The Feministing Five: Mitski

When I first listened to 26-year-old indie sensation Mitski’s latest album, Puberty 2, I was blown away by how vividly, messily human it felt to me.

She was emotional, she was strong, she was defiant, she was vulnerable. She sang about feeling ugly, finding calm, the fleeting nature of happiness, and so much in between. In the past few months, the album, Mitski’s fourth, has been featured on numerous “Best Of” lists and hailed for its haunting lyricism and experimental instrumentation. A New Yorker profile described the artist as escaping trappings of genre, situated “only within her own emotional landscape”. Sounded feminist as fuck to me.

Mitski, who is Japanese-American, grew up all over the world, living in 13 different countries. She was influenced by her immigrant childhood as well as an eclectic array of musical styles, from folk to ‘70s Japanese pop. Mitski eventually settled in New York after attending college at SUNY Purchase, where she recorded her first two albums.

After a whirlwind year, nothing seems to be slowing down for this blossoming star. For this week’s Feministing Five, I caught up with Mitski about navigating her image in the media as an Asian-American, the life lessons she learned from her mom, what it feels like to see fan tattoos of her lyrics, and why 2017 is going to be a real life Hunger Games. Catch Mitski on tour in Europe and North America in the coming year, and catch her on Twitter for gentle musings on everything from chocolate chip cookies to defeating cynicism.

Senti Sojwal: In a Pitchfork interview, you spoke about why it’s important for you to use social media so people can see that you are a “real person” and “ugly sometimes”. You’ve tweeted before about wanting to just be able to make your art without having to be a figurehead. That must be so complicated, because obviously it’s cool that, for example, young Asian-American women who are into punk or indie music might identify with you in a way they haven’t with other artists, but also you’re at risk of being presented a certain way as a result of your many identities and interesting background and, of course, being a woman. How do you navigate that? What are the good and bad parts?

Mitski: I think I’m still learning how to navigate it. I have very few people I can talk to about this who know the answer — I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has really figured it out. It is a double-edged sword isn’t it? It’s important for me to reach the people who are like me, to simplify it. It would be presumptuous to say “past versions of me”, but a hidden, deep part of me is always trying to reach out to my younger self and tell her that she is fine, she is beautiful, that it’s going to be okay. I turn to people who have felt neglected or unseen, and I say to them, look, I’m ugly but I’m still here. That’s a way to talk to my previous self that I can never do. I fulfill that need by turning to other people. It’s important to me to be sure that all of my identities are shown so that other people who have those identities can then go, oh I can be those things too and also do what I dream. At the end of the day though, I’m a musician. I don’t know how to be a counselor, an activist, or a leader. Making all my identities known and putting them forward has turned me into a political figure that I didn’t intend on being. I don’t know anything about how to systemically change things. I often do the wrong thing. What I’m good at is music, and what I want to focus on is music. Every time someone is like, you’re not this way, I’m always taken aback because I’m like, why would I be? I live my life in my own skin and thinking I’m normal. Anytime people point out how not normal I am, I’m just like, why? I’m just a person. I didn’t know I was doing something so dramatic by not being cute. I didn’t realize how “brave” it was that I don’t look a certain way. I get that a lot — people saying I’m brave for looking like me, for having my picture taken, for being on stage with my body. I’m like, what is that supposed to mean! I don’t want to be “woe is me”, because maybe this is the way it is for non-Asian people and I don’t know. As I was coming up I would find myself in many unequal exchanges. I would give much more than I was getting back. Like in a business exchange, there would be an attitude that I’m being done a favor, or that I should be grateful for the attention I’m given. When I would demand more, or not appear incredibly thankful, it would be seen as extremely offensive. I am just trying to get as much as I give. I feel like that has to do with being an Asian woman, like I’m supposed to be submissive and take whatever little I’m given and be humble all the time. It’s not just about my public image, but also about navigating my career.

Senti Sojwal: Like everyone else, I’m obsessed with your song “Your Best American Girl”. You sing, “Your mother wouldn’t approve / of how my mother raised me / I do / I think I do.” What do you appreciate most about your mom?

Mitski: The older I get the more I understand how much she sacrificed for me. When you’re a teenager and depressed and suicidal or something, you don’t understand how much your parents have done to give you a good life and keep you alive. Now I feel that all those years of me hating myself were incredibly ungrateful. Here I was, wasting away this life I was given when my mother sacrificed so much just so I could have it. Something else that has really come in handy is that whenever I wanted something, like a toy, her response would be, why don’t you just make it yourself? As an adult, I understand that probably wasn’t that deep and she probably just didn’t want to get it for me. But that’s stuck with me in my music making and how I approach making a living. My first thought when I need or want something is how can I make it from what’s around me instead of how can I buy it or get it from somebody else. That has really helped me in ways I didn’t quite understand then. I know that with mother-daughter relationships, a lot of it might have to do with beauty regimens or those kinds of habits. Learning to shave, stuff like that. She never did any of that with me. I was hairy for a long time and other kids in school had to point it out to me before I started shaving because I didn’t notice until then. At the time, I kind of hated her for it because I was like, why can’t she just tell me that I had to shave my armpits or shape my eyebrows? Now I’m very grateful that she never commented on any of that. When my legs aren’t shaved, I don’t feel like it’s wrong. I might shave if I have a photoshoot, because when I get there everyone will look at it and be like, this is a problem. I’m thankful that she never said anything about my appearance, and let me figure out what I liked in myself.

Senti Sojwal: Can we talk about the video for “Happy”? It’s so gorgeous and fucked up. I read it as an intricate commentary on a few things — the fleeting nature of happiness, for sure, but also of Eurocentric beauty standards, self-esteem and worth, and the trappings of rigid gender roles. I’d love to hear from you more about the video and what it means to you.

Mitski: The video was all the director, Maegan Houang. I knew she was a good director, and had good ideas. I was just like, here’s the budget, do whatever. I was completely hands off. I think with artists who are good, the best thing to do is give them the resources they need and just let them do what they need to do! That’s how artists can flourish. I see everything you’re saying about it and I agree. Watching the video for the first time, I was so happy! I watched it and thought, this is like In The Mood for Love. Not the narrative, but the visual style. I told her that, and she was like yes, that was the reference! The video was everything I wanted even though I didn’t know I wanted it. The end was very shocking. After it was posted, I quickly had to tell the label to put a trigger warning on the video because people on Twitter were starting to comment about how they needed one.

Senti Sojwal: Your fans connect so much to your lyrics, to the ways you explore feeling like an outsider and how it feels to chase happiness or question love. What’s it like to see people get tattoos of your lyrics, or tell you that your music helps them overcome depression or feel less alone?

Mitski: Whenever I see tattoo pictures, I just hope to God I don’t fuck up some way in ten years and then have people be like, oh fuck I have this tattoo of her and now I hate her. Every time people do that or talk about getting a tattoo, I’m like okay it’s your body but please don’t hate me if in ten years you don’t agree anymore! More than being validating though, it does keep me going. So much about this job is incredibly hard and it’s very easy to wonder why I’m still doing this despite all the difficult parts. And then someone on Twitter says, your music helped me in this way or this song means so much to me or thank you for making music. Suddenly, everything becomes worth it. Or I feel like I maybe have a meaning in this world, which is all anyone really wants to feel.

Senti Sojwal: I love the name Puberty 2. I so identify with my twenties as a puberty 2 — of learning about who I am and what I need and how to be. What are you learning about yourself in your puberty 2? Also, what’s next for you?

Mitski: Ooh! I’m kind of excavating or re-learning the things that were in me that I pressed down because I used to think they were uncool or unacceptable. Little by little, I see them surface again and realize they are good things. I shouldn’t have hidden so much of myself. I understand why I did — I wanted to be normal, I wanted to be part of a group. Now I feel like it’s okay to be myself. I’m revisiting parts of myself that I noticed in my teenage years that I suppressed. For example, I really, really enjoy working. I enjoy being single-minded, going after one thing, and really working at it and practicing. I love being organized, having a schedule, keeping it, basically being anal-retentive. I have always been that way. In college, I got there and everyone looks at me like, she’s so…..pointy. People couldn’t relate to me, they’d be like why can’t you just chill? Have a beer, relax! I thought my ambition was ugly. I tried my best to….I don’t know, I don’t want to say “be lazy”, but I tried to just sit back and have a beer with everyone and go along with things and hang out and do nothing and fit in. Now I’m like, oh damn I shouldn’t have gone along with any of that! I should have kept working hard, if that’s what I enjoy. It would have also benefitted me. Now I’m learning how good it is to be organized and be motivated. Basically, I’m revisiting myself and the things I pushed away about myself and realizing, they were fine. My focus in 2017  is on survival. I started to work out more and watch what I eat more because I am so scared and I feel like I need to be so strong, like this is the fucking Hunger Games. I need to prepare. The way I prepare is by being a stronger, more sane version of myself. I don’t know how else to do it. This is how I’ve always been. I never knew how to change what was around me, so I would always try to change myself. That’s the only way I know how to change anything. This upcoming year is going to be a lot of touring, a lot more than I’ve ever done. I’m scared about it. My schedule will be really hectic. I want to stay focused and not get sick. It is definitely scary!


Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She is currently pursuing her MPH at NYU's College of Global Public Health and works as Communications Coordinator at Planned Parenthood of New York City. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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