CELEBRATING THREE YEARS OF MITSKI MIWAYAKI'S "BE THE COWBOY"
“My God, I’m so lonely,” Mitski Miwayaki croons over a steady pulse of hi-hat and progressive piano chords in the opening of her melancholic track ‘Nobody’. As the second single from the mononymous Japanese-American songstress’ deeply contemplative album Be the Cowboy – released 3 years ago – ‘Nobody’ has become a recognizable anthem for isolation, alienation, and introspection, particularly for the young and disenfranchised navigating today’s strange world. Speaking to Genius about her songwriting process, Mitski revealed she had penned ‘Nobody’ while staying in a studio apartment in Kuala Lumpur’s KLCC complex over the Christmas holidays – an artistic product of her abject loneliness and solitude. Decompressing after a tour across Australia and Asia, she chose to lodge in Malaysia, as a place where she had spent a lot of her childhood, but hadn’t fathomed just how isolating the experience would be, especially while everyone was spending time with loved ones elsewhere in the world. “So I open the window / To hear sounds of people / To hear sounds of people,” she continues in her verse, expressing a deep yearning for human connection – and later in her own words, “to hear other people being alive.”
Mitski’s song summons for me two distinct things: a scene from a film, and a childhood memory. The first is taken from Sofia Coppola’s enigmatic Lost in Translation – an Americanised perspective exploring themes of alienation and cultural displacement in Tokyo. 18 years later, the image of its lonely central character Charlotte gazing across the cityscape view from her hotel room window at the Park Hyatt Tokyo still seems as freshly projected in my head as it did all those years ago. The other thought is a recollection of walking through the seemingly labyrinthian KLCC mall as a young child on holiday. When I recall this memory, I am holding my aunt’s hand at the base of the KLCC’s exquisite dome roof, which is sandwiched by the formidable Petronas Twin Towers; I am gazing upwards at the glass ceiling and taking in all the microscopic movement of people as they traverse across the mall’s several stories, living their individual lives like ants. For a moment I let go of my aunt’s reassuring hand, and I am swallowed up – overwhelmed by the crowds of people and the hypnotic, sublime grandeur of the building’s architecture. It’s a fleeting moment of complete depersonalization where time seems to slow down, reconciled only by my aunt’s hand instantly finding mine again, as our family finally decides on a restaurant to eat and I am led away from the building’s centre., I find solace knowing the origins of Mitski’s powerful track lies somewhere in that same arresting, dizzying vicinity. Like Mitski, I had spent many chapters of my childhood in Malaysia – rhythmically visiting family every Summer and Christmas while growing up – and that particular trip to the Suria KLCC with my relatives was filled with joy and exhilaration. It was the first time I remember being in a shopping complex of that scale (at the time, London had not yet been graced with a Westfield centre), and being distinctly aware of the smallness and insignificance of my physical entity – just a small speck in the blur of humankind.
On the emotionally intense inception of the chorus for “Nobody,” , Mitski describes entering a “semi-fugue state” in her studio apartment, “on [her] hands and knees on the floor, just crying and repeating the word ‘nobody’”. There are moments when Mitski’s loneliness feels palpably resonant – that episode of detachment as a child, for instance, which would periodically return at various points in my adolescence – and also in my kindred identity as an Asian woman, born and raised in the diaspora. Each of my childhood visits to Malaysia would leave me feeling strangely hollow upon my return home, yearning for something intangible. Little did I understand at the time, but what I had been experiencing was a gulf between myself and my Asian identity – a cultural disconnect compounded by the fact that outside my family, hardly anyone I grew up with looked like me. Constantly straddling the fine line between being invisible – through a dearth in societal and cultural representation – yet all too hypervisible in my physical differences ensured an identity crisis was always raging somewhere at the back of my mind. Like many children of the diaspora, the idea of ‘home’ was always complicated: was it London, where I was born and raised and had lived my whole life? Malaysia, where my parents were born, and where the majority of my family members currently reside? Or somewhere in Guangdong, my ancestral homeland, where my Northern nomadic Hakka forefathers would have eventually migrated down South to? All of these physical places carry a notion of belonging that configures my jagged identity: a unique concoction of past lives, spoken dialects, and sprawling cultures. At home, I’m too Asian to feel British – and conversely, I’m too British when I’m with my family in Asia to feel entirely at ease. I have forgotten my mother tongue, and for that, I am culturally uprooted and displaced. So when I listen to the soundscape of isolation and alienation in Mitski’s ‘Nobody’, I know how it feels to be lost, and I find comfort in that.
Over the last 17 months, while the pandemic quietly ravaged away at the world, Mitski’s illustrious Be the Cowboy reached new ears, ushering in an even younger generation of fans. As lockdowns were enforced and most people entered varying states of quarantine, so did droves of gen Z-ers take to their phones to seek virtual connection in their unprecedented solitude. In the US alone, Tiktok’s user base grew by 180% amongst 15-25 year olds during the pandemic, and with this, so did a thriving cohort of new trends and viral soundbites rush to the forefront of pop culture. Mitski’s ‘Nobody’ was one of them. Once the beloved indie gem of older music fans who compared the artist to the likes of The Pixies, Sleater-Kinney, and Björk, Mitski’s music found a new life of its own when ‘Nobody’ became the hilarious theme song for satirically escaping unwanted attention or personal embarrassment.
At least ask for my Facebook??♬ Nobody - Mitski
As of August 2021, there are currently 648.2K Tiktoks created under the ‘Nobody’ sound listing, which points to the track’s ever-growing universality for soundtracking sardonic musings or existential dread. A sad bop with nods to disco, mirroring the zesty guitar chords of The Cardigan’s iconic ‘Lovefool’, ‘Nobody’ is a similarly danceable song with melancholy lyrics. It differs from the moods of other standouts from Mitski’s track listing: namely ‘Geyser’, ‘A Pearl’ and ‘Two Slow Dancers’. In the single-take music video for album opener ‘Geyser’, Mitski appears from a fading red screen with the eruption of a piercing, glitchy organ. In the blue light of dawn, she is fully dressed in black on an empty and scraggly beach – the effect is riveting, ethereal, alien. “Though I'm a geyser / Feel it bubbling from below / Hear it call, hear it call / Hear it call to me / Constantly,” she sings, a scope of repressed emotions surfacing. She sprints across the beach, collapses to her knees, and digs away at the dirt with her bare hands, as if attempting to uncover some sort of elemental truth from the earth itself. The explosive and almost triumphant ‘Geyser’ deals with questioning the liminality of fiction and reality, reflected in her following lyrics: “And hear the harmony / Only when it's harming me / It's not real, it's not real / It's not real enough.”
Visually and artistically, ‘Geyser’ points to the moodiness and visceral work of Björk’s immersive ‘black lake’ – which was commissioned by the Museum of Modern Art and shot entirely amongst the breathtaking Icelandic landscape – and the 360° VR-captured ‘stonemilker’, which oversees Björk perform on the shores of a beach. The saturated association between female rage and the power of nature’s terrain would seem clichéd if it weren’t executed so earnestly and masterfully by either soloist. Then there’s my personal favourite: the angsty, heavier ‘A Pearl’ which draws on Mitski’s grunge influences. “It's just that I fell in love with a war / Nobody told me it ended / And it left a pearl in my hand / And I roll it around / Every night, just to watch it glow,” she belts over distorted power chords. While the song’s lyrics are vague due to her preference for fans to interpret her songs individually, Mitski explained at an intimate gig at London’s Rough Trade East that the foundation of ‘A Pearl’ was “having something toxic in you or experiencing something that's traumatic, but it's been your identity for so long that you hold on to it because it feels like if you let it go, then you wouldn't have an identity anymore.” Since pearls are created as a defence mechanism by oysters and mussels in the event of a physiological attack, or physical damage to the outer shell, Mitski’s ‘pearl’ can be read as somewhat of a psychological counterpart – a hardening of the human spirit. Tapping into the concept of the protagonist not being able to release their source of trauma, she wishes to her fans, “I hope that you are all able to let your little pearl go.”
In perhaps her most wistful track of the album, the gentle synth-laden ballad ‘Two Slow Dancers’ softly explores a relationship between two aged lovers. It usually brings me to tears. While the music video fixates on a single disco ball spinning in the dark, the song explores a lifetime of shared memories and the effects of the passage of time: “Does it smell like a school gymnasium in here? / It's funny how they're all the same / It's funny how you always remember / And we've both done it all a hundred times before / It's funny how I still forgot.” At the apex of the track’s emotion, she croons “It would be a hundred times easier / If we were young again / But as it is / And it is / We're just two slow dancers, last ones out / We're two slow dancers, last ones out.” I am left thinking about all the tales of lovers that we will never know throughout history, such as the Lovers of Valdaro, and the ephemeral blink that is human life.
Be the Cowboy houses a range of personas and emotions that encompasses young angst, heartbreak, and alienation – yet Mitski’s messaging somehow manages to steer clear of the indulgent naivety of the ‘youth in revolt’ narrative. She subverts the idea of the ‘cowboy’, in its Hollywood-driven, all-American, white male, macho mythology – a demographic which has overwhelmingly dominated the indie scenes – and offers us a transcendence of these strong, confident, and wreckless stereotypes as a young Asian woman. When I look back on the childhood version of myself who had walked through the KLCC and felt the first tugs of a racial identity crisis start to encroach, I think she could have been the cowboy. In fact, according to Mitsky, anyone can be the cowboy.