Mitski: Catharsis in Retrograde (Houston Review 04.24.22)

Mitski performing at White Oak Music Hall
Mitski at the White Oak Music Hall in Houston, TX.

“I guess, I guess/I guess this is the end/I’ll have to learn to be somebody else/It’s been you and me since before I was me/Without you, I don’t yet know quite how to live”

Mitski- “I Guess”

It’s a bleary day in Houston. I am standing in a line at the White Oak Music Hall, which despite the venue emailing ticketholders to not line-up until 3:30, discarded blankets, chairs and Starbucks debris turning the area into a shantytown suggests that fans queued up well before the allowed time. At only 50 degrees outside, it would fall down to the 40s as a light mist of rain dots the crowd of neon-hair colored teens, in rapturous anticipation for the muse that will deliver them heart-wrenching catharsis. The queue of chronically online kids yell various Twitter and anime references as the hour approaches. Apologetically strutting onto the stage, Mitski appears in a hoodie from her opening act J-pop band CHAI, a far cry from the complex silk dresses she has been wearing on the tour, remarking “You should always value your health over style.” In basic black, her outfit hearkens back to her minimalistic roots dressed in only jeans and t-shirts from the earlier days of her performances. While the artist has now adopted performance art choreography into her shows, performing older songs to the new crowds and her underdressed look make me wonder about how her shows stopped being about the music.

“Laurel Hell” is the sixth record from Mitski, in comparison to her previous output, this is a strictly new wave effort that evokes the sounds of Kate Bush, Peter Gabriel, and even Bjork. However, under the surface “Laurel Hell” is a portrait of an artist, trapped in a frame seemingly of their own design. As her first record since the massively successful “Be The Cowboy” in 2018, the weight of expectations of the image she curated had shifted from this ridiculously talented artist crafting these songs with emotional weight, boiled down to just a “sad girl.”

In a Crack Magazine interview reacting to posts about her, Mitski laments: “The sad girl thing was reductive and tired 10 years ago and still is today. (…) Let’s retire the sad girl shtick. Sad girl is OVER.” While the “sad girl” trope can be traced as far back to singers like Lesley Gore and Nancy Sinatra, its emergence since 2012 Tumblr culture with Lana Del Rey, it has been a target for music producers to manufacture pop starlets like Halsey and Olivia Rodrigo. But what does it mean to be a “sad girl” anymore? Does expression of romantic longing make an artist a Sylvia Plath-esque figure with quotes ready for 15 second TikTok clips? Plenty of industry plants have been pumped through the pop pipeline with artificial emotions, but what makes Mitski different? Potentially, it’s that her subjects are never explicitly addressed as romantic encounters, some are an “I” or “you” figure but predominantly she speaks to her love of her craft, which at times feels unrequited.

CHAI has been making waves stateside with their brand of J-rock that lately has shifted towards a cool, atmospheric sound akin to artists like Cibo Matto. My first introduction to the group was at the Miami Book Fair when Blondie singer Debbie Harry described them as one of her favorite new acts, and the sentiment has been shared with classic rock luminaries like Duran Duran collaborating with the combo. However, the group is adeptly aware of their presence in Western pop music and even pokes fun at the idea of their nationality making them a novelty with a Siri voice recording saying “OMG they’re from Japan” as the group walks on. The quartet sauntered on stage in holographic foil hoods singing acapella to a backing track to “No More Cake.” As talented multi-instrumentalists, Mana, Kana, Yuuki, and Yuna all switch between guitar, bass, drums, and even the turntables packing a severe punch in a 30 min set. As the second time I’ve been fortunate to see them live, the first opening for Chicago soft rock ensemble Whitney, I was skeptical to see how such an upbeat pop act would be such a tonal shift opening for Mitski. Their show as well as the new setlist of Mitski’s tour changed my mind completely. 

On February, 24 2022, the same day as her Houston show, Mitski took the rare opportunity from her management-mandated embargo to impart onto her crowd a simple request: do not record the entire set on your phone. While the artist has not played a show since 2019, Houston was a few shows into her docket on the Laurel Hell Tour, and already the singer could sense that there was a lack of connection with an audience filming the entire hour and a half show, with Mitski singing to faces covered by camera eyes. To any artist with a reasonable fanbase this would come off as a reasonable suggestion. Yet, Mitski was met with backlash of accusations of ableism for people who record shows due to memory loss.

At around 9PM when her set began, the singer clad in a hoodie and jeans emerged from behind the white door that has become her staple set piece for the tour to perform the song “Love Me More” to an immediate sea of phones that lit up the darkened crowd. Far more annoying was the kids holding their Snapchats up with white text that I’m sure held some comedy gold in a not at all obvious attempt for attention with some oh so quirky statement. While I don’t want to come off as the “old man yelling at cloud” I’ve been noticing these shows are less and less about a shared experience with an artist to a crowd and more about clout, with concert etiquette being sacrificed in the process. Genuinely, I have to ask: Are people even having fun at shows anymore? While the folks around me were thankfully quiet during her set and I could hear Mitski’s vocals clear as a bell, those down in the pit were unfortunately subject to hearing off key sing-alongs between cringe-inducing cries towards the singer.

Perhaps my mood was also shaped by a 40 degree outdoor show with light rain, but being able to stand towards the back and keeping my filming to a minimal I may have experienced the show with less optimal view but I was able to really feel these songs as if I was hearing them for the first time. With the setlist fairly evenly pulling from her four major releases, as well as, the baroque pop track “Goodbye My Danish Sweetheart” from her college records, the arrangements of tracks like “I Don’t Smoke” were transformed into synth-heavy tracks to match the New Wave sound of “Laurel Hell.” The singer’s musical evolution beyond the limitations of making her initial post-graduate releases has breathed new life into songs she has been performing since she was in her early 20s, with Mitski now 31. With a five piece band behind her, including Patric Hyland who has produced all of her post-graduate records, the sound is far more full with Mitski putting vocals and dancing first. Tracks like “Nobody” and “Me and My Husband” certainly had the Gen Z’s in a furor that nearly elicited an internal groan from me for the impending clock app indulgence. 

My first Mitski shows were in 2015 and over time I associated the singer with a sense of catharsis. Mitski inspired my own visual art and I was even fortunate enough to send her some of this at times. The peak of my emotional attachment to Mitski was a pre-Puberty 2 show at the Knitting Factory where from across the half moon shaped stage, I was making direct eye contact with a person that had ghosted me. Naturally, this show was on February 14, so I was spending Valentine’s Day at a Mitski show directly staring into the eyes of someone who I felt such a kindred spirit to and had ceased communication without a trace. The then-unreleased “Your Best American Girl” had hit me like a ton of bricks and over time I would see Mitski perform everywhere from the intimate Villain (RIP) to a literal arena opening for Lorde. Each time I felt like I would be looking for that same intense feeling and with the law of diminishing returns I got less and less connected. 

By about halfway through her set, the bass rang out with the opening lines of “I Will,” a song from “Makeout Creek” that builds like a train gradually gaining momentum, only to abruptly stop dead in its tracks. I had heard this song over and over throughout the years but I simply hadn’t had the experiences to relate to it yet. Now, in my late 20s I found myself understanding the deep romantic longing in the track. I understood the desire for the simple, small and delicate movements as I felt like I was watching a film reel of my life flash before me. All these I can only describe in words as the SD card on my camera was full so I couldn’t record this moment. 

This is not to grandstand anyone with my “superior” memory however, I think that with the resurgence of live music and performance we need to assess our relationship to artists and the people around us. Being in Houston, the city where a mass casualty due to a crowd surge at Astroworld claimed several young lives, I fear for the commodification of artists that has changed this experience into something sought after so capitalistically. Specifically with Mitski, I have witnessed her go from hanging out at her merch table, having conversations with her fans to literally running to her tour bus/uber after her last song. She has even urged that meeting her is boring, to obviously detract from the swarm of fans that will unleash their traumas onto her, as she is literally a human. Mitski is not some savior of young femmes or even asian people, she is just a person that expresses her emotions so profoundly it hits the core of us. If Mitski chooses to assume a new role after this tour, I truly do not blame her. From falling out of love with touring, to trying to love it again, I’m not sure how much these audiences are reciprocating this desire in being respectful in their role in the crowd to Mitski’s role on the stage. 

Love Me More
Should’ve Been Me
Francis Forever
First Love / Late Spring
Me and My Husband
Stay Soft
I Don’t Smoke
Once More to See You
I Will
Drunk Walk Home
Your Best American Girl
I Bet on Losing Dogs
The Only Heartbreaker
Working for the Knife
Heat Lightning
Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart
Washing Machine Heart
A Pearl

Two Slow Dancers

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