Mitski, Be the Cowboy

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE


“You’re my number one / You’re the one I want” — those are the first words that Mitski Miyawaki sings on Be the Cowboy. “Geyser,” the opening track and first single off of the artist’s fifth album, unfolds brilliantly and turbulently, forgoing a verse-chorus structure to instead build layer upon layer. “I will be the one you need / the way I can’t be without you / I will be the one you need / and I just can’t be without you,” Mitski declares, just before emphatic guitars and percussion close out the song. It could be about a lover, her music, or herself, but it hardly matters what the specifics are. Mitski has captured the alluring, violent escalation of a universally-felt longing, the strange sense of power we find in moments of desire.

Be the Cowboy may be about longing. It may be about artistry, or identity, or freedom. You could probably argue that it’s about literal cowboys. The album clocks in at a trim 32 minutes, but it covers an entire spectrum of emotion and personality. Lo-fi guitar rock transitions into country-tinged melancholia. Songs about anxiety segue into songs about fictional marriages. In a press release, Mitski explained that the album’s narrative is of a “very controlled icy repressed woman who is starting to unravel. Because women have so little power and showing emotion is seen as weakness, this ‘character’ clings to any amount of control she can get.”

We see this character construct play out on the album’s cover, an up-close shot of Mitski wearing a white floral cap and bright red lipstick, head turned toward us as a hand reaches to tweeze her mascara-covered lashes. The photo is startling, an image of Mitski in a moment of both showmanship and vulnerability, a moment of both confession and performance. Ultimately this album is one that speaks rawly, but also one that has been scripted and controlled — Mitski, it seems, wants us to remember that. It’s futile to seek perfection; it’s naive to assume nobody tries anyways.

Mitski has nailed this balance between the vulnerable and the spectacular. Be the Cowboy is sleeker than her previous works, doing away with much of the guitar distortion and vocal harmony that dominated past albums. Besides resulting in a higher-production sound, Mitski’s vocals are in the spotlight more than ever, and she rises to the occasion magnificently, projecting confidence even as her bare voice exudes a palpable fragility. The throbbing “Washing Machine Heart,” with vivid lyrics like “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart / Baby bang it up inside,” could have been a fiery song of distorted romance. But Mitski’s delicate lilting (“Do mi ti / Why not me?”) instead turns the track away from hardened angst and towards a bittersweet sentimentality.

Be the Cowboy dives into more genres than Mitski’s past albums, definitively proving there’s more to her than “just” indie rock. The many musical styles reflect a multiplicity of experience, a running theme on the album. Our emotions don’t always make sense, and we don’t always respond to the same things in the same ways. The minor-key “Old Friend” might be exactly what you need to lament a bygone love. But a jaunty pseudo-country song about “winning” a broken relationship — “Lonesome Love”, which features the excellent lyric “Nobody butters me up like you / And nobody fucks me like me” — could be equally therapeutic. A highlight on the album is the fantastically catchy “Nobody,” an airy disco/synth-pop jam that sees Mitski at her most blissful as she proclaims her loneliness into the ether. “I know no one will save me / I’m just asking for a kiss / Give me one good movie kiss and I’ll be alright,” she sings before entering the dizzily joyous chorus, which is composed of nothing more than the word “nobody.” It’s one thing to sing a happy song about a happy feeling; It’s another to turn a song about desperate loneliness into a giddy dance number. The latter is comparable to the subversive power of laughing while crying: with each “nobody,” it feels like Mitski gets a little lighter, her smile a little wider, her relationship with being relationship-less a little better.

Mitski’s last album, the acclaimed Puberty 2, was about the growing pains of adulthood and reckoning with the inherent transience of the very emotions we spend our lives chasing. Be the Cowboy seems in many ways like the reincarnation after such a quarter-life crisis, the stability of adulthood we assumed we’d find immediately after our teenage years. Emotions don’t get easier, but experience makes them easier to deal with. The same themes of love, work, anxiety, and doubt that spanned Puberty 2 are still being interrogated on Be the Cowboy: what’s different is the method of approach. “A Pearl,” a chaotic song about learning to move on from a toxic love, nonetheless features Mitski singing with a clear-headed strength that cuts across the lo-fi guitars. A steady reassurance underlies even her most heart-wrenching track, the elegiac closer “Two Slow Dancers,” which reflects on the tragedy of lost innocence over a haunting piano accompaniment. “We’re two slow dancers, last ones out” Mitski repeats as the song fades away, lines creeping with existential dread but also the comfort of company: we’ll have to exit eventually, but at least we can exit together.

In an interview with The Outline, Mitski revealed that the album’s name is in part inspired by the Marlboro Man, the all-American cowboy who branded a tobacco empire with his masculine swagger. “I would always kind of jokingly say to myself, ‘Be the cowboy you wish to see the world,’ whenever I was in a situation where maybe I was acting too much like my identity, which is wanting everyone to be happy, not thinking I’m worthy, being submissive, and not asking for more,” Mitski said. “Every time I would find myself doing exactly what the world expects of me as an Asian woman, I would turn around and tell myself “Well, what would a cowboy do?”” Be the Cowboy offers a refreshingly nuanced take on the diverse Asian American experience by offering representation, not in terms of large-scale visibility like Crazy Rich Asians did, but in terms of resonant relatability. The submissive stereotype facing so many Asian American women can feel inescapable, both externally and internally — on the other hand, the urge to retaliate against meekness with an anti-model-minority mentality can be as equally unpleasant. What Mitski has done with Be the Cowboy is find a way to reject both extremes and revel in the complex middle ground, reconciling rawness with control, spectacle with vulnerability, happiness with loneliness. It’s not that the album only speaks to Asian Americans, or that it was only made for Asian Americans. In fact, it reaffirms that the complex emotions and manifold experience Mitski lays bare on Be the Cowboy are generally universal. For the most part, we’re all trying to be and feel a little better. And for some of us, that looks like embodying another character, even just for a minute, to remind ourselves of who we really are.

Mitski, Be the Cowboy was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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