Be the Cowboy: Feminine in the real way

I rushed into the Basement East, meeting a crowd overflowing into the hallway and the chorus to “Your Best American Girl”. She was mid-song, and I was trying to peak around people’s heads. Glimpsing her felt fleeting and ethereal, like she might just disappear from the stage at any moment -- which, I guess she could have. I wasn’t sure how much of the show I had missed.

Mitski released her fourth studio album Be the Cowboy this past August, providing both end-of-summer bops and beginning-of-fall introspection. In an interview with NPR after Geyser dropped as a single, Mitski warned that “once people find what it’s about, they might find it unromantic”, and stating that it’s about making music and the sacrifices that come with that. Hearing this previous to the album, I was able to go into it with some guidance, which helped me pull out internal, personal meaning in each of the songs, rather than assuming each was about person to person relationships. Now three months after the release, and many listens later, I’m still digesting these feelings and narratives Mitski presents.

“Just how many stars will I need to hang around me/ To finally call it heaven?” Mitski asks us, or maybe herself, or maybe some all-knowing third party. “ finally get somewhere I can be all done/ Somewhere like heaven” she insists, pressing for an answer. Her exhaustion in “Remember My Name” is continual, riding with the song to its climax, half-begging and half-demanding some relief.

This is not an album about spinny love, about infatuation, about spark. This is an album about hunger for contentment. It’s about dissatisfaction.

The Geyser video led on to this, acting as a vague introduction to the overarching unrequitedness in Be the Cowboy. It pictures Mitski chasing her own hand, whisping down a beach in spitting rain.

Her body language becomes a critical factor in empathizing with Mitski. She acts deliberately and simply, both in Geyser, and more recently, in her video for Washing Machine Heart. Something feels very strange while watching the video, as the upbeat song plays, as Mitski sings her distress over unrequited love and devotion, and as the slow film noir video shows her practicing this direct visual communication. It recalls early surrealist films like Un Chien Andalou or Emak Bakia. Sensuality, uneasiness, and unexpected symbols inform the context of the song.

Mitski maintains this type of performance on stage. She outstretches a hand during “Geyser”, flails her arms to the side and above her head in “Drunk Walk Home”, and stands completely still and solemn in “Two Slow Dancers.” Her physical performance is minimal, but intentional, and it reaffirms her words and tone, encouraging her audience to feel the weight of the situation.

“There can be something incredibly violent about being a woman and having desires as a woman -- not so nice, not so soft,” Mitski told The Line of Best Fit back in August, outlining her intentions behind her newest release.

Be the Cowboy boils down to this explanation of femininity as a sometimes hard and dangerous thing. The need to please and the pressure to be perfectly acceptable to everyone and everything (even in the eyes of your own art) is ingrained into feminine people from birth. Mitski’s art embodies the pain of living a feminine life.

She prefaced her final song by warning the crowd that most of us might not know it, but that that was okay. She began “Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart”, which carries much of the same meaning that Be the Cowboy does, except it’s from 2013. Mitski’s loving desperation seems to have only grown with time.

I don't mean to make your heart blue

But could we be what we're meant to be?

I'm just about to beg you please, and

Then when you tell your friends, you can

Tell them what you saw in me, and

Not the way I used to be


'Cause there's nobody better than you.

By Zoe Evans

Special thanks to guest editor Jack Evans