A Love Letter to Mitski, From One Mixed Race Girl to Another
By Lyric Waiwiri-Smith | Illustration by Yi Jong
I am a fool for music by female musicians scorned by men. I think I’m trying to find some kind of closure or validation for my own personal male inflicted scorn but I’m never finding a release. I have a hunger inside of me that is simply insatiable for the stories of heartbreak and anger and loss – I devour and devour and devour and still there is room in me for more sadness. I’ve devoured Joni Mitchell. I’ve devoured Taylor Swift. I’ve devoured Lorde. Beyonce. Snail Mail. Soccer Mommy. Lauryn Hill. SZA. I’ve absorbed the stories of vulnerable women and shrouded my life in them until their narrative became mine, shaping my trauma to fit theirs. But when I discovered Mitski I felt satisfaction, as though someone had finally written my story for me.
Mitski Miyawaki is Japanese-American, and has openly expressed her attraction to both women and men. She is classically trained in music and has an intimidating level of intelligence. She’s completely beautiful, and yet has no desire to be a product of shallow consumption. She seems to have completely dissected the female experience. She is unapologetically detailed and unflinchingly honest in her story telling. On Happy, she describes the act of a being named Happy “[coming] inside” of her, and makes it seem at once an act of intimacy and also a bomb being planted. On Nobody, she recalls being “big and small and big and small and big and small again,” and you painfully remember being big and small too. On Townie, she wants “a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony,” and it’s wildly romantic.
have to be careful with where I listen to Mitski, because her music has the ability to transport you elsewhere. My bus ride home becomes the cinematic ending to a coming of age movie. Sitting alone in the dark becomes a sacred meditation. Once I played her music over the speakers at work and started crying as I was wiping down a bench. I think I astral projected back in time and re-lived a breakup.
But her music really is both cinematic and a sacred meditation. Listening to it makes you feel seen, and heard, and validated and understood. Her music is the hand that holds mine throughout the trials of life, and I’ve formed a close bond with it not just for all its intelligence and vulnerability, but for what it means coming from a mixed race woman. Mitski is half American, half Japanese, and as for me, I tick both NZ Māori and NZ European on government forms. My mother is a staunch Māori woman with deep brown skin, and my father is a white man who enjoys watching WWII documentaries on the History Channel in his spare time. A lot of my life has been a balancing act between these two worlds: I stand on one end of the scale and watch as the other is about to tip over. I run over to save it from falling, and in the distance I see the end I just left start to go down. I’ve never really been sure how to be a mixed race woman, and even though I can’t say Mitski knows either, she can beautifully narrate the experience, especially in terms of love.
Being mixed race, there is an inexplicable ache when it comes to loving white men (and women). It is the overwhelming self consciousness and hatred that is ingrained into WOC (women of colour) from a young age – we’ve spent our whole lives looking towards the media for advice on how to be beautiful, and a European face looks back at us. We are taught that ‘white’ features and bodies are the epitome of beauty and the subject of desire. Even when prominent white women adopt the physical attributes that are typical of ethnic women it becomes a sensationalised trend that they invented, and the painful history where these features were once a focal point for racist backlash becomes just a distant (if remembered at all) memory. You are taught that you are not the ideal, that exceptions would have to be made in order for you to be loved. I’ve always feared that my brownness would make me less loveable, less desirable, less of a “dream girl,” and I’ve carried this fear into every relationship, fling and hook up I’ve ever had in my life. I’m scared of someone lifting the veil on my racial ambiguity, that knowing I’m mixed race will make the thick thighs, big nose, and messy hair all the more prominent – and ugly. Daring to exist as a woman of colour is inherently a political act, being brave enough to be a woman of colour in love is like waging a war.
Mitski reflects on this feeling many times in her music. Perhaps the most obvious example is Your Best American Girl:
Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me
But I do, I think I do
And you’re an all-American boy
I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl
I remember the fear of introducing my first real boyfriend to my mother. He was from a far nicer white family, and my mother was completely, unapologetically brown – loud, haughty, and missing the ‘polish’ of Western society. I would have much rather spent our entire relationship (which lasted two years) without him ever meeting her and knowing my truth – yes, I really am a brown girl! Yes, my mother really is a brown woman! Yes, we live like this!
Mitski’s mother is Japanese, and Mitski herself has spoken on her closeness with the Japanese side of her family. She speaks on her Asian identity frequently and proudly, and yet she’s also admitted a need to “apologise for existing” just for walking into a room. In her, I see a reflection of my own inability to fully integrate into white society. We are both proudly biracial, yet aware of what our presence means in white spaces. We are both tethered to a life of apologising, yearning, and feeling like an outsider. As she sings to her lost lover on Strawberry Blond, “all I’ve ever wanted is a life in your shape.”
Daring to exist as a woman of colour is inherently a political act, being brave enough to be a woman of colour in love is like waging a war.
Mitski’s work has a gritty nakedness to it. She is fearlessly hurting and putting it on parade, and even in her pursuit to ‘Be the Cowboy’ and put on a brave, masculine front in the face of this pain, there is always something about her work that is incredibly feminine. She is the “idiot with a painted face” in Me and My Husband until her lover walks in, and in Pink In The Night she makes a desperate weakening plea to try and kiss her lover “again, and again, and again, and again”. Often, we tend to treat female musicians who are daring enough to lay their emotions bare as submissive and powerless, but this vulnerability is perfectly feminist. There is nothing more empowering than to bravely showcase your emotions to the world, without fear of who is listening and interpreting. She seems to have such a firm grip on the female experience, and I’m obsessed with her describing and analysing of it. Her song Happy is on a constant loop in my mind (seriously), and I find myself pouring over her lyrics over and over again. The second verse is particularly beautiful and scrutinising of the romantic and domestic life of women:
I was in the bathroom, I didn’t hear him leave
I locked the door behind him and I turned around to see
All the cookie wrappers and the empty cups of tea
Well I sighed and mumbled to myself, again I have to clean
The first time I heard this I felt winded. The act of cleaning after men is so imbedded into womanhood – how many times has Kanye West preached questionable political views, just for Kim Kardashian to have to defend him? How many times do we listen to Lemonade and hear Beyoncé go through the aches of having to repair her relationship with her husband, broken over his infidelity? How many times have you watched your mother clean up after your father? How many times have you as a young woman had to fix the parts of yourself and your life that were torn apart by a lover? Cleaning is a constitutionally feminine task, and this detail Mitski slips through of her lover leaving a mess behind, and the fact that tidying up is something she has to do again, is so undeniably powerful. At once her lyrics seem like the entries of your own diary and biblical passages on female life.
Despite making her emotional vulnerability public in her music, Mitski remains a sort of enigma. Recently she deleted all her social media accounts in time with the end of her tour and although there exists many fantastic interviews with her online, I still want to pick her brain apart to see her inner workings, or at least sit in silence for six hours as she presents a speech on womanhood and identity. However, the mystery of Mitski sometimes feels comforting – as consumers of art we have the freedom to interpret music in our own way, and so her stories become ours. Often when I show someone one of her songs I like to say she wrote it about me. Even in her absence I hear her wisened voice at the back of my brain offering me advice: don’t live to be consumed, let yourself be emotionally vulnerable, and stop messing with boys.