A MAXIMALIST-MARXIST APPROACH: MICHAEL HASKINS AND TODD OSBORNE TALK MITSKI’S PUBERTY 2 (With a Side of Taylor Swift and Short Term 12)
Todd Osborne: Puberty 2 doesn’t want you to like it. “Happy” starts almost atonally, with a repetitive annoying drum loop that threatens to drive any sane person to throw their headphones across the room. Mitski does not care about your love; she lets the listener know that from the first moment of the album. What happens next, then, is all the more surprising, as “Happy” becomes one of the most melodic songs on the album, Mitski’s voice dipping and soaring and making room for a skronky sax break in the middle before the drum loop comes back, broken and stuttering even more, blown apart by the pure power of her voice. It’s an interesting way to start an album that never seems fully comfortable occupying the same space for more than a track, and a good introduction to Mitski for anyone unaware of what she can do. If nothing else, it proves that she is unafraid to alienate potential listeners for the sake of her musical vision, which feels pretty risky in a world where so many artists are vying for an audience. You can listen to an inoffensive piano ballad for free on YouTube any time you want, but you cannot simply put Mitski on while you are folding laundry or going about your day. This is music to be listened to. Heavy and raw, effervescent and cerebral all at once.
Michael Haskins: Lately I’m thinking that a punk aesthetic has become one of the ways indie bands elevate themselves above their peers. Interpol and St. Vincent as the obvious examples, the National as the obvious counterexample. Even Father John Misty, which certainly operates outside the sphere of Mitski’s influences, adopts a burn-it-to-the-ground, smash-the-state posturing. It’s a timely attitude, and I think the tendency toward anger in Mitski’s songs suggests a willingness to engage an emotion that is usually poorly represented in art. Early Scorsese aside, I can’t think of any reasonably good examples of anger in art. Hopefully I’m just forgetting the good ones, but the examples that come to my mind invariably include black leather, shaggy hair, and lyrics that I haven’t thought were revolutionary or cool since I turned sixteen. That life is sad, is old news, but Mitski wants to know why it has to be so fucking miserable. Anyone who’s sad should, butting up against the idea of a better world, be angry by definition. You can’t experience sadness without a concept of happiness and, if you’re sad due to circumstances beyond your control, anger at being denied happiness seems to follow close behind. (Increasingly I believe that consumer escapism doesn’t exist to numb sadness but to numb the anger that might challenge the basis upon which we are made sad and apathetic.) So when Mitski sings “I better ace that interview / I should tell them that I'm not afraid to die,” I’m remembering some of the things I think in the shower.
TO: There’s also the fact that the album, whose music was solely created by Mitski and her producer, is so often pushing against whatever a listener might want it to be. Listening to “Your Best American Girl” might lead you to expect the even more explicitly punk, lo-fi sound of “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” but might not prepare you for the rest of the album, at turns elegant and jarring, sometimes at the same time. The drumbeats bite back against the soft tone of Mtiski’s voice in a song like “Crack Baby,” preventing anything like a normal slow jam or lullaby.
Or take “Once More to See You,” where the chords set up an expectation that is constantly subverted, asking the listener to reconsider what can be deemed “pop.” Or “Fireworks,” which keeps going past the point that a normal chord structure would, pushing the song ever forward, and driving lyrics that might otherwise seem pubescent or mundane into some place darker: “And then one warm summer night / I'll hear fireworks outside / And I'll listen to the memories as they cry, cry, cry.”
Between all of these experimental tracks, however, Mitski still finds a way to craft a classic pop song like “Your Best American Girl.” Start low, build to the chorus, break it down, build it back up. This is Songwriting 101, and Mitski pulls it off perfectly, creating an experience for the listener that is at once visceral and emotional. As the music swells, Mitski lets out her most heartbreaking lyrics: “Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I think I do / You’re an all-American boy / I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl.” It is the perfect distillation of Mitski’s songcraft: frustrated, sad honesty wrapped in a gleaming pop aesthetic. Like if Taylor Swift really wrote what was on her heart and not what she knew would sell millions of--albums? streams? whatever.
MH: So Mitski’s songs obviously represent a higher level of emotional complexity than Taylor Swift’s songs. But I’m not totally convinced that they represent a higher level of songcraft than Taylor Swift’s songs. The latter is a difficult comparison to make. The structure of a Taylor Swift song is crystalline; her songs follow certain bright and gleaming patterns. On the other hand, Mitski takes a hammer to the latticework, as you describe above. I’m wondering how form relates to content here. It’s possible to imagine complex lyrics ironically sung over a Taylor Swift chord progression, but it’s so bitter it hurts. I think the form constrains the content in this case, which would seem to be a limitation on the capacity for pure pop to express emotion. Akin to a cover of “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid that I heard recently where the song is sung in a minor key to demonstrate the typically overlooked rape culture mentality embedded in the lyrics. No one seems to notice that reading in the major key.
On another note, would Taylor Swift even be capable of writing a song at the same level of emotional complexity as Mitski? Assuming that at one point Taylor Swift at least had the capacity for complex emotions, does a decade spent churning high school relationship angst into an overproduced fairytale profit machine limit that capacity? Essentially I’m asking about corrosion of the soul, which is probably a boring question, since the possession or dispossession of fabulous wealth obviously structures our understanding of the world, but I’m not sure Taylor Swift could write in any relatable way outside of pop clichés at this point. Like Sofia Coppola movies, nothing grates quite like the rich and the famous telling us how lonely it is at the top. (If you’re so lonely, why don’t you restructure our economic system into a classless society in which you’d have greater potential to make new friends?)
TO: On the other hand, it probably is lonely at the top? Or, to put it another way: what Mitski’s songs show that Swift’s never can is that it’s lonely everywhere. But Mitski isn’t just using a pop background as a juxtaposition for sad lyrics, just as Bojack Horseman isn’t merely using the sitcom form to deconstruct the sadness at the heart of most sitcoms, and she isn’t wallowing in her loneliness. It’s matter-of-fact. She bets on losing dogs. She’s only loved by “you” when they’re alone. And ultimately, like most great pop artists, Mitski comes back around to something like hope. Not in “you,” or the dance floor, having a good time, etc. No. It’s a resolution she makes in the last lines of the album: “I’ll go to work and I’ll go to sleep / And I’ll love the littler things / I’ll love some littler things.”
MH: One of the better movies I’ve seen recently is Short Term 12. (It was released in 2013 but I didn’t see it until it started to gain traction on Netflix.) The movie is about a group facility for abused, abandoned, or generally neglected teenagers, and it is particularly depressing. Toward the end of the movie, one of the more unlikely to succeed characters, Marcus, attempts suicide. There’s a harrowing frame of his body slumped beneath a blood-streaked door. At the end of the movie we learn that not only has Marcus survived, he’s thrived. He has a job, a girlfriend, and he’s continuing his education. I have never worked in a facility of the kind depicted in Short Term 12, and I can’t comment on the movie’s faithfulness to reality or lack thereof, but I can’t think of a better way to undermine a message about the destructive nature of contemporary society than an ending about Marcus’s newfound inclusion in the good life.
What I’m trying to say is that I hate the forced-redemption ending. It’s so Christian. It’s a bunch of people looking at a natural disaster and saying that it’s all part of God’s plan. Like religion, which is its progenitor, the forced-redemption ending conditions us to identify hope against all reasonable assessments of a given situation and thereby contents us to accept our present circumstances on the basis of an infinitesimally slim chance of future fortune. Furthermore(!), I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between the hope wrung from delusion that you seem to be proposing for this album’s last song and the narrowing of possibility forced by exhaustion. Let’s not forget that before Mitski agrees to “love the littler things” she is “tired of wanting more” and “finally worn.” She’s taking what she can from the wreckage. I’m inclined to think that “A Burning Hill” is less about the lights of a city shining upon a hillside and more about the forest fire in the lyrics, beautiful at a distance but geared toward indiscriminate destruction.
TO: I hear what you’re saying, Mike, and look, you’re not entirely wrong about Short Term 12, but I think you are misunderstanding Mitski’s final words of the album. It’s not a hope in a “shining city on a hill;” it’s a hope that the narrator (or Mitski, or whoever you want to call the “I” of the song) has in herself. She knows she can be destructive: she’s burned entire forests down and still “you are not there at all.” It could be that Mitski (okay, I’ll call the “I” Mitski) believes in a higher power, redemption, etc., but I also see it as Mitski’s way of saying, I can’t fix everything. I can’t bring you back, or re-grow this forest, or stop this fire, but today, I can do my best.
It’s a hope in oneself. It’s a hope that people can change, even if we so often choose not to. Ultimately, it’s Mitski putting all of her agency in herself, just as she has throughout Puberty 2. And lo, it’s good.
Michael Haskins has an M.F.A. in fiction from Oklahoma State University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Fat City Review, and elsewhere.
Todd Osborne holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Oklahoma State University and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Southern Mississippi. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Arc Poetry Magazine, Hobart, Noble/Gas Quarterly, Juked, and elsewhere.