Asian Artist Spotlight: Mitski Miyawaki


Mitski Performing, done with acrylic paint on canvas by Macy Doll

Macy Doll

Mitski Miyawaki, born Mitski Laycock and known mononymously as “Mitski,” is a 31 year-old singer-songwriter based in America. Mitski has released five studio albums, and is the topic of this week’s spotlight due to her recent return from her three-year hiatus. On October 5th, Mitski released her single “Working for the Knife” along with a corresponding music video and dates for her upcoming American and European tours. She will be coming to DC to perform two sold-out shows at The Anthem on March 26th and 27th. These shows are sure to be worth the hype, as Mitski’s unique style of performing continues to captivate audiences across the world. One of her most notable tricks is screaming into her guitar to allow the pickups to amplify her voice. Another noteworthy technique is her 2019 tour’s utilization of choreography inspired by Butoh, a form of Japanese dance theater that allows performers to express chaotic emotions through specific repetitive gestures.

3:33, Mitski screaming into her guitar while performing Class of 2013 at her 2015 NPR Tiny Desk Concert.

     On September 27, 1990 Mitski was born in Japan as the daughter of a white American Diplomat father and a Japanese mother. She moved around frequently as a child and lived in a variety of countries before permanently moving to America for college. Mitski went to high school in Turkey and wrote her first song “Bag of Bones” shortly after graduating. When listening to “Bag of Bones,” you would never guess that Mitski wrote it on a keyboard while drunk at dawn, having never actually played music up until then.

     After initially choosing to study film at Hunter College, Mitski switched paths and transferred to Purchase College’s Conservatory of Music to study studio composition. Her first two albums Lush and Retired From Business, New Career in Sad were released in 2012 and 2013 respectively as student projects during her time at Purchase. Mitski was temporarily the vocalist for a metal band called “Voice Coils” after graduating from college, and also released Bury Me at Makeout Creek in 2014. Mitski released two more studio albums, Puberty 2 in 2016 and Be The Cowboy in 2018, in addition to providing various singles for movies over the years.

Drawn by Macy Doll with colored pencil on paper.

     One of the most unique things about Mitski is her ability to connect with viewers despite her decision to keep many details of her life private. Unlike many modern stars, Mitski does not have social media (besides a few accounts run by management to promote tours) and does not flaunt her romances to the public. Notably, with her album Be The Cowboy she worked to remove some of the focus from her life and stories by creating fictitious scenarios. Her distaste with fame and the grinding wheel of the music industry often comes through in her lyrics, which frequently bemoan capitalism. These feelings especially shine through in “Drunk Walk Home” where Mitski screams “f*ck you and your money” and “Working For the Knife” where she expresses her frustration about spilling out her emotions into songs for a living.

     Although Mitski has been successful since her debut album Lush, the rampant use of her songs on the social media platform Tik Tok has caused her to reach even greater levels of fame. However, this exposure is not entirely a good thing. Not only has Mitski said that she often feels uncomfortable with the amount of attention she receives, but Tik Tok users have frequently misinterpreted the meanings of her songs. Mitski’s Asian American identity is incredibly relevant in much of her music, with one example being the song “Strawberry Blonde.” This song was used on TikTok for a variety of aesthetic videos within the cottagecore community, a niche that idolizes a simpler style of life. Parodies of the song, such as “Strawberry Cow,” also spawned on the platform. While an important part of Mitski’s music is how open to interpretation it is—largely due to Mitski very rarely sharing the real life stories which inspire her music—TikTok’s view of “Strawberry Blond” was not entirely accurate. “Strawberry Blond” seems to be about an unrequited love set to upbeat guitar chords at the first listen, but sitting with the lyrics allows you to see that it’s really about failing to meet eurocentric beauty standards as a person of color within a white society. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a song without fully understanding the meaning behind it (it took me weeks to even fathom what “Brand New City” was about), but the more widespread use of Mitski’s music frequently erases the importance of her Asian identity. The misinterpretation of “Strawberry Blond” is an understandable mistake, but hopefully with this knowledge, you might understand “Strawberry Blond” a little better the next time you hear it.

     Mitski’s identity as a mixed Japanese-American woman is fundamental to her music. She has said that she identifies as “half Japanese, half American but not fully either.” This feeling is frequently displayed in her songs, which examine the dissonance between her identity and society’s expectations. One perfect example of this are the lines “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me/But I do, I think I do/And you’re an all-American boy/I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl” from “Your Best American Girl.” Mitski captures the feeling that many people of color experience in America: a desire to assimilate despite the differences caused by the clash between the stereotypical American identity and their own culture. Mitski’s discography covers an incredibly diverse range of topics, and while her songs may not speak to every Asian-American experience, they’ve definitely helped me understand mine.

Wondering what to listen to? Check out my recs! All songs are on the playlist linked below in the order they are mentioned.

Are you a piano player? Listen to some of Mitski’s earlier, more classically composed songs! Try “Real Men,” “Bag of Bones,” and “Wife” off of Lush.

Feeling lonely? Check out “Nobody,” “Washing Machine Heart,” and “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” off of Be The Cowboy, and “Francis Forever” from Bury Me at Makeout Creek.

Need a good cry? Try “First Love / Late Spring,” “I Bet on Losing Dogs,” and “Class of 2013.”

Want something a little heavier? Check out “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” and “Brand New City.”

Feeling existential? Listen to “Drunk Walk Home,” “Working for the Knife” and “Abbey.”

Two of my other personal favorites that I would definitely recommend are “Blue Light” and “Liquid Smooth.” Also mentioned in the article is “Strawberry Blond” and “Your Best American Girl.”