Taking Up Space: A Tale of Two Mitskis

I, too, want to be treated like a cowboy. I want to be treated like a white man with a weapon.

"She danced. She jumped. She took up space. And she wasn’t sorry for it."

Whenever I take up space, I feel compelled to apologize. I’m sorry when someone else bumps into me in public. I’m sorry for not wanting to diet my size 14 body smaller. I’m sorry for being too emotional, too loud, for not being enough, for being too much.

I saw the musician Mitski perform for the first time last year in Nashville, TN. My partner and I made the four-hour drive from my Indiana graduate school to see Lorde’s concert, for which Mitski was opening. In reality, we bought the tickets as much for the opening act as for the headliner. We arrived in Nashville in the late afternoon, parked our car, copped some barbecue. I tweeted a selfie to Mitski upon arrival to our seats: two Asian Americans in a sea of white people who were there, ostensibly, for another artist. I turned to my partner. “I never thought I’d see an Asian artist play an arena show like this,” I said. “Me neither,” they replied.

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Mitski, on tour with Lorde. Photo via Facebook.

Mitski stayed stationary for most of the concert, playing songs from her albums Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Puberty 2. The crowd seemed unfamiliar with her. “My name’s up there, so you can remember it,” Mitski said, referencing two Jumbotron screens on either side of the stage. Since I saw Mitski perform last year, she’s grown in notoriety. Her latest album, 2018’s Be the Cowboy, landed on many “Best Of” lists for the year. Meanwhile, memes and tweets and fan accounts have been popping up all over the country.

What makes Mitski so appealing to her avid fans? She shares our interests, for one. Like many of us, she is deeply interested in astrology as a means of sleuthing. In a 2017 Fader interview, she said,

When I have a crush on someone, I’m casually, like, Hey! When’s your birthday? No, like, year. No, like, OK, where were you born, exactly. You don’t know? Can you ask your mom real quick? I just want to know…and then I make their birth chart and then I see if we should get married and have children.

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In the same interview, she also expresses her love for young adult novels (“Oh my god, Young Adult romance is the shit.”). She cites the idealized love in them — characters who don’t have to deal with rent or taxes, an area of existential dread for many people our age who lack the means to pay back student debt.

The representation factor is a huge draw for Mitski fans as well. When I see her perform, I feel validated in my existence as a femme, mixed-Asian person. To see her on stage, to feel a crowd singing along to her music, I feel at home. I feel worthy because the crowd deems her worthy: of ticket sales, of love, of adulation, of tears.

There’s also the crying. In a 2018 Pitchfork interview, Mitski remarked, “Every time someone on social media is like, ‘I can’t wait to cry to your new album,’ I’m like, ‘I don’t know if you’ll cry. I’m sorry.’” Despite her resistance to deeming her music “confessional,” Mitski makes music that her fans love to weep to. With lyrics like “My God, I’m so lonely / so I open the window / to hear sounds of people,” what else are we supposed to do? Dance like fools while crying to “Nobody,” that’s what.

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Mitski’s Be The Cowboy Tour. Photo: Creative Loafing Tampa.

A few days ago I drove to Indianapolis for a Mitski concert with my partner and a couple friends. On the drive we listened to the opener, Jay Som. I’m admittedly a little inexperienced when it comes to concerts — I didn’t see my first until I was 18 — but I’d never seen two Asian American women headline a show. I felt miffed later on when a vocal audience member confused the two, a familiar moment for many of us in the crowd. I felt less miffed by the nervous, disappointed laughter that rippled through the crowd at that moment.

The Indianapolis concert was mostly populated with college and high school students, some people in their late 20s, and a few older people at the back of the venue. This time, Mitski used the entire stage for her performance. She shuffled onto the stage for her first song with a physicality that reminded me of St. Vincent’s. For her set, she used a four-legged table and a single chair, flipping it over, standing on top of it, crawling in front of it. She wasn’t behind her guitar for much of the show — instead, she performed stylized dances to many of her songs, the audience hanging on her every movement. A simple hand gesture or head nod would cause an eruption of screams from the crowd.

I cried twice during the concert, once through her second song and again at “Two Slow Dancers,” an encore number. For this one, Mitski pulled out her guitar:

And the ground has been slowly pulling us back down
You see it on both our skin
We get a few years and then it wants us back.
It would be a hundred times easier
If we were young again.

Tears rolled down my cheeks. I was at the back of the room, watching the crowd, and I remembered my life last fall.

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I remembered the weeks of the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in October. At the time I was directing my play, High School Coven, about teenage witches reporting sexual assault within the education system. It was intense to be so mired in that project while the Kavanaugh news was breaking, and breaking, and breaking. I remember driving around, listening to his hearing, pulling over to cry out of frustration. Pulling over to turn off the radio and turn on Mitski.

“The boys boys boys keep coming on for more, more, more,” Mitski crooned as I drove. “And change, change, change is gonna come but when, when, when?” Her delivery on her song “Townie” sounds less like a question than a demand, her tone dipping lower with each successive “when?” It’s a song about parental expectations, suburban teenage party-going, riding in cars with boys. In the context of that fall, it seemed like she was in my finicky Nissan alongside me, listening to the news, bemoaning the change that still hadn’t arrived.

The track ends with the line “I wanna be what my body wants me to be,” a cry of ownership and autonomy that resonates far beyond the song’s party setting. I put “Townie” into the soundtrack and staging of High School Coven, thinking of Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick and Anita Hill and all the women who’ve dared to claim our bodies as autonomous, as our own.

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Last September, Mitski addressed her album title, Be the Cowboy, with Trevor Noah. She discussed the idea of the mythical white male cowboy, of Clint Eastwood and the Marlboro Man. “There’s such an arrogance to it that I find so appealing, especially since I’m an Asian woman,” she said. “I walk into a room and feel like I have to apologize for existing.” For her, the idea of being “the cowboy” is about taking up space, walking into a room with confidence that borders on arrogance, not apologizing for it.

I, too, want to be treated like a cowboy. I want to be treated like a white man with a weapon. I want to be given the benefit of the doubt, to be assumed hero instead of villain. I want any tears I shed taken as proof of emotional depth, not weakness. I do not want to apologize for my presence, or my art, or my body. I want to demand my own space as a right, as manifest destiny.

When I think about Mitski, I think about the change in performance physicality between her two shows. I think about the way she stayed rooted to her guitar in concert last year, barely moving. I think about the way she traversed the stage last week. She danced. She jumped. She took up space. And she wasn’t sorry for it.