Mitski Miyawaki has introduced a persona for her fifth album. It is, she writes, that of a “very controlled icy repressed woman who is starting to unravel.” That the Japanese-American musician has started to experiment with what she calls “narrative and fiction” on ‘Be The Cowboy’ is either a radical departure from her previous confessional lyricism or a logical development of her actorly songwriting.
How the character is interpreted depends on individual views about breakthrough album ‘Puberty 2’. Universally praised, some thought the 2016 release was an update on ‘90s emo, kind of like Angel Olsen fronting Weezer. Other people saw it as an angsty satire on early adult life through the concept of an idealised picket fence America.
As someone who spent much of her childhood travelling – living in at least 13 countries before settling in New York at the age of 15 – she was able to observe high school clichés with the gimlet eye of an outsider. This was most particularly heard on ‘Your Best American Girl’, which uses the classic indie-rock of a teen rom-com to skewer an “all-American white culture […] that is inherited instead of attained.”
Yet when pundits picked up on this theme and described the Technicolor video – in which Mitski watches a white couple kissing – as an attack on ‘white indie America’ she took issue.
Her reaction was reflective of her attitude towards growing recognition and the discomfort she felt with the over-analysis of her work. An innately private person, she repeatedly challenged her perception as an over-sharing millennial and questioned why people thought that, as a woman, she didn’t have any agency. “Why is it so hard to understand that I’m in control?” she rhetorically asked The Guardian.
It’s hard not to read this reaction as the galvanising force behind her decision to return with a persona for whom control is centre stage. Stating upfront that she’s writing in character erects a barrier to intrusive personal questions and, as with any playwright or novelist, it places the onus on whether the role is played with conviction. In this respect Mitski is faultless, to the extent that it’s hard to ascertain where she ends and the persona begins.
Her character is initially seen on the cover of ‘Be The Cowboy’, on which she stares out at the listener in a swimming cap and gash of bloody lipstick as a disembodied hand applies a pair of tweezers to her eyelashes. She can also be seen in the video to lead single ‘Geyser’, in which she resembles an icy cross between The Matrix and Madonna in ‘Frozen’ before she loses control and scrabbles furiously at damp sand.
In both there’s a tension between the overt and covert persona, explicitly the artifice that’s associated with being a woman in the public domain. These are songs filled with references to the ephemerality of socially acceptable femininity, including high heels and lipstick.
It’s at its most direct on the sprightly indie of ‘Me And My Husband’, in which she’s “the idiot with the painted face” when left alone and unloved, and on the brassy ‘80s synth and jagged guitars of ‘Why Didn’t You Stop Me’, on which she seems to question Instagram photo editing (“I look for a picture of you […] but I can’t seem to find one where you look how I remember”). On the vintage country of ‘Lonesome Love’, meanwhile, she spends “an hour on my make-up to prove something” only to crave self-love (“nobody fucks me like me”).