Mitski’s Be The Cowboy has found its niche between female audiences. With its last year release it seemed necessary to discuss Mitski as an artist, her specific brand of feminism and what’s shifting in what it means to be a feminist.
After the success of Bury Me at Makeout Creek and Puberty 2, Mitski’s fifth studio album Be The Cowboy delves even deeper into the author’s emotional realm and is probably one of the most emotionally sincere albums you’ll hear. But more so than being a truly well-crafted album, it tells a story. It speaks toward the sensibilities and struggles of the modern woman. This strong character seems to embody masculine features as a way to be valued by society: insensitiveness, coldness, rationality and invulnerability. A character that, just as the album starts, begins to unravel.
Opening with “Geyser”, a song about longing (the beauty and despair of it) she sets the tone for what turns out to be a cohesive masterpiece that in spite of its short tracks ties beautifully together. Like a geyser, no longer able to hold everything in: lyrics and sound suggesting there’s no turning back. In a way, Be The Cowboy is an ode to the wild woman. The imagery of the cowboy seems to connect to that. No longer hiding in shame but finding her way back through emotional vulnerability, grief and the mourning of her traumas and perceived faults. Accepting her emotionality, her mistakes, her weaknesses. Also, her female condition.
“In A Pearl” (one of the best the album delivers) she masterfully speaks of past trauma becoming entrenched in our identities, comparing it to rolling around a pearl in our hands, mesmerized, unable to connect to our current reality. Just like any woman today, constantly on guard, on the battlefield. “Nobody” (an upbeat tune with forlorn lyrics about loneliness) hints at Naomi Wolf’s concept of the beauty shift. Perfection, as an out of reach concept, fueling billion dollar industries which sit wholly on top of our sense of inadequacy. In fact, it’s curious to see the beauty shift turning from being seen as expectation to being lauded at as self-care in an attempt to convince us that this is what we want, not what is demanded of us. Oppression disguised as personal choice. Freedom as the freedom to buy. But, as “Nobody” states: “I’ve been big and small (…)/ still nobody wants me”.
But in the same breath Mitski defies feminist expectations of what a woman should be: she’s upfront about her search for connection. This is revolutionary in a culture accustomed to policing feminists and shortsighted about what a good feminist looks like. Introducing worthwhile expressions of feminist art into echo chambers increasingly uncomfortable with individual differences, questioning and opinions that don’t conform to the 2019 agenda is indispensable.
And is this the cost of emancipation? Proving ourselves rational human beings (even though we rarely are, men and women from inside and outside the movement). Do we want it to mean losing touch with ourselves and other women, our passions, our feelings, our values and our personal experiences? And isn’t it lonely juggling men’s expectations, other women’s expectations and our own at the same time?
Even the record’s cover seems to suggest a woman trapped in such expectations. Make-up, tweezers in hand. Mitski herself has said in a interview she envisioned a controlled, austere woman (an exaggerated version of herself) losing grip of her emotions and desire. In “Blue Light” Jay Gatsby’s green light and that same feeling of longing come to mind. In “Pink in the night”, about lost love and the desire for a second chance, raindrops become a plead filled with I love yous on repetition. Her lover’s back is turned but she falls in love with it. Mitski’s character: still chasing the fairytale as we chase equality. Almost daring in renunciating her emotional independence, but somehow finding it.
As a feminist I confess I cringed upon my first hearing of this album, recognizing myself in her honesty but inevitably challenging my self-image as a strong woman. I was left reflecting heavily on how breakdowns can actually be useful in healing and overcoming personal difficulties. As Alain de Botton states, we so frequently hear “I’d never gotten so well haven’t I fallen so ill’” and that is worth thinking about. Especially relevant when we (women) need permission to breakdown.
Be The Cowboy brought me back to the 80’s. It got me thinking about female emancipation taking the form of power dressing, recreating masculine shapes that enabled us to stand ground on professional and political environments. Our desexualization, the stripping of our feminine body was seen as a way of dissociating from feminine gender stereotypes and our roles as mothers and caregivers. Even in feminist circles it was important to expect strength, to disconnect with female characteristics that could relate to a place of perceived weakness. But I wonder if this still makes sense today. In truthfulness, I feel we’re left with a reality which takes an immense toll on women’s mental health. This is what seems to be obvious in the unraveling of Mitski’s character: nobody is able to handle the weight of the world on their shoulders forever.
Naomi Wolf talked in The Beauty Myth about the various shifts of work we encounter on the path of being “perfect” modern women. We seem to be overworked with 1) our careers and the emotional labour it entails 2) our feminine traditional roles in the home (still relatively untouched) 3) the beauty shift (a rise in purchasing power contextualized in a consumerist mindset permitted selling emancipation as the freedom to buy an increasingly unobtainable idea of beauty). And I would add 4) feminist expectations of what a woman should be, look like and act like: demanding more strength, more independence, the disavowing of men as a whole and almost convincing us of the near impossibility of healthy heterossexual partnerships. Even in feminist contexts, our voices go as far as we’re willing to subscribe to the dogmatic views of whatever happens to be the current prevalent discourse.
“Washing Machine Heart”, “Old Friend” and “Lonesome Love” deliver some of the most poignant moments of the album but in closing with “Two Slow Dancers”, Be The Cowboy saves the best for last. “Two Slow Dancers” feels like a nostalgic memory where she explores complex themes: the inevitability of death , the harshness of growing old, wanting things to remain the same. A longing for comfort, maybe a return to simpler times. “Me and My Husband” reenacts such a setting. A submissive woman, trying to come to grips with her situation, trying to feel content with it without a clear idea of where to go (“In the corner, taking up space But when he walks in, I am loved, I am loved”). There’s no identity without a husband. There also seems to be no way out. Psychological and emotional reasons for not leaving an unfortunate marriage just as valid and worth talking about as the ones from yesteryear.
Well crafted but still bursting with emotion, the album feels sincere, honest: exploring the vulnerability of admitting difficult truths to ourselves and others. It feels forbidden and brave: breaking the expectations for the perfect women of the 2010’s. And it’s not an easy task to concede we’re not Wonder Women. Where everything we do is political, and everything is judged it’s hard to unearth, work on and expose parts of ourselves we’re not supposed to.
But in the end, it feels liberating. The title Be the Cowboy seems to be a realization that despite all the heartache, we must be our own cowboys in our own terms. Just as Bjork sings in “Blissing Me” “did I just fall in love with love?”, Mitski seems to elicit this same sort of feeling. That it all begins and ends in and with us, our experiences, how we interpret them and what we have to say about them, not the objects of our love. Both artists fully committed, not in hiding themselves, but in showcasing those emotional realities. Even when our reality is not all that glamorous, it is real and working it through creative outlets opens real chances for healing. So let the wild woman regain her voice and sing, be, feel, cry, despair. Unleashing her fire. Letting go. Mitski evolves into that woman, no longer concerned with what it will look like. And after 32 very short minutes, we can’t help but feel grateful for that.