"I would stand like an ant in an arena crowd just to witness his magnetism," Mitski once wrote about Harry Styles, likening him to the popular boy at school, too distant and beautiful to pine after. In a review of Styles' self-titled album, she explored the process of projection, in which you elevate an object of adoration until their ideal supersedes the person. The image you've constructed becomes yours, and so you imagine whatever you want: a shy, charismatic rock star tucked into hotel rooms writing about loneliness, or the boy-next-door who fumbles as he asks you about The Beatles. "If Harry Styles reads this, he'll probably hate it," Mitski considers at the end of her review. "But then, I think it's fine. It's not really about him, anyway."
But as Mitski has moved to stadiums where her own fans stand like ants, she's grown distressed over the loss of personhood that accompanies this idealization. Depressed crowds come to her searching for catharsis; for the romance to continue, she must stay frozen as their weeping symbol – a canvas onto which fans can project their misery. Critics appointed her indie rock's savior, and when she refused, they reassured us she may not save indie rock, but she could save you. Amidst it all, it seems fundamentally unfair to expect Mitski — or any artist, really — to save anyone: to be anything but a person.
Much of the promotion surrounding Mitski's latest album, Be the Cowboy, attempts to challenge the implicit pressure of her "sad girl" portrayal: the assumption, for example, that her work is just fevered autobiography, as if women lack the imagination to probe beyond their immediate experience. In a Pitchfork feature wryly titled "Don't Cry for Mitski," she says that she feels bothered when people say her music sounds like a diary: "There's not feeling of 'Oh, maybe she's a songwriter and she wrote this as a piece of art,'" she says. She's afraid of being exalted then brusquely knocked down; she's already anticipated that her fans won't cry. So on the introduction to the new album, she sets the record straight. "For this new record, I experimented in narrative and fiction," she says. And a little before: "It's not like it just pours out. It's not like I'm a vessel."
Every promotional image from Be the Cowboy shows her playing a role: Mitski the elusive starlet, peeking coyly from oversized frames; Mitski the steely-eyed runaway, about to screech down the pavement; Mitski, mascaraed and in a vintage swim cap, casting an indifferent glance toward the camera. In each, she reminds her audience of the inherent artifice of her performance, the distance between her public presentation and reality. Mitski's not an inconsolable woman, leaking with grief; she's an object of her own artful construction — a woman in control.
Structurally, Be the Cowboy feels like collection of short stories, a series of haunting vignettes wound around what Mitski calls the "self-abasement of desire" in the liner notes. "Old Friend" is about two lovers who have found more security in other people, but still meet recklessly for "coffee and talk about nothing." "A Pearl" finds Mitski unsatisfied by her lover's touch; her partner, we discover, has grown tired of feeling unwanted. "You love me so hard and I still can't sleep," she laments over droning guitars. In each, there's palpable friction — naïve characters fumbling through isolation and masochistic longing, doomed to play their parts. The advantage of fiction is its ability to articulate interior states and emotional stakes more clearly; to illustrate a feeling that is somehow more real than its immediate surroundings. The seeming misalignment between melancholy lyrics and slick, shimmering melodies only heightens the sense of tragedy.
But the raw intimacy of her lyrics requires you suspend knowledge of her fiction. On "Pink is the Night,' she sings "I love you" nine times, so ardently that if you were on the receiving end you'd feel unsure whether to match her gaze. The longing is so stark, so honest, it seems like a waste to express through someone else. On "Geyser," tender desire breaks through the static of uncertainty. Press releases specify only that it's about a woman "who can no longer hold it in," but it's impossible to believe it's not her – it's her weary face you imagine, and her voice you hear, clearer on this record than it has been on any previous recording. In her review of Harry Styles, Mitski imagines the singer dreaming up tender lyrics alone in his hotel room — but the songs she loves actually feature six writers on the credits. Maybe she knows, but she'll still believe what she wants to; and we will, too. We're not just buying her art but an image of her — one that's perhaps part of the art itself, which we can imbue with our own experiences, and which is ours to keep. We are listening to the "I love yous" and thinking of someone; we pretend she is thinking of someone, too.
The believing is easy. Be the Cowboy may be glossier and more outwardly up-tempo than previous releases, but it still wrings out the same sadness. "Why Didn't You Stop Me," one of the album's strongest tracks, begins with the buzzy, anticipatory synths of Robyn, lacing sleek pop with wincing lines of regret. "I know that I ended it," she admits. "But why won't you chase after me?" "Lonesome Love" adopts the sunny, wistful sound of '60s pop, turning overcast at pithy lines like, "You say hello, and I lose." The album's ambient melancholy lingers through disco-infused dance tracks and eerie organ ballads. You may dance emphatically to "Nobody," thrashing your limbs as you sing about how no one wants you, but when the party's over, you'll lay silently in bed, sobered by the opening line: "My god, I'm so lonely."
In an interview with The Fader, Mitski describes her ambivalence towards being a symbol. "You want people to know you for who you are," she says, but when they actually do, you change your mind: "No, I want you to think I'm great." The protagonists of the songs are not directly her, but she hesitates to say she's created full on characters. Mitski's cautious reminders — about the craft and consideration behind Be the Cowboy, about narrative and fiction — are a distancing mechanism, as if to remind her fans they don't know her. But the essence of celebrity, and of art, is to give everyone the illusion they do. The dozens of seemingly intimate interviews with Mitski over the past week, where she confesses her frustration with being a symbol or the true motivations behind a song, only furthers the stubborn, wishful belief that it's possible for us to.
Be the Cowboy Closes with "Two Slow Dancers," a gasping, delicately spun track about two old lovers who attempt to re-live what's already been lost. The song's somber opening — "Does it smell like a school gymnasium here?" — evokes the image of the last dance at a high school prom, couples clinging to each other in awkward embrace and promising, futilely, never to change. "To think that we can stay the same," she mourns, "To think that we can stay the same." The point of Mitski's music isn't to make people cry, but they will. It's not really about her anyway.
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