In August of this year, indie-rock (punk-disco-pop?) musician Mitski released her highly-anticipated fifth album, Be the Cowboy. Her last record, Puberty 2, was widely acclaimed by both critics and plebs like us; one song, “Your Best American Girl,” even managed to place at #16 on NPR’s 200 Greatest Songs by 20th Century Women. Needless to say, expectations for her follow-up album were exceptionally high. Of course, Mitski surpassed them anyway, because she is our queen.
Mary and Kelli, certifiable Mitski fangirls, decided to have a chat about Be the Cowboy, genre mixing, loneliness, and all other things Mitski--and friend-of-the-pod Todd joined in on the fun, too! Read on for their conversation!
Mary: This is Mitski’s fifth album, and her third studio album. I’m a fairly recent Mitski convert, and have connected to this album in a way I don’t often connect. I listened to Puberty II, and I’ve also heard Bury Me at Makeout Creek, but those albums didn’t sit with me the way Mitski’s newest release, Be the Cowboy has. Or rather, they didn’t haunt me the way Be the Cowboy has. Critics have always had a hard time categorizing Mitski. She’s definitely an indie rock queen, but I’ve also seen her described as walking the line between pop music and punk music, which people often think of as very different things. What kind of music do you think Mitski makes?
Todd: Hello! Hi! Hey! This is a good question. Let me answer it by not answering: Mitski makes every kind of music? Or, to put it another way, Be the Cowboy has songs that sound like disco, indie rock, punk, and even, appropriately enough, country, and the wild thing is that it at no time feels like a disparate album. Part of that is Mitski’s voice, which is strong and emotive and is able to wring emotion out of every word. And part of that is Mitski’s songwriting, which always feels impeccable, like she has crafted each song to be just what it needs to be, no more, no less.
Kelli: The first song of Mitski’s I ever heard was “Your Best American Girl.” I was listening to NPR’s All Songs Considered, which I rarely ever do, so the fact that I happened to tune in that day was truly a blessing. The song stopped me in my tracks the way a really good song will, and immediately I was like: I just found my new favorite artist. I quickly pulled her page up on Spotify and proceeded to listen to all of her albums on repeat for at least 3 days straight. I’ve been obsessed with her music ever since.
I agree that Mitski kind of defies the concept of genres. Before this album, I would have placed her closer to punk on the spectrum you mentioned, Mary (songs like “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” from Puberty 2 and “Drunk Walk Home” from Bury Me at Makeout Creek come to mind) — but Be The Cowboy has a LOT of certifiably catchy pop hits. You know when someone asks you “what kind of music do you listen to?” and there’s that awkward moment where you have no idea how to even begin to answer that question? I feel like from now on, I should just say “Mitski,” and that will cover most of the bases.
Mary: In that same vein, Mitski is kind of known for writing sad, lonely songs about heartbreak. Her music is very emotionally vulnerable. Is this album a continuation or a departure from that?
I’d wager that Be the Cowboy is similarly sad and lonely (I think I remember saying that if I listened to it while sad it would just make me more sad), but it plays with our perception of what a sad song is. “Nobody” is one of the most upbeat, happiest sounding songs, but its lyrics are crushingly lonely.
Kelli: I think this album is definitely a continuation of those themes of sadness and loneliness, but explored through a different lens. One thing I’ve loved about Mitski’s previous work is that her music isn’t just sad and lonely, it’s often angry. I think about the song I mentioned before, “Drunk Walk Home,” the way Mitski’s voice is almost a growl as she sings: “For I’m starting to learn I may never be free / And though I may never be free / Fuck you and your money / I’m tired of your money.” Later in the song: “You know I wore this dress for you / These killer heels for you.” When your heart breaks, between the sadness and the loneliness, there is a lot of anger. It comes with unmet expectations, and frustration at yourself for ever having been foolish enough to hope in the first place, to think you might be anything other than alone.
Be The Cowboy seems much less angry to me than Mitski’s previous albums. So, maybe what we’re seeing is some kind of progression, or just a change — not just sonically, but in the way Mitski deals with her feelings of isolation. The focus shifts from anger to unabashed longing. She’s presenting her loneliness in softer ways.
Todd: That is a smart way to talk about what Mitski is doing on Be the Cowboy, because while the themes of loneliness and isolation are still present, they are given a different veneer. Arguably, one of the saddest songs on the album, “Nobody,” is also one of the danciest. It has a disco feel to it, and it is easy to sing along to from the beginning--that chorus!--while also being very dancy and upbeat. And yet the lyrics talk about planets destroying themselves through global warming and the smaller destructions that happen when we are rejected by someone or we feel like no one wants us. Mitski takes all this darkness and spins it into something light but still able to convey the gravity of her thoughts. It is not unlike “Your Best American Girl” in that way--both are songs about deeply sad topics (not feeling like you live up to someone’s expectation, not feeling worthy or capable of love) presented in a perfect pop package. And this is just one way that Mitski is able to upend a listener’s expectations throughout Be the Cowboy.
Mary: The album starts with an announcement that comes off as a plea in “Geyser,” with Mitski--or rather the character she’s inhabiting for this album — singing, “You’re my number one/ You’re the one I want” and then shifting later to “You’re the one I got/ so I’ll keep turning down the hands/ that beckon me to come.” For me, this song sets up the character and the main struggle of album’s narrative. The speaker, or main character, or whatever we want to call her, takes us through phases of her life and her relationship with her “number one”(or maybe with multiple people? I’m not entirely sure) — for better and worse. The speaker isn’t always happy with her relationship/s and she often loses herself in the process of attempting to become what others want.
I think we could read this in a few ways; maybe the album is some sort of concept album, like I’m proposing, but maybe it’s also about the process of writing in general. I think we can also view this album as a narratively separate set of songs sung by the same speaker, a character Mitski has talked about in interview.
Kelli: Yeah, I would agree that these songs seem to be coming from the same person, and this person is different than the Mitski we get in any of her previous albums. It does feel like there’s a significant passage of time between the first song, “Geyser,” and the last, “Two Slow Dancers.” In the latter, she sings, “It would be a hundred times easier / If we were young again.” Young… like in “Geyser,” when she first declares her love? I BELIEVE YOU ARE ONTO SOMETHING.
Todd: I agree! Too often we ascribe every lyric onto a songwriter’s life, especially when they are women, because we want to believe that we know more about them or that we are somehow a part of their lives. But Mitski bucks against that. In another interview with NPR, she talks about how “Geyser” is about music and the art of making music and not necessarily about a real relationship.
Mary: Part of why I subscribe to the narrative theory of this album is Mitski’s onstage persona for this album. In an interview with The Fader, Mitski said, “It's not like [the album’s protagonist] is a fictional character, but I noticed a personality in me that was very obsessed with control and feeling like I have power — because I am powerless and don't have a lot of control. So I kind of investigated that person in me. What is the exaggerated form? Well, it's a woman who's incredibly controlled, severe, and austere.” The album cover and subsequent promotional shots portray that strict, reserved woman with a classy look — or what I like to call the “rich aunt whose husband died under mysterious circumstances” look. It’s a good look. Stylistically, I think this album is more polished than Mitski’s previous work — maybe because she wanted to present a more complete vision of this character she’s created.
I think I’m particularly interested in this character because her repression is something that’s a very gendered experience, you know? Women are taught — even today — that they can’t be too open with their desires, and so when we are, it feels scandalous. The album does a nice job of talking about that. For example, in “Washing Machine Heart,” the speaker says, “I’m not wearing my usual lipstick/ I thought maybe we would kiss tonight.” It’s not that big of a deal to want to kiss someone, or even ask for it, but sometimes we’re taught to think it is. Sending subtle hints like, hey I’m not wearing fancy lipstick so I’m available for smooching, isn’t something that should have to happen. We should be able to ask. I just think this character is a nice way to explore the ways we train women to be certain types of people, even though those types of people are ridiculous.
Kelli: You’re totally right. It’s interesting that she says she’s obsessed with the idea of having power and control — maybe that explains why Be The Cowboy lacks the anger I mentioned in her previous albums. This character (or version of Mitski, whatever you want to call it), the repressed woman, obviously isn’t going to express herself in anger, because women aren’t supposed to be angry. So instead she gives us what we’re conditioned to expect from women — the pleasant, the feminine — feeds us her sadness with a spoonful of sugar. Like in “Nobody,” a song which also speaks to the idea of the way women shape themselves to be what others need. “I’ve been big and small and / Big and small and / Big and small again / And still nobody wants me / Still nobody wants me.” That verse kills me, but when I hear it, I also kind of want to dance.