Mitski Miyawaki’s newest release personifies her phrase, “Be the cowboy you want to see in the world.” An investigation of questioning one’s own authority and self-assurance as both an artist and an individual, Mitski’s Be The Cowboy is under-toned conceptually with her increasing prevalence as woman of color in a primarily white, male dominated music industry disguised through themes of identity and the yearning for romantic expression. The album’s tracks, while speaking not as a narrative but each through their own articulately crafted compositions, create a disconnect between mind and body, between the artist and “the cowboy.”
In “Washing Machine Heart,” defining warbling synths mimic an overt sense of unease and tumultuous emotion as Mitski tells a story of discomfort with one’s own identity and one’s perceived identity. She exclaims, “Baby, though I've closed my eyes, I know who you pretend I am.” She presents a complementary relationship through explicit wording and sonic expression that conveys a clear sense of turmoil to the listener, where you might feel as though your own heart is tossing and turning, questioning the line between expressing an authentic self and taking on forms of made-up counterparts imagined by others.
On “Nobody,” Mitski cultivates a successful single release that somehow expresses feeling direly alone in the world while taking us on an upbeat, mesmerizing trip. This track, through its repetitive vocals and elements of disco, evokes a feeling of complete loneliness, not just in a particular situation but as a general sense of hopelessness. Throughout the chorus, she repeats the word “Nobody” over and over again, mimicking a dissociative fugue state. Each time she sings the word, however, her voice experiences a tonal shift that exhibits a discomfort and disconnect with the self and outside world. Towards the song’s end, her voice trails off as the instrumentals in the background distort and the sound almost becomes robotic.
In this sense, Mitski creates a character that decides to adopt the mindset of a pervasive figure in order to give herself the authority that only an impossibly secure, powerful, emotionless person could have. It is these same themes that seem to generate a certain audience that level up Mitski’s music, generating more and more of a positive popular and critical response with each of her releases. When Mitski sings of all these heartbreaks and identity crises, proudly, we feel empowered in our sadness and in our desire to have the same confidence as our counterparts. We all want to “be the cowboy,” but that’s a pipe dream. Mitski, though, encourages us to thrive in this dream, to be pseudo-cowboys, and directly face and confront our realities and identities. She doesn't necessarily present a solution to the issue of damaged identities, but rather, produces unashamed expressions and reactions to the issue itself, in the form of music.
Several tracks in Mitski’s album exemplify, both sonically and lyrically, this identity-based disconnect. In “Washing Machine Heart,” the track’s defining warbling synth mimic both the song’s title and Mitski’s overt sense of unease and tumultuous emotion as she navigates a particular relationship. She exclaims, “Baby, though I've closed my eyes, I know who you pretend I am.” This lyric suggests that the album questions the concept of self identity as it investigates Mitski’s perception of herself versus how another person would perceive her and who they believe her to be. It shows a disconnect between how she truly is versus how she feels she is seen, for example if she sees herself as anxious and lacking strength in herself, she realizes that her romantic interest in this particular song does not accept her for who she is and places their own idealizations on her, which causes struggle for her to accept who she is.
On “Nobody,” Mitski expresses feeling direly alone in the world, explaining a trip by herself to Malaysia: “I thought it would be a great vacation, but I went alone, and I went during the holidays when everyone else is spending time with their families, and so, long story short, I ended up feeling incredibly, devastatingly alone.” This track, through its sound engineering and repetitive vocals, thematically expresses the feeling of complete loneliness, not just in a situation but as a person. Throughout the chorus, she repeats the word “Nobody” over and over again, mimicking a dissociative fugue state. Each time she sings the word, however, the track experiences a tonal shift that exhibits discomfort and disconnect with the self and outside world. Towards the song’s end, her voice trails off as the instrumentals in the background distort and the sound almost becomes robotic. In this way, the tracks become about losing oneself as a person because of the lack of companionship from another person, which suggests that Mitski as an individual has difficulty being alone with herself without another being to validate her.
The points of connection between Mitski’s, at times, confessional lyrics and emotionally expressive sound, through the use of screaming, feedback, quick transitions between volume and track pace, and common shifts between tone, feelings, and sometimes language, can be most well be understood through Mitski’s fan base. It may be simple to suggest that the feelings of insecurity and loneliness that she exhibits are characteristic of any young person, and yet, the fact that she is an Asian American woman draws a certain type of audience to her shows, social media accounts, and every day listener base. One factor is the lack of representation that exists for this demographic in any form of media but especially in indie rock music. However, even deeper, is the common themes and issues of identity that seem to persist within this demographic of young, Asian or Asian American, women who are struggling to express and accept who they are in their own societies. Mitski openly expresses many of our frustrations: what our racial and cultural identities mean, how others view us because of our appearances, the way we are treated in romantic relationships, and the general sense of anxiety and insecurity that comes with trying to prove our worth in fields dominated by white men. She is quite obviously speaking to this marginalized demographic, most poignantly and expressively through “Be the Cowboy.”
—Marii Krueger, DJ