single, blared overhead. “Here it’s like you’re one of those plants that, when an animal approaches, you close up,” Lin instructed.

Mitski is far from a trained dancer: She took a few ballet lessons in first grade and then quit, because a kid who bullied her at school was in the class and the bully’s mom was the teacher (“No offense to them now, because I’m sure they’re very nice people”). Still, when she was planning the tour for “Be the Cowboy” in 2018, Mitski decided she wanted to do something different onstage from thrashing away at her guitar. She reached out to the artist and choreographer Monica Mirabile, and together they choreographed an entire tour in a whirlwind three weeks. The palpable rawness of Mitski’s onstage movement has only further endeared her to her fans. “The fact that she’s not a trained dancer,” Mirabile told me, “gives permission for other bodies to move.”

But at Stomping Ground, it was also making Mitski a bit nervous. “We’re gonna do the scary thing now,” Lin said toward the end of their three-hour rehearsal, spinning Mitski around by the shoulders, “and face this way.” Mitski, who had grown accustomed to watching herself in the mirrors, groaned. But like the flick of a switch, the exacting discipline she brings to all aspects of her work suddenly kicked in, and she calmed herself with a deep breath. The opening bass notes of “Stay Soft” boomed from the speakers, and on the offbeat, she pretended she was peeking through an invisible curtain, greeting an imagined, feverishly expectant audience.

“Welcome to someone else’s home,” Mitski greeted me the next morning at her rental house on a quiet street in nearby Monterey Park. She brewed us each a cup of tea in the kitchen, and then we settled at a picnic table in the Edenic, flora-filled backyard. I asked her, barefaced and wrapped in a hunter green fleece sweatshirt, if Nashville now felt like home. She seemed both surprised and delighted when she said yes: “I miss it now. That’s nice, isn’t it?”

Home has always been an elusive concept for Mitski, who moved frequently as a child because of her father’s job in the U.S. State Department. She was born in Japan but spent time in Turkey, China and Malaysia; though an American citizen, Mitski did not live for an extended period in the United States until she was in high school. She was forever the new kid, trying on a different personality in every school, afraid to make deep social ties that she knew she would inevitably have to break. When she began writing music in her late teens, though, she found a creative outlet for those pangs of outsiderdom. Across her first several albums, she discovered that timeworn songwriter’s paradox: The more fearlessly she confessed her loneliness, the more people connected to her music.

Take “Your Best American Girl,” the breakout single from her 2016 album, “Puberty 2.” The song deftly captures the anxiety and isolation of an intercultural relationship: “You’re an all-American boy,” Mitski howls atop scorched-earth guitar chords. “I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.” Trying implies a failure. But the song is also animated by the knowledge that the words “best,” “American” and even “girl” are all stifling fictions, and that anyone claiming to fit those roles perfectly all the time is probably lying. The song’s pulverizing volume glorifies such angst into something epic. It’s melancholic, but also stirringly triumphant.

A few years ago, during one of those strange, liminal moments of tour-related travel, Mitski found herself spending Christmas alone in a Malaysian hotel room. She was so lonely that she found herself opening up the window just to listen to strangers talking to one another outside. As she had so many times before, she coped with the feeling by channeling it into a song, which would become “Nobody,” a disco-inflected single from “Be the Cowboy.” “I know no one will save me, I just need someone to kiss,” she crooned to a mute, unreciprocating nothingness. “Give me one good honest kiss and I’ll be all right.” Like many of the best Mitski songs, “Nobody” luxuriates in an abject feeling until it becomes something celebratory, glorious, almost transcendent. Three years after it was released as a moderately popular single, this yearning boomeranged back to her in the most unexpected way, when it became — of all things — the soundtrack to a meme. By June 2021, it was a full-blown phenomenon, the de facto soundtrack for thousands of videos by TikTok users miming an escape from their fears or unpleasant experiences while Mitski sings the word “nobody” with an escalating passion (one video was captioned “when the closer called out and you see your manager walking towards you”; another “when you’ve been begging for a boyfriend and a boy actually tries to talk to you”). It was random, yes, but also cathartic: Who among us did not fantasize about running away from our everyday boogeymen as though we were the last surviving character in a slasher flick?

Not everyone who made a “Nobody” video became a Mitski die-hard, but it certainly led some younger fans to discover her earlier albums, where they were delighted to find even rawer expressions of young-adult angst. One old song of hers that has become unexpectedly popular online, “Class of 2013,” from an album she released in college, features primal yells and anxiety about growing up: “Mom, am I still young? Can I dream for a few months more?” A quick flick through “MitskiTok” shows it to be a place where many young people have come to express, share and, in some cases, exaggeratedly aestheticize feelings for which they may not have other outlets.

Mitski’s only theory about her social media stardom is half-joking but a bit morbid: “Once someone is dead, they become this hero,” she said. “And I’m dead on the internet, so they make me out to be a hero.” It’s not much of an exaggeration. Among many Mitski fan accounts is the Twitter feed “mitski’s archive,” which reposts screenshots from her deleted account to be pored over like the koan of an ancient philosopher.

Mitski used the phrase “parasocial relationship” to describe the way her fans obsess over and project onto her: It’s a one-sided, emotional bond that people have with someone (usually a celebrity) who is unaware of their existence. She doesn’t think it’s a bad thing, or a particularly novel one. “Before there was celebrity culture, you would have a parasocial relationship with a character in a book,” she said. “I’m sure people had parasocial relationships with Abraham Lincoln, you know?” She added: “Human beings do it, and now we have a word for it. I think it’s good that we’re acknowledging what it is.”

But it’s also true that modern forms of media — Twitter feeds, podcasts, TikTok accounts — create an illusory sense of intimacy that fans would not necessarily experience with the objects of their idolatry a century, or even a decade, ago. Fans often expect more from Mitski than she is willing to give, or push back when she tries to establish perfectly reasonable boundaries. Early in the “Laurel Hell” tour, Mitski requested, via a note posted on her management-run Twitter account, that her fans use their phones sparingly at her shows, because “sometimes when I see people filming entire songs or whole sets, it makes me feel as though we are not here together.” A small but vocal contingent of her fans claimed that documenting moments that they might otherwise forget was their own way of taking care of their mental health. A kind of therapy-speak stalemate ensued. Probably reminded why she left social media in the first place, Mitski deleted her tweets, but as ever, the conversation about her continued in her absence.

The “Laurel Hell” tour opened in North Carolina in mid-February, and I caught its sold-out night in Raleigh — Mitski’s second live performance in almost three years. An impossibly long line snaked around the chilly parking lot of the 2,000-capacity venue, and two people in identical red cowgirl outfits huddled together, shivering. I am only a few years older than Mitski, but I got the distinct impression that I was the oldest nonparent at the show. The woman checking IDs and handing out 21+ wristbands seemed palpably bored.

Once inside, the crowd was fizzy with anticipation, and occasional chants of “Mit-ski! Mit-ski!” broke out. A fan in front of me idly flicked through the “For You” page on TikTok and, when the lights plunged us into darkness, tapped open the camera app and dutifully held the phone aloft, ready to capture an absent hero’s return.

Mitski opened with “Love Me More,” a thumping pop gem from the new album. Everyone around me knew the words, and they sang them back to Mitski in a reciprocal loop of devotion: “I need you to love me more, love me more, love me more/Love enough to fill me up, fill me up, fill me up.”

When she played “Townie,” an exuberant song from her 2014 album, “Bury Me at Makeout Creek,” my mind drifted back to the experience, nearly eight years ago, of hearing her music for the first time. That album seemed to say something quintessential about the millennial experience. My life then felt free-floating and uncharted, unlikely to unfold on the same timeline as my parents’, and Mitski’s songs depicted both the terror and ecstasy of such rootlessness: “I’m not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be,” she proclaimed in “Townie.” “I wanna be what my body wants me to be.”

Watching Mitski’s music connect so viscerally to the next generation has allowed me to loosen that interpretation, though. When I’m feeling optimistic, I see its broad appeal as an example of cross-generational solidarity in times that can feel apocalyptic. Mitski is hopeful about this, too. “Millennials and Gen Z are in the same position,” she told me in Los Angeles. “We can contribute the knowledge and support, and hopefully they can contribute the energy to change.”

At other moments in our conversation, though, we had to admit that TikTok made a very real generation gap uncomfortably visible. “I am always surprised that there seems to be a complete freedom of disclosure about people’s very private things,” Mitski said about her brief glimpses into the TikTok universe. “There seems to be this utter nihilism with Gen Z. They’re exposing these vulnerable things, but there is no sense of ‘exposing this will hurt me,’ because ‘nothing can hurt me.’ They’re just like, ‘The world is burning.’”

Mitski’s most vocal fans treat her as a kind of high priestess of modern-day sadness — a role that makes her uncomfortable. When I spoke to her over the phone a week after “Laurel Hell” came out, she told me she wished she “didn’t have to perform pain and struggle to be valued. The specific kind of pain that is asked of me is the sort of screaming, most expressive, outgoing, adolescent pain. There’s all sorts of other pain. There’s a grown-up, fatigued pain as well.”

On the stage in North Carolina, Mitski was twirling, pounding, staring desperately into her own outstretched hands as if they held Yorick’s skull. She was a magnetic presence, but at no point in the night did I feel as though I were witnessing anything other than an expertly modulated performance. This did not make me enjoy the show any less, and in fact it made me feel that Mitski was taking care of herself, trying to erect certain emotional barriers that would help her continue to make a living doing the thing she loved most.

Near the end of the set, she performed an older song, “Drunk Walk Home.” She and Lin choreographed that piece together. It was “this ritual that she gets to have for herself every night,” Lin told me, “of screaming and burying these inner demons and externalizing these expectations and scripts out of her body during the show.” Brutal guitar sound cascaded in pummeling waves, and Mitski’s body exploded with movement as she rubbed her arms and torso like an antic Lady Macbeth. The crowd roared. The song reached its climax, and Mitski crouched down and let out a horror-movie scream into the floorboards of the stage. Then, as the sound faded, she mimed digging up invisible dirt and casually burying her scream in the ground. She stood up, collected herself and prepared to sing another song.

Lindsay Zoladz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer. She was previously the pop-music critic for New York magazine, where her work earned her the National Society of Magazine Editors’ ASME Next Award for Journalists Under 30. Arielle Bobb-Willis is a photographer from New York. Her work can be seen in the traveling “New Black Vanguard” gallery show and book.

Source: Music -


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