MITSKI IN CONCERT
by Saima Desai
August 1, 2016
This summer I found myself in the unlikely situation of hairdresser to the newly queer, my own head only having been shorn two months prior. My femme friends would come out to me and I would take them to my porch and mow the long curls off their heads. They emerged from my house like baby birds with soft down sticking up around their ears, their smiles hesitantly settling into their sharp cheekbones and bare necks and new sexualities.
So last Monday evening I sat Sinead* down, took my dad’s beard trimmer, and put on Mitski’s newest record, Puberty 2. As the blade touched her neck and chunks of hair started falling through my hands, Mitski settled into her blistering chorus: “Your mother wouldn’t approve / of how my mother raised me. / But I do, I think I do.”
Puberty 2, Mitski’s fourth album which dropped last month, is about vulnerability. The twenty-five-year-old singer-songwriter returns to the rawness of adolescence and delivers a set of songs that match breathtakingly sincere lyrics with layers of distorted guitars and drums. Her lyrics are often reminiscent of imagist poetry—rather than naming an emotion, she creates a scene that circles around the periphery of a given feeling. On “A Burning Hill” she sighs, “I am a forest fire / And I am the fire and I am the forest / And I am a witness watching it.” Some emotions are too nuanced for a single word.
Most of us grow out of adolescence, and it takes a certain masochism to want to dwell in it as Mitski does—can you imagine falling in love like you’re sixteen forever, and letting someone juice your heart like a lemon each time? But Mitski holds herself open to that pubescent intensity of feeling, claiming vulnerability as a radical act, her voice swinging between deadpan cynicism and wrenching urgency. Critics seem unable to pin her to a single genre, as she’s graduated from “dream pop” to “punk” to “indie rock” since her first album, Lush, was released in 2012. What is coherent is her audience: a crowd of twenty-something queer and trans people, largely women and femmes. Many of them are East Asian, like the Japanese-American Mitski.
Five days later, Sinead and I were knees-to-stage in front of Mitski at Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern, with my glasses sweating their way down my nose. When you’re told over and over again that you’re a “minority,” standing in a space packed with people who look like you is a revelation. Many of us were teenagers, but not because of our age—we were all new and honest in one way or another, still settling into our sexuality or skin colour or gender identity.
My adolescence was spent at indie rock concerts. It’s where I began wearing Doc Martens to stop my toes getting stepped on. It’s where I discovered how to elbow a man below the ribs to stop him from grabbing my waist. It’s where I learned to set meeting points and code words with my female friends at the show. I love concerts—always have—but they’ve rarely felt safe for me, a brown woman. I grew up fast at concerts. But Mitski’s music makes space for an audience to return to adolescence with her.
Her set mixed, in equal parts, songs from Puberty 2 and her 2014 album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, along with a demanding, raw-throated cover of Calvin Harris’ “How Deep Is Your Love.” She spent most of the performance with her mouth pressed to the microphone, often only moving her body to rise up on her toes at the climax of a song, as if the sheer force of her voice was lifting her off the ground. To me, and all the people I spoke to, her untheatrical presence only added to the intensity of her lyrics. But a recent review in the Denver Westword criticized Mitski’s stage presence, calling it “disengaged” and arguing that the intimacy of her songs was “deflated by her uncomfortable distance.”
In response to the review, Mitski tweeted, “I try to give something real. What is real to me isn’t a flowery show of love to [people] I’ve never met” (the tweet has since been deleted). If the performance of her songs is good, and she makes herself vulnerable within her songs’ lyrics, why should a lack of banter detract from that?
Female musicians are policed for everything from their dancing style to their vocal idiosyncrasies—despite the fact that male musicians are often celebrated for exactly the same things. In The Awl, Leah Finnegan catalogued the scores of male reviewers who have called Joanna Newsom’s distinctive voice “a brave little coo” or “goofy young-girl singsong.” Meanwhile, there’s a long history of famous male musicians whose falsettos and squeaks have been lauded as “unique.”
So criticizing Mitski for not bantering is just the latest double standard applied to female musicians. Men are revered for being “focused, intense, deeply invested” when they don’t banter. Whether a musician chooses to banter or not is a personal choice; it should never be taken for granted. And yet, women—and particularly East Asian women—are expected to perform gratitude, vivacity, pleasure for their audiences. And to be a woman of colour is, indeed, to always be an object with an audience (where Mulvey’s “male gaze” overlaps with Fanon’s “white gaze”).
It can be tricky to review a show without participating in a tradition of objectifying women, because a concert is necessarily performative. Even at this show, I found myself making mental notes about what Mitski was wearing, her makeup, the fact that she did her own tech—and trying to parse it into a review of her performance before she’d even begun playing. But female musicians have signed up to perform their music—they never consented to perform a cheerful personality, or an attractive appearance, or to prove their humility.
Near the end of her set, after a ferocious rendition of “Drunk Walk Home” that had the crowd screaming “fuck you and your money,” Mitski announced that she was going to play her two encore songs immediately. It was a moment of refreshing authenticity for those of us who hate the contrived resurrection of encores, with the audience gamely applauding to keep Tinkerbell alive. “No one likes to keep going after they cum,” Mitski joked. And that line rang true, to me and many other women in that room who have all experienced the horror of having to keep performing pleasure, as if our vulnerability wasn’t already enough.
*name has been changed
Saima Desai is a philosophy student at McGill, features editor at The McGill Daily, and an editorial intern at Chatelaine. She feels weird about writing this in the third person. You can follow her at @saima_desai.
Images courtesy of the author.