I don't know if you have listened to Mitski’s records or found yourself replaying her songs so you can review a lyric, but if you haven't, you should.
I found Mitski in a vacuum of sorts. It was a match made in Spotify Weekly heaven, Mitski and me. I didn't have the opinions of friends or ideas of who her fans were or where they came from. I just knew her melodies had a pop sensibility, which is to say that they stuck in your head. They sounded like they were written in her bedroom. All of this rawness and ease was counterbalanced by another quality, the nuance of someone studied and masterful. Beneath the softness of her voice and the audible emotion, there was a technician. You could hear both equally: the garage-guided girl and the disciplined music academic. Not that those two characters are always two separate ones. Think Winona Ryder, controlled enough to channel the rawness of all the feelings.
I saw Mitski play at Brooklyn Steel on Saturday night. It was the first time I had gone to a show alone in two years that didn't involve a friend's band or Bjork.
The Bowery Presents new venue had just landed in my neighborhood. We have sleepy streets and know our landlords. People buy fresh bread from stores that make their own mozzarella. This venue being here is like having a Skyscraper in a suburb. What place does it have among Catholic churches that still have very small parades on weekdays? The fact that the second largest all-ages venue in Brooklyn was supposedly down Withers if you just kept walking was was something I had to confirm with my own eyes and ears.
I got there right as Mitski was about to go on. It was quiet, even sleepy just outside the main space’s doors when I grabbed two tall boys to and made my way in. As I stepped into the dark space, I sort of felt like Dorothy when opens the door to Oz and the other side is not only filled with a yellow brick road, but is also in color. It was like opening the door and suddenly being in Manhattan.
To my left, handsome, well-dressed guy stood about a foot over me. (Or I imagine this is what he looks like. It was dark and I didn’t make direct eye contact with anyone, because this whole scenario brought out the middle school dance-goer in me.) Opting not to go further into the crowd, I found myself about halfway to the stage. The spectacle of lights and smoke made me feel like I was dreaming. The place was filled from end-to-end with folks I had never seen before. And to my surprise I wasn't the oldest one there. (The vulnerability of Mitski's voice and lyric that had led me to imagine that everyone in there was some other age at which being emotional didn't have to be a secret.)
The drummer came out first and he wailed on his drums from a minute. The sound was crisp and clear and bizarrely resembled what comes out of my headphones despite the hum of a thousand people cheering "Go Mitski!!" at the top of their lungs. You could feel the kick drum vibrate in your heartspace without having your eardrum blown out. The tall guy on my left started to cheer fanatically. "Woohoo!... YEAHHHH WOOOOOHHH!" This surprised me; I don't know why but when I was younger we thought it was cool to act perpetually unimpressed. But I can get down with these twenty-one year-olds.They have hope. They get excited.
Mitski came out looking very much like the goddess of so many of these young fans' dreams. She sang out her first lyric and the perfection of her pitch and the power of her belt was sort of shocking coming out of this small radio of a human.
Mitski doesn’t just sound good on a record. She’s a true vocalist. Hearing her sing live had the same effect on me that Beyonce’s did when I was sixteen and that Bjork’s has on me always. When she lets the note out, people shut up. They feel it in their tailbones. Mitski fills out the wavelengths of her notes in full. It's powerful. It's feminine. It's soft and scary and natural but also supernatural. It's surprising and mythical. And it's technically masterful.
On the record, the drum machines have the meticulous tick of being digital. Played live on the rims of a snare, they are instead snappy. The guitarist had the familiar vibe of my awesome almost-dorky best-friends from middle school. They were all the type of guys who looked shy and as if they are always concentrating, but when they is suddenly got on a stage to slay a solo, all the girls could easily project all their fantasy narratives about what kind of boyfriend he would be based on his Purchase t-shirt, glasses and which pedal he chose for which solo.
All of this is couched within the context of the crowd's epic reaction. Everywhere I turn the whole crowd knows all the lyrics. They lose their minds when I Don't Smoke or American Girl or basically any song begins. Because there is no moderate Mitski fan. Mitski is Friday Night Lights. It's My So Called Life. It's a moment of perfect vulnerability while you're discovering there's other kinds of music out there. But it's still accessible. It's still natural. Because the feeling of seeing Mitski on stage isn't academic and cerebral, no matter how astute the lyrics are. It's emotive and dramatic. It's instinctive and raw but sounds familiar because it tells the epic tale of your feelings: the discovery of heartbreak or the realization that you’re angry. It’s Puberty…. Part 2.
And towards the end of the set when she says she'd like to do a couple of songs alone, she sings about telling her mom she is sorry because she can't always pay her rent and can she sleep on her couch. This moment isn't just about how someone who is talented enough to sell out shows in every major city in the USA and also in Europe can't make enough to keep her apartment in Brooklyn while she's on tour. The moment isn't just about Mitski. It's the story of every artistic kid who feels in their heart they might be a genius, they might be an artist, they might be a historian or a poet or a healer, and the anger and confusion of discovering they live in a world in which their creativity and vulnerability resonates with so many people, but will likely lead to couchsurfing, but will end in a place where only dreams are allowed: in the smoke-filled arena among hundreds of strangers who know all the words to the same songs.