But When I Stepped Through/
There Was No Floor
Peter Kim George
A week after graduating from university, I met my thesis advisor at the Latin American Club in San Francisco for a drink. This was a man I admired deeply. I had my academic come-to-Jesus moment in a seminar in which we watched Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom and read Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in tandem: academia must be an unbroken boulevard of Profound Experiences like this one, I thought. In retrospect, I’m struck by how little I knew of him personally, or how little it mattered. My libidinal investment in this person—what is translated in Freud’s work as cathexis—had more to do with me than him; I was projecting onto this man an idealized notion of self and profession whose connection to actual life was probably quite tenuous.
Of course, I’m not aware of any of this at the time; I’m just incredibly happy to be sharing a drink with my now-former advisor. Then, he begins to tell me something that recently happened to him. A student showed up to his office hours after we read Freud’s case study on “The Wolfman” and suffered a complete mental breakdown. There was crying and shouting. He never felt physically in danger, but he hadn’t anticipated the situation, and it rattled him. He asks me what I think about it. I try to think of something smart to say. I had recently read Aristotle’s Poetics for another class; I say something about knowledge as anagnorisis, that all meaningful learning is a penetrating recognition of the self, sometimes violent, and that this is a good violence. I become unexpectedly invested in what I am saying; I feel a pressure build in the corners of my eyes. I avoid making eye contact while I am talking, and when I finally do, I notice a slight but unmistakable shift in his face—a quiet withdrawal. He had expected a different kind of answer: make sure the door is open, hand the student a tissue, suggest therapy. Instead, my response suggests that I am one of these people who come apart in his office, and at any moment now I too might lose it.
I print out screenshots I’ve taken on my phone of “mitski bot,” a Twitter account that tweets Mitski lyrics, to help me write this piece. (There’s nothing like printing tweets to out myself as much older than Mitski’s median fan.) I spread out the pages on my desk and take in her lyrics this way because it makes me feel less taken in by their emotions and, also, because they hit harder. And I, I’ll live without you/Though the struggle will be daily, mitski bot tweets a little past midnight. You can come closer, I’ll let you/hurt me/How you choose, 9:13am. Just don’t leave me alone/Wondering where you are, 7:13am. The mornings are the hardest. That he had shown his bedroom dance routine/Shown his bedroom dance routine, 6:13pm. It’s just that I fell in love with a war/Nobody told me it ended, 9:13pm. I notice a pattern; the morning tweets tend to be about loss, the nighttime about regret. At other times the mornings are about regret and the nighttimes loss. How does mitski bot always know to choose the lines that speak to me and that I’d rather not read?
Others have written on the subject matter of Mitski’s four albums elsewhere, and better. I will only state the obvious: that Mitski is very personal, and the fact that there is no distinction in name between the person and the music adds an uneasiness to this fact. I get in the awful habit of checking Twitter the second I wake up, which means greeting the day with a crushing Mitski lyric. Sometimes, in a half-conscious state, I mistake mitski bot for Mitski the person, which it isn’t, but which it also is, because these are her words. Mitski has made a career in beautifully crystallizing the ugliest thoughts we have about ourselves, those we normally do everything in our power to suppress from conscious life. But there is good reason we suppress them for the same reason that it would be better for me not to be reading Mitski lyrics the moment I wake up. To experience Mitski is a rare joy—her vulnerability is committed, uncompromising—but the truth is that the emotional places Mitski takes us can be painful. When we think of catharsis through art as an unqualified good, what gets lost is the fact that there was good reason that feelings, newly released, had previously not been. It’s easy, then, to go to a place of resentment in having to deal with these new feelings and thinking about who made us feel them.
We can call this phenomenon something like “reception resentment,” and one channel that reception resentment has expressed itself is in gossip. There was the online furor that broke out over the titular resemblance between Mitski’s album Be The Cowboy, her track “Nobody,” and Mac DeMarco’s album Here Comes the Cowboy and his track, “Nobody.” Mitski wrote that it was obviously something of a funny coincidence, defending DeMarco on Twitter, but no matter—this was too opportune a moment for fans not to release some pent-up negativity. DeMarco is trolling Mitski, people fumed; DeMarco is plagiarizing Mitski; a white man is stealing the intellectual property of an Asian woman. Then the backlashes and the counter-backlashes: Mitski is plagiarizing Mac DeMarco; Mitski is trying to drive a wedge in DeMarco’s fanbase. Then the serious allegation made against Mitski by a self-described ex-fan that is, because it remains unsubstantiated, too ugly to name here.
Of course, there are also positive, endearing instances of cathexis. Jenny Zhang’s excellent feature of Mitski includes two examples: “will you adopt me?” someone tweets at Mitski. “I don’t have a place to live,” she replies. “Where have you been all my life” someone writes to Mitski, to which she responds “over here caught up in my own life.” I don’t think, however, as Zhang writes, that these are instances in which Mitski struggles to be seen as a person. Rather, these are instances in which Mitski has made a person feel too seen. Mitski gets under your skin, and it’s exhilarating; but once she’s there, under your skin, you find yourself asking: who are you, and who said you could be here? Adoration and resentment seem like opposing affects, but this is only because it’s convenient to think this way.
I’m aware that I’m writing this now in such a way as to distance myself from the over-investing fan, but I’m afraid that I too am one of them. It isn’t difficult to resent someone you love for making you feel fragile.
Shortly before her last concert in Central Park in September 2019, Mitski deactivated her Twitter account. This concert was unusual not only because a large table took residence in the middle of the stage, but also because my friend and I found ourselves there, at the concert, in a strange mood. I think we almost dreaded being there; we had had our fill of loss and longing and didn’t feel like retreading those emotions next to fans half our age.
And so Mitski comes out, and as she performs on, across, below, and behind the table, I realize that something strange is happening here. It feels as if Mitski isn’t here—she’s physically here, yes—but not otherwise. She’s sitting at a stand-in for the hundreds of other nameless, lonely, unremembered tables in shitty-beige motel rooms, depressing luxe hotels, and strangers’ homes at which she sat and wrote.
“Last Words of a Shooting Star” begins, a song which features my favorite subgenre of Mitski, what I call Facts Mitski. This is exactly what it sounds like—it’s Mitski reciting facts: And did you know the liberty bell is a replica/Silently housed in its original walls; Texas is a land-locked state/It’s a little bit far away; Venus, planet of love/Was destroyed by global warming. I think about Facts Mitski whenever Mitski has to confront variations on The Inevitable Question of Identity—“how does your music relate to your race?”
I am a Korean-American playwright; I know too keenly how much your credibility and your existential right to an artistic space depends on how white industry gatekeepers take to your answer. But what if racial otherness manifests not in exoticized content like Japanese game shows or “suicide forest” but in a preternatural attunement to the real, intractable melancholies of the social life we share, under which we are all compromised? That would blow people’s minds.
Three-quarters of the way into the concert, stagehands take the desk away. A group of teenage girls shout, “thank you table!”
I meet a musician in Brooklyn who is “low-key” friends with Mitski. She loves Mitski—though her latest album is disingenuous, she claims, because Mitski is in a good relationship now, so what business does she have writing about a broken heart? It strikes me how difficult music must be as a profession now, more so than academia or playwriting. Competing within a rapidly shrinking resource pool—this is how petty jealousies are born. I know nothing of Mitski the person, but Mitski the artist could not be clearer that nothing—not love, sex, hate, cocaine—can rid you of the ugliness you feel for yourself. Instead, her songs suggest, you give it room—all the room it needs. Thank you, table.