In any rom-com, love is around every corner at any coffee shop, art gallery opening, or for the truly uninspired, bar –– but only if you’re white, attractive and straight. The reality is much different if you fall outside of that narrow, limited depiction. Many argue that “love is color-blind” –– that liberal ideology plays into the dominant narrative that ignores race because it “doesn’t matter.” But race is alive and real, and that liberalism hurts Asian-Americans who are trying to find love in a sphere that doesn’t want to take them into consideration. Enter Mitski into this conversation. A half-Japanese woman; a technically trained artist; the indie artist currently tearing up the scene. She’s also someone who just wasn’t going to take color-blind ideology, so, whether it was conscious or not, she became a radical artist. Her album, Puberty 2, makes the listener consider how Asian-American love has allowed her to subvert the tropes that dominate the indie scene, and realize that Mitski is a true “Asian [indie] rocker” –– a radical.
Generally, radicalism is when a part of the subordinate group in a society splits off and creates their own framework of rules and regulations that usually is a complete reform of the dominant set of rules imposed on them. When applied love, of Asian-American love, radicalism means to love ourselves, even when hegemonic society says that’s wrong. Asian-Americans loving other Asian-Americans is something rarely seen, as Fred Ho explains in “Asian-American Love.” He writes, “But in bourgeois American society, the primacy is placed on the young and virile, the attractive and sexual. And Asian-American love is excluded from this” (Ho, 245). Asian-Americans are seen as non-sexual beings, which goes hand in hand with the view that we are cold, robotic, unfeeling. We “cannot” love, so any type of love, even self-love, becomes a radical act.
But though she’s excluded from any type of love save that of being the exotic counterpart to a white man (“… the white man’s erotic-exotic fascination and possession of Asian women can’t be denied”), Mitski decides to love herself anyways (Ho, 245). Her song, “Your Best American Girl” makes this most visible; as the song comes to a close, Mitski stands alone wailing on her guitar, dressed in gold. She sings: Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me // But I do, I finally do // And you’re an all-American boy // I guess I couldn’t help trying to be the best American girl.
She begins the video flirting with a (generic) white man, shyly waving hello and making eyes at him, when all of a sudden, a white woman with a flower crown, flash tattoos and a fringe vest reminiscent (read: appropriative) of Native American culture walks in and immediately captures his attention and tongue. Mitski feels she should love this “all-American boy” because she’s trying to be “the best American girl,” as that’s the only acceptable outlet for her love, according to society. But as she watches them kiss, she turns to her own hand. As she kisses her own hand, she caresses her face, musses up her hair, all the passion the couple exhibits Mitski does as well –– but towards and by herself. This is crucial: she knows that this boy is not right for her, his mother wouldn’t approve, and he’s likely raised to think the same. But she does, she approves of her mother’s parenting and thus she “finally” approves of herself.
The same themes play out in “Happy.” Again, an Asian woman loves a white man; they have a “picture-perfect” suburban life. Except he’s cheating. She knows this, but still pretends she’s content, singing So he laid me down, and I felt Happy come inside of me //. One day, she drifts to the basement to find her husband murdering his mistresses. As he attempts to suffocate her, she does what she must, and kills him. The last scene is the most poignant –– she drives away, steadily, a determined and calm look in her eyes. This is the second part of self-love: you can act with agency and reclaim parts of yourself that may have been taken away by others. Like the early Asian immigrant, whose “passionate, militant” expression was erased by white publishers, the woman in the video has that same vivacity (as we see from her final act) but has had that expression erased by her husband –– until she reclaims her lost narrative through her deviance from the perfect, servile Asian woman (Ho, 243).
When she comes to this realization, that she can love herself, that she can act with agency, she subverts what indie as a genre tells her she has to do to fit the “indie narrative” of today –– as Ho said, “Without love, and its inspiration as reflected and offered in art, it is not possible for Asian-Americans to sustain a full, spiritual resistance and challenge to the forces of white assimilation and racism,” we understand that without Asian-American love demonstrated through art, radical resistance cannot exist (246).
While indie music was economically motivated at its conception, releasing music financially independent of a producer (Hsu, 41), it’s become a genre of aesthetics that has these key components: simple, technophobic, with “a fetishization of the guitar” and a focus on “authentic” and “brooding” lyrics (Balance, 128). As Greg Tate makes a point to note, Black people who rock make music that’s aesthetically motivated and contextualized, music that follows the trendy with no deeper implications (Tate, 22). We can say the same for Asian-American. Mitksi is a “rocker,” not just an Asian woman who rocks. Deliberately crafting metaphors (like Happiness as someone she sleeps with and then leaves while she’s in the bathroom) through which she focuses on happiness, not sadness, but how it relates to love and hurt in simple words that have a much deeper meaning, using synthetic sounds that mirror a heartbeat in “Happy,” ensuring that the first song on the album immediately confronts the listener with technology. And though she uses guitar in every song, it an extension of her self-love, not as a fetish, as we can see in “Your Best American Girl.” In the end, she’s left not with a boy, but her guitar. Mitski said it best in an interview with The Guardian: “[People say], ‘Oh no, she has no control over it, it overcomes her. Why is it so hard to understand that my brain is in my control?”
She acts with deliberateness, something a rocker does when they have to consider more than just aesthetics. When people are dressed in a certain way in her videos, when she uses synthetic noises, when certain images are paired with certain lyrics, these are the marks of a rocker, one who rejects the aesthetics of complacency and embraces a deliberate, motivated art form. Learning to love herself was the first step, and that love has sustained her resistance in Puberty 2.