It is not a particularly novel or interesting statement to say that Mitski is breaking barriers in the indie rock scene. In fact, just googling “Mitski Interview” gets you about a dozen or so results where various news outlets describe Mitski as a radical presence in the indie rock community and insinuate that her very existence as a Japanese American woman destabilizes the entire (predominately White) genre. To be fair, Mitski does make good music and she is making ripples in the indie rock scene, but to attribute this simply to her identity denies her agency as an artist. Rather, Mitski uses her music to create spaces for discussions of gender and race within a monolithically White masculine genre.
Mitski’s music is necessarily race and gender conscious, because, in her words “everything is about race and gender”. At the same time, her songs are not meant to be manifestos of marginality or pieces of social critique. As she explained in an interview, her music is written with her personal experiences in mind and that in her creative process her position as a figure of the indie rock community does not cross her mind. Mitski’s motivation for making music is to share her life experiences through her art. Mitski’s music then, can still be interpreted through its positionality relative to other musicians in the indie rock scene, but we must of course be cognizant of Mitski’s intent as an artist, especially since her songs are about her own personal lived experience.
Mitski does not want us to make her into some Asian American musical icon. As she has mentioned here, here, and here. In fact, she actively does not want to be our go to Asian American indie rocker because in her words, “[she] know[s] for a fact that [she’s] problematic and shouldn’t be looked to for any kind of guidance.” And yet, we as Asian Americans and students of Asian American studies are so desperate and so willing to construct artists that look like us into more than they really are or more than they are willing to be.
Still, that is not to say that we cannot analyze Mitski as “Asian American”. In fact, it is sometimes appropriate that we do so. For example, Mitski’s music video for “Happy” intentionally addresses issues of Asian American femininity in America. In the video, she plays a war bride who struggles to maintain a failing marriage with her cheating husband. However, in the end it is revealed that her husband is a serial killer: the idyllic white picket fenced American dream is really a nightmare. But, where is Mitski’s music in all of this? When we analyze or over analyze Asian American music, we forget the aesthetic qualities of the art. Mitski’s voice and lived experience is secondary to her political agenda whether that political agenda is intended by the artist or not.
At the end of the day Mitski is special because her music is special. Her unique brand of hardcore guitar riffs and synthy ethereal vocals is unique and aurally interesting and intriguing. Some of her songs are testaments to raw unfiltered angst like “My Body is made of crushed little stars” and feature almost-screaming vocals and heavily distorted guitar riffs. Others, like “Thursday Girl” use layered vocals in almost like a choir in a more relaxed, but still emotional ballad. Mitski has incredible range as an artist and is undoubtedly incredibly talented. Her music just sounds really good and that is what makes Mitski special. We can, and perhaps should, consider the aesthetic values of her music before we consider the race and identity of the artist.
So, what do we do with Mitski? It is, in my mind, entirely insufficient to analyze her music as purely Asian American music because doing so strips the agency from the artist and diminishes the aesthetic value of their art. At the same time, however, analyzing her music in the context of Asian American music is useful since her music is racialized and gendered. The answer then, of course lies in the middle. Sometimes, we must look at the music macroscopically and leave behind the “intellectual” discourses of musicology. Especially when it comes to popular music, we should remember take a second to stop and just rock out which is ultimately what Mitski wants us to do when we listen to Puberty 2.