Presentation Blog: Asian Americans in indie rock and Mitski’s role within it

The indie scene of the United States is overwhelmingly white, middle-upper class, and male dominated, completely isolating people of color, especially women.

White males
Images that came up when I typed indie band on Google Images.

Yet Mitski has broken through this bleak indie scene, bringing forward a powerful voice for both women and Asian Americans. As can be seen in the lyrics and music video for “Best American Girl,” she is not just an Asian-American who rocks. She is an Asian-American rocker.

The origin of indie came from musicians who decided to defy the capitalist system and start their careers on their own – which they deemed as the ultimate purity of music untainted by commercialism. Yet the once economically distinct genre has now changed into a more aesthetically defined category, defined by “intellectual” lyrics and experimental sounds, according to Wendy Hsu. Indie was also created as a rejection of the blackness dominating the music scene at the time, which ultimately led to a scene dominated by white males, who alienated themselves from the culture of black music that dominated the markets. This racial isolation, in addition to the elitism prevalent in the almost-pretentious lyrics that are described as “bookish and nerdy” by Hsu, has created a genre that is dominated by white, upper-middle class males.

Yet Mitski managed to wedge her way into the indie scene and establish a name herself, despite her identity as an Asian-American woman.

The importance of Mitski lies in the fact that her existence in the music field not only leads to more representation of Asian-Americans in general, but in a more natural, un-stereotyped way. Mitski clearly understands the importance of representation: she said so herself that she is inspired when young girls are thrilled at the fact that they can find someone who looks like them on stage. She acknowledges that representation gives children more room to hope by providing them a tangible role model.

“But it just means so much to me and it keeps me going when someone like me is in the audience, or someone younger than me who is East Asian and a girl, comes up to me and says ‘I needed to hear this, I needed someone like you around to look up to.'” 

Mitski during an interview with The Line of Best Fit

More importantly, though, Mitski does not let the common stereotypical narrative control her music. While she does let her culture and identity seep through her music from time to time (i.e. her interracial relationship experiences in “Best American Girl”), more often her music depicts the life of a typical millennial. Though she may be Asian-American, she shows her audience that she lives and loves like anybody else. In a world where Asian Americans can either exist as a stereotype or not exist at all, Mitski makes it clear that Asian Americans, too, are people with complex identities. For example, in “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” she may be Asian American, but she is also a struggling millennial, an idealistic individual, and a dreamer filled with wanderlust.

“My body’s made of crushed little stars

And I’m not doing anything

I wanna see the whole world

I wanna see the whole world

I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent

I wanna see the whole world”.

From “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars”

These characteristics are what make Mitski an Asian-American rocker, not an Asian American who rocks. As stated by Greg Tate, an Asian-American rocker is a musician who is motivated by his or her race, while the latter creates music and is aesthetically driven while happening to be Asian American. The distinction is crucial because in the end, Tate says that one’s heritage cannot be denied in his or her music. Mitski understands this, thus does not try to hide the characteristics that make her unique as an Asian-American artist. On the contrary, she lets her music speak for her honest opinions of the world as an Asian American. For example, in “Best American Girl,” not only does her music video call out the problematic consumption of “ethnic otherness” through the clothing of the white-female antagonist (because white people LOVE to wear Native American clothing while failing to acknowledging how we thrive off of colonizing their land), but she also addresses the pressure Asian Americans feel to assimilate with the “cultural norm.”

nope

Yet as an Asian-American rocker, she states how in the end she needs to be true to who she is through the lyrics “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/ But I do, I finally do.” By doing so, especially in a genre so heavily dominated by white males, she assures other young Asian-American women that assimilation is not necessary for love and acceptance is key.

When young Asian-Americans listen to Mitski’s music, for once, they can imagine themselves on stage, singing about normal love problems, teen angst, and hope for the future. Mitski understands that her presence holds the weight of an entire race by giving them room to imagine themselves in a field that they were never allowed to set foot in. This is why Mitski is an Asian-American rocker, a title that she is now proud of.

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