My first exposure to the artist Mitski was through the kids’ show Adventure Time.
In the episode “The Music Hole,” the character Marceline sings Mitski’s “Francis Forever” from her Bury Me at Makeout Creek album. The first time I heard it, I was stunned. There was a quality to it that I had never heard before, a mix of anger, yearning, and sadness that leaves me breathless every time I listen to it. To this day, “Francis Forever” continues to be my favorite song of hers and one of my favorite all-time songs. Every time I hear it, the added level of nostalgia for Adventure Time, a show that meant a lot to me growing up, makes the song indescribably emotional to me.
After that, I fell down the rabbit hole of Mitski content. I find that every time I learn something new about her, I fall more and more in love with her as a person. Every interview I watch of her she just feels like a real person, someone who watches Miyazaki movies and cares about zodiac signs and likes rocks and has a brash sense of humor sometimes.
One of my favorite interviews of hers is her 2017 Pitchfork In Sight Out interview where she goes into depth about her history with music and how she approaches her work. She fills her music with so much emotion and care because she’s communicating what it feels like for her to be alive. Her music comes from an awareness that nobody has to listen to her, so she sees her music as her “legacy” that she needs to express herself very clearly. She’s “living in order to communicate these songs.”
A big aspect of her life that affects her music is her constant role as an outsider which has taught her to observe the world around her and also taught her how to look inside herself objectively. She says this objective type of introspection on her subjective experiences helps her frame them in a way that’s perfect for her music, leading others to relate to her work on an elevated level. She “wants all [her] songs to be human and human beings contain multitudes,” thus, her music often contains duality to it. Her race, her upbringing, her relationship with femininity are all influential to her music, creating complex situations that other people can find relatable to varying degrees.
If I had to describe Mitski’s music as a whole in one word that word would be “yearning.” While her work ranges in style and theme, her music is nearly always filled with a sense of wanting. This wanting often plays into a position of balance or contrast, two concepts she’s fascinated in exploring. However, despite how her music tackles complex emotions, she does this through uncomplicated writing, making her message more accessible to listeners.
Mitski’s first two albums differ wildly from her later work, and much of that has to do with the circumstances behind their creation. Her 2012 album Lush and her 2013 album Retired from Sad, New Career in Business were both student projects she worked on while studying composition at Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music. At the time, she had yet to pick up guitar and only knew how to play piano. As a result, her first album especially is very piano-heavy and shows a lot of aspects of classical music. On one of her songs she even has a 30-person choir harmonizing in the background. In contrast, her later music is more indie punk and a bit synthpop.
While her early work is fantastic and also well-loved, it’s her 2016 and 2018 albums specifically that showcased her talents as a musician. Two of her songs in particular warrant attention: “Your Best American Girl” and “Nobody.”
“Your Best American Girl”
One of her best songs, another all-time favorite of mine, is “Your Best American Girl” off of her Puberty 2 album. It’s one of those songs that is so emotionally-charged it oftentimes leaves me feeling numb from how overwhelming it is.
The song is based on a relationship where, despite loving each other, their different backgrounds were too big an obstacle to get over, ultimately leading to their split. As someone who constantly moved around as a child and never had a fixed place to call home, Mitski struggles to relate to an “all-American boy” and a typical American childhood. In addition to the circumstances of her upbringing, her race also plays a role in her sense of belonging. Those factors combine to make her feel like an outsider even as she tries her hardest to conform to this American standard.
The lyrics convey a contrast of emotions and a complicated sense of identity born from her unique background. The line “your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me” gets me every time I hear it, especially the last repetition of the chorus when she’s “finally” okay with her upbringing. When discussing this song on an episode for the podcast Song Exploder, she shares what her upbringing means to her: “I never grew up with a sense of community. My sense of family is very different. I think I grew up more with a sense of ‘everything will be lost at some point.’ Like, you have to prepare yourself to let go at all times because I just kept moving so much. And, you know, you can only say ‘goodbye’ so many times before you start to, like, automatically prepare yourself for that.” The idea of belonging to a community and knowing her place in the world is so foreign to her, she doesn’t know if she could ever be a part of that.
“You always want what you can’t have, and that all-American thing, like, from the day I was born I could not enter that…I could never enter that dream, that all-American, white culture is something that is inherited instead of obtained.”
On the surface, “Your Best American Girl” is a love song lamenting the complications that arise between two people who are just too dissimilar. However, the song also possesses deeper layers. In Pitchfork’s Puberty 2 review, they point out how reminiscent “Your Best American Girl” is of early Weezer. Considering the notably racist themes in some of Weezer’s music (specifically towards Asain women), Mitski’s allusion to their music feels like a challenge. That as an Asian American woman, she’s existing and thriving in a musical space that has been largely white and male adds another dimension to the defiant tone.
In an interview with Genius, Mitski explains how “nobody” was born from the intense loneliness she felt while visiting Malaysia, disconnected from everyone she knew and loved. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the song focuses on an overwhelming sense of loneliness and yearning. The chorus especially sounds like a mental breakdown, and that’s probably because she wrote it while “in a semi-fugue state on [her] hands and knees on the floor just crying and repeating the word, ‘nobody,’” which undoubtedly comes across in the song. The changing pitch, tone, and volume in her spiral of “nobody”s strike deep, conveying the exact sense of breaking down on the floor that she experienced.
The music video is one of the most memorable music videos I have ever seen. It does a perfect job of heightening the sense of isolation present in the lyrics through interesting visuals. All the faces are obscured, scratched out, or cut off. Even the phone numbers are indecipherable, further preventing her from connecting to other people.
Mitski’s music is so powerful because it has a very human aspect to it. The extant yearning apparent in all her work captivates me. Whether it’s yearning for happiness, love, understanding, or freedom, there’s always something she’s trying to obtain. That constant striving accompanied by the difficulties of just being alive weave a complex tapestry that represents what it feels like to be a teen and a young adult.