Is Mitski Really Not A Sad Girl?
a retvrn to purity as nonparticipation
I watched a Mitski interview with Cracked Magazine (apparently still a real thing) today where she reads tweets from her fans. She reads a tweet that says "new Mitski, it's a big day for sad bitches", and her response is that "the sad girl thing was reductive and tired 5-10 years ago and it still is today. Let's retire the sad girl shit, because sad girl is over." This was a really strange comment to hear from Mitski, who is typically a very positive and kind person; it's a scathing indictment of people who enjoy her music in "the wrong way", and it's a very subtle wrong way at that.
To preface this, this is all coming from a place of love for Mitski. I started listening to Mitski in college, really getting into her in mid-2018, probably as a result of the Be The Cowboy marketing campaign, although Be The Cowboy was not an album I listened to much until later. I loved her second through fourth albums, Retired From Sad New Career in Business, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, and Puberty 2, although there were songs off the remaining two that I liked as well. She was by far my top Spotify artist in 2019. Listening to Mitski will always take me back to my 2018-2019 apartment, walking around the parks north of campus through winter and early spring. Listening to “My Body's Made Of Crushed Little Stars” when I was also not doing anything, listening to “Humpty” when I also wanted to lay in the bathtub and feel cool and clean, listening to “Carry Me Out” when I was also sitting on my plastic chair, listening to “Two Slow Dancers” and “Class of 2013” as my graduation, another marker of the end of youth, approached. I really loved Mitski for her sadness, yes, but equally the purity of her music, the way that she truly believed in more beautiful things. For the superfans of coldhealing, this was my "purity as nonparticipation" era, words that I first came up with when I was listening to Mitski. Mitski will always take me back to that time of my life and I don't think I could ever really dislike her.
10 years ago, when Mitski says being sad was trite and reductive, she was in college herself, at a liberal arts school in New York called “Purchase College” in their music conservatory, writing an album titled Retired From Sad, New Career In Business (an incredible album title by the way, by far her best), so she's always had a sort of a vendetta against sadness. But more than a vendetta the album seems to be about the effort to retire from sad to move on with life as an adult: songs like “Class of 2013” and “Because Dreaming Costs Money, My Dear” are very sad, basically about how because she’s graduating college she needs to get it together and figure out a way to take care of herself.
But obviously Mitski did not really retire from sad after that. Her followup album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, is my opinion Mitski at her most sad: songs about the aimlessness of post-college life like “Townie” and “Jobless Sunday”, songs desperate for a more pure and beautiful world like “Texas Reznikoff” and “Carry Me Out”. The only thing that saves the album closer, Last Words of a Shooting Star, from being a suicide note, is the dignity of it:
The song basically “if I were to die I’d be okay with it because I don’t have the agency to kill myself because of work, and I’d be happy in death because my life is clean and beautiful and no one will think about the emptiness of it”. It’s the dignity that saves her. (Obviously this just a feeling she’s articulating.)
After Bury Me At Makeout Creek, Mitski’s career changes a bit. Where before I think her albums fit very well alongside her biography, with her next album Puberty 2 it feels like things change and she becomes more interested in the technical side of her music than the emotional side. Not that she doesn’t still have very emotional songs, but they seems to be shorter-term and more general emotions transferred into song, but with much stronger songwriting. Puberty 2 has a sad girl favorite “I Bet on Losing Dogs”, which is a song about how the dice have already been cast and you’ve already lost. “Fireworks” is a song about basically the same subject matter, but carrying yourself with dignity once the dice have been cast and you’ve lost. “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” is about feeling bored and trapped. Once again, like Bury Me at Makeout Creek, dignity is the savior of the album. Here’s the album closer “A Burning Hill”:
It’s a basic song, about getting up and having dignity and continuing to live well in the face of sadness. I think ultimately this is what bothers Mitski about the people who wallow in her music as “sad girl music”: she actively discourages the wallowing.
What undermines Mitski’s “sadness is trite” stance is that she’s actively leaned into her sadness as a way to expand her audience. Her 2018 song “Nobody” was the lead single for Be The Cowboy and by far her most commercially successful song to that point. I do really love that song, but it’s the sad college girl equivalent of “I’m Just A Kid” by Simple Plan. The opening line is “my god I’m so lonely so I opened the window to hear sounds of people” and the chorus is just repeating the word nobody over and over. Nobody will invite me to parties, nobody wants to do anything with me, I’m so alone and I will be for the rest of my life. None of her songs on her earlier albums are as pathetic as Nobody. “Working For The Knife”, the lead single for her new album Laurel Hell, is similarly a sad girl song, although she’s aged with her demographic and now is talking about how spiritually draining it is to work a four-hour life job.
Not that Mitski hasn’t made good and emotional music since then. I think “Two Slow Dancers” off Be The Cowboy is one of the most mature songs she’s ever written. It takes aging and change and handles it in a mournful but not pathetic way: “it would be a hundred times easier if we were young again" (sad and mournful) “but as it is, and it is” (okay, since we have aged, what can we do now together in the time we have left). Whether being mournful about aging at 28 is rational is maybe another question but it’s a good song.
Mitski is in a weird place because the music industry has changed so much as children have so much more agency in what they consume in the era of music streaming and TikTok aspirational music sharing. She started off making very personal music, but she went to college for music, and I think she eventually expected to go on the Pitchfork track, which she’s somewhat on. My dad listens to Mitski. But the “sad bitches” take away some of the dignity from her music and ask her to be something that she no longer is. She wrote “Washing Machine Heart” for Be The Cowboy only four years ago, and I don’t think she ever anticipated that would be her most listened to song of all-time on Spotify. It’s her most listened to song partially due to a nine part series of TikTok videos with tens of millions of views about someone with the superpower to see their soulmate’s location at all times, set to “Washing Machine Heart” in the background in all nine parts. “Washing Machine Heart” found its way to whoever made that series because of a few second clip where Mitski says “why not me” in a sorrowful voice that went viral on TikTok before that. Her 19 year old femcel sad girl audience is how her music gets traction: they’re the ones willing to listen to her songs over and over because she captures sadness in a very compelling way. She has resentment towards them as people because they don’t get it, they don’t get that the sadness can be escaped, but she can’t show them that the sadness can be escaped because she needs to keep selling it to them. I guess that’s a little sad.
idk anything about this singer but i found this interesting, especially the last paragraph