Capsule Reviews: Art exhibitions, David Fincher, Lana Del Rey

Art these days is enervating, uninspiring. Nothing really seems worth the time or the effort to visit. P has gotten into farming and social work. Another one of my artist friends has plans to move out of KL to the coast, his slow method of ejecting himself from the art scene. Nobody has invited me to anything interesting for over a year now. There’s hardly anything on with thought in it, while the few that do seem somehow out of joint with the current time, like relics from a different era, and I can’t seem to feel anything. Among galleries whose programming I would normally look forward to, A+ has been doing group shows for the better part of last year and ILHAM has been running the same show for nearly a year now. It’s not a good time for showing art; as if now that the borders are indefinitely shut and there’s no one but fellow Malaysians to show art to, the galleries have just shrugged and given up. Contemporary art’s lustre has faded — its hints of international exchange and foreign glamour — its titillating minor scandals surrounding big shows, especially at Balai — the wine glasses, the roundtables, the smoking sections, the catalogues with inane essays — the curator of indeterminate ethnicity flying in, the mysterious rich kid art history grad at a European university returning home … No one is really trying to impress anymore, not like they used to.


PAUSE 202X, iterations 1 and 2 @ Tun Perak Co-op
12–28 March; 9 April – 2 May 2021

I can’t with any honesty say that I was a fan of either iteration of this PAUSE 202X KL series, organised and curated by Sharmin Parameswaran. I really wish I could have more generous things to say about it, because many of the artists featured are my friends, and I think that generally all of them want to do good work. It’s just that you wouldn’t be able to tell from this showcase.

Located at Tun Perak Co-op, a relatively new and hip art space located near Masjid Jamek in the centre of town, PAUSE 202X comes on the heels of “May We…”, another recent group exhibition curated by Rebecca Yeoh. The primacy of installations in both exhibitions reflects the current trend in the type of art that’s shown in non-commercial gallery spaces in Kuala Lumpur (as if the people who run these spaces only understand three-dimensional art objects). It’s as if these spaces — many of which are refurbished heritage buildings — have some secret aura that compels curators and artists to only create installation artworks, even if the medium doesn’t come naturally to them. It’s as if they feel challenged by the space, challenged to be another type of artist, one that they never even thought about being. I think the space is haunted by the spectre of Instagrammability, just like all heritage places are these days. The Insta-apparition slides into these young artists’ consciousness, feeds off their insecurities, and makes them create works that they, in truth, probably don’t feel all that comfortable creating. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they would just like to exhibit a single, perfect picture, but the hollowed-out former-kopitiam interior of Tun Perak Co-op urges them to do more… MORE!… To justify taking up space in a heritage building older than them, to answer to why its architecture should be supporting their artworks. The Insta-apparition that haunts the building swoops up to their ears and whispers to them, “Don’t you know what a big opportunity this is?”

So they end up doing odd things, like throwing k-pop lyrics into their artworks, or tacking up pages from their diary onto the walls, or presenting their videos on low-definition — but “vintage” — television sets. It doesn’t have to be like this.

What’s Left for Gathering, Tan Zi Hao @ Mutual Aid Projects
13 March – 10 April 2021

The most recent exhibition in independent curator Eric Goh’s programming for his temporary project space in Wisma Central, Tan Zi Hao’s What’s Left for Gathering was somewhat testament to the fact that, if you’re going to attempt an installation without wanting to commit to it anyway, then the best spot to do that is in a plain white room, far away from any heritage elements or Insta-apparitions. Instead of trying to fill up a room and its creaky heritage floorboards, it’s better to just have a table with some of your references on the side, so people can understand you a bit better as an artist. This element of exhibition design is a tried and true method — ILHAM has done it, OUR ArtProjects has done it, The Back Room has done it, A+ has done it (although you weren’t actually allowed to touch the reference material then), Ahmad Fuad Osman’s biggest work in his recent Balai survey, his “Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project”, was literally just a presentation of his research materials.

This allows there to be room — but not too much room, otherwise it might be awkward — for Tan’s real works: his fine, elaborate drawings of imagined species of carrier shells and household casebearers. One can really get lost in his drawings, fall into their mysterious spirals and soft pencil marks and end up one of the gathered artefacts on these creatures’ shells. His imagined casebearers in particular fixated me: casebearers for words, for micro-beads. So colourful and intricate, these things that I peel off my walls and throw in the bin. There was one casebearer in a small, square, mint green frame — a real casebearer, that Tan found in his house, with a mint green halo about it, I forgot what his explanation was for why it was like that.

There was some connection to migration, about carrying things on one’s back, about travelling & picking things up along the way. But on the whole, it was what I would, not without affection, call a “nerd exhibition” — Tan seems much more invested in these casebearers and carrier shells as creature specimens, rather than with their symbolic possibilities, just as how Ahmad Fuad Osman, in his Enrique de Malacca project, seemed much more interested in the actual work of research than in the research’s conclusion. The overall feeling, especially with the artist and curator there to act as guides, was more like a visit to an underfunded but interesting little laboratory. I often wonder about these research-based “nerd exhibitions” (I’ll repeat: not without affection) and the extent to which they potentially obscure art’s transcendent quality in too much explication. Still, the drawings were really very exquisite and I left having learned a lot about sublime forms of life.

Mank (2020), directed by David Fischer. Netflix

Like most things that are these days nominated for Oscars or produced by Netflix, Mank was yet more easy and digestible content. Of course, it was entertaining to watch. Gary Oldman was fabulous as an alcoholic, unrepentant screw-up writer, and Amanda Seyfried in general looked fabulous, but the movie cannot live up to its subject. People used to write and direct movies like Citizen Kane, and now they just write and direct biopics about the people who wrote and directed movies like Citizen Kane. Feature films these days inch ever closer to resembling documentaries, more often than not drawing from true stories of dead people, and the cinematic art seeps out of the mainstream, only to be attempted by more independent productions.

Chemtrails Over the Country Club (2021). Lana Del Rey

What can I say that will be objective? It’s yet another lush banger from LDR, the container in whom I pour out all the emotions and longings that I’m too clogged up to express myself. This ones a little less sweeping and poetic than Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the album that preceded it, but it still puts me in that same twirling, dreamy mood that only LDR can achieve. It’s a little white girl unhinged, with song titles and lyrics drawn from Pinterest quotes. “Not all those who wander are lost”. “Wild at heart”. She reveals the sultry undertones of suburbia, puts the breathy “desperate” into “desperate housewives”, goes against the girlboss agenda by showing that domestic desperation also has its fun side in a form of unhinged feminine freedom. In theory, I love it.

Yet another woman to whom she won’t get through: Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters

I went into Fiona Apple’s first in 8 years, Fetch the Bolt Cutters, expecting to like it because everyone around me expects me to like it — not me specifically, but me demographically, as a millennial woman who identifies with feminism. I did like it — it’s a funny, warmhearted album with a number of super-catchy songs. My favourites were “Shameika”, “Cosmonauts”, “Relay”, and “For Her”. But I didn’t find it particularly memorable or revolutionary beyond that. 

The day it premiered, Pitchfork rushed out a perfect 10 rating for it with a review that failed to convince why it deserved a perfect 10 (although Pitchfork isn’t an arbiter of good taste either); it made me guess that they were always going to award the album a perfect 10 anyway, no matter what it sounded like, simply because of Apple’s cultural cache in building up the canon of “sad girl” music and because of the surrounding climate of #MeToo and #TimesUp. 

I don’t know much about Apple beyond being aware of her iconic status among women the world over. I’ve tried to get into her in the past, but never embraced her totally beyond a few very well-written songs. Listening to FTBC the day it came out, I think the fact that I will never be a fan of Fiona Apple finally crystallised and I’ve accepted that it’s ok.

The album has some catchy percussions and vocals from Apple, but some unremarkable work with average lyrics as well. The Pitchfork review praised its lyricism, highlighting in particular the line, “I resent you presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure” on “Relay”, a line which they believed “[offered] a critique of our hyper-socially-mediated world so savage it practically demands a standing ovation”. A reach if there ever was one; others have dissed artificial self-presentation in punchier ways. For disses that give you a genuinely soaring feeling inside, just turn to rap/trap music. Off the top of my head, I’m reminded of Jay-Z’s “all these little bitches, too big for their britches, burning their little bridges… Fucking ridiculous!” on “So Appalled”, off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which Pitchfork had also rated a perfect 10. It’s not exactly of the same tenor as Apple’s line, but a greater diss if we’re comparing them purely on the basis of being disses. It’s possible that my ear is not trained enough to be properly discerning with music, but it’s jarring contradictions such as these between the hype and what I’m actually hearing that make me suspect that the hype around Apple’s new album is more “obligatory” than genuine. 

The insurmountable barrier of Fiona Apple for me is the same thing that a lot of people love her for, which is her stringent identification as Woman. From what I’ve observed growing up on the Western-centric side of the Internet, the “sad girl” canon seems to identify womanhood, especially heterosexual womanhood, as a kind of eternal burden. The “sad girl” theme tends to be characterised by assumed universally-shared experiences of gender-based neurosis / “craziness” / wretchedness born out of guilt and self-doubt born out of patriarchal condescension and institutional oppression; and also by conflicting relationships to men and pain, to beauty and appearances, and towards other women. The “sad” part of the “sad girl” theme often involves some degree of masochism, unclear fault lines, and inexplicable self-destructive and self-harming behaviour, especially when it comes to men and sex. 

In an interview with New York Magazine, Apple talks about various details from her personal life which informed the production and writing behind FTBC. She brings up her experiences of sexual assault, experiences during her schooling years of popular girls who never accepted her within their cliques, experiences of being both cheated on and knowingly being the mistress of married men. The power of these experiences at times coalesce into warm and touching songs, like “Shameika”, and knock you over with the full force of their rawness as on “For Her” (not about Apple’s sexual assault). Other times, their specificity jars because we’re being presented not just with someone’s art for our aesthetic judgement, but also with their personal experiences and decisions. On “Ladies”, she writes about not being able to surmount a male-imposed divide between her and another woman (her lover’s wife? Her lover’s other lover? Her ex’s new lover?). The conclusion drawn here is that heterosexuality is a helluva drug that makes women hallucinate each other as the enemy while hallucinating that the man between them is worth fighting over; but an affair often takes two to tango — the man is cruel for cheating, but getting into a relationship knowing that their actions could lead to someone else being hurt is a cruelty too. This isn’t a judgement, just a statement. 

As someone who incurably operates within the textual tradition, I analyse a lot of music just based on their lyrical content. So I can’t help but wonder if Fiona Apple’s songs could have more impact if she just dispensed with these feminism-lite topics and lines that easily endear her to a general audience. In songs like “Under the Table”, “Newspaper”, and “Ladies”, there’s something about the lyrics that feel unpolished and overly obvious while striving to be poetic — sort of like slam poetry open mic nights, where performer-poets try to straddle the fine line between straightforward, rhythmic performance and the poeticism that would elevate it beyond mere “dramatic talking”. It’s difficult to achieve and cringe to listen to when it fails. Certain lines in FTBC feel laboured in the same way, like the hiking boot lines in “Under the Table” or the “fucking propaganda brochure” one. 

The most momentous song off the album is undeniably “For Her”, with superior lyrics-writing and a snarling rage in the second half that rips through the fluttery, a cappella singsong-ing of the first half. The other songs, despite their energetic percussions and vocals, would like to be as raging as this one is — and indeed there is a lot of growling and howling on this album — but their lyrical content is not consequential enough for them to hold up. These growls, snarls, howls, and sighs, once expressions of explosive female anger, don’t have the same bite as they used to. 

I respect the “sad girl” locus of identification for women; I’ve been through it myself. Exploring this mode of woman-centric thought enhanced my capacity for empathy and taught me to identify suffering within cruelty. However, I no longer identify with this, perhaps because the thing I could never whole-heartedly identify with is being A Woman or any other arbitrary social identity. Some have used womanhood as the basis to form solidarity and aid networks, which is admirable, but the notion of womanhood was something I ended up withdrawing from instead. I only want to be a “woman” in the strict demographical or statistical sense and no other…

In the past, I’ve mostly only written about music that I really love and seldom about music that I think is just alright, but I wanted to tackle Fiona Apple’s music because I think the hype surrounding her latest release is symptomatic of a dying liberal culture. (Note here that I specify the hype surrounding the album and not the album itself; the degree to which Apple is able to “read the current mood” and “pander” to it is not something I care enough about to consider either.) This dying culture is one wherein the political content of music gets confused with artistic quality, wherein certain figures elevated to “iconic” status by their past accomplishments are able to generate clout for their new work purely on the basis of nostalgia, wherein the sheer act of a woman singing about her experiences — regardless of what those experiences were, or how well she articulates them — inherently deserves praise. The phenomenon of categorisable, identity-based art obfuscates critical discussions about the quality of the work. In the past few days, I’ve been listening to a lot of Joy Division and The Beatles, and as fucking corny as it is to say this, I wonder why the music of decades ago still manages to sound startlingly new and original even now, when here I am in the 21st-century being told that Fiona Apple’s new album is revolutionary when it reminds me so much of Regina Spektor’s music from years ago… Fetch the Bolt Cutters is a perfectly fine album but not a perfect 10 by a long shot.

Lana Del Rey as cowboy, cowboy as in love

I’ve read the recent resurgence of the cowboy as symbol as a pastoral desire to return to “better” times. Like Gatsby chasing after the lost world of the green light, the second coming of the cowboy is a generation’s yearning backwards at an ancient myth, rather than history. Everyone knows, rationally, that nostalgia is a dangerous drug, and that the past isn’t as romantic as the movies make it out to be.

Well, Lana Del Rey never made the past out to be romantic, per se. She’s been accused of romanticising violence, which means romanticising America, but when her music has appealed to me, it hasn’t been because I start believing that men are better than me or start victim blaming women. No, Del Rey doesn’t romanticise violence if romanticising it means I start to yearn for it — I never yearn for violence through her music. I never understood, either, the concept of Del Rey as sex symbol, even though she is undeniably gorgeous, with her old world Hollywood charm. Del Rey’s voice is too solid, too masterful, for me to regard her as pathetic or otherwise lacking agency. Especially when she is read against her superstardom, LDR is for me cowboy.

But “cowboy” in the sense that Mitski meant it on Be the Cowboy, not whatever superficial idea Lil Nas X and yeehaw emoji culture peddle. I mean “cowboy” in the same sense as Rick Dalton’s character in the film within a film in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, another throwback to an old world that came out a few months before Del Rey’s latest knockout album, Norman Fucking Rockwell! The Tarantino film is a celebration of a Hollywood of dreams, a golden age of Hollywood in the 60s, a Hollywood that was, or wasn’t, I can’t tell, having not been born at the time and having no real interest in it. But it’s besides the point whether it truly existed or not, just like how nostalgia isn’t really a desire for a past time, but rather just a backdrop for fantasy.

If the cowboy is the male version of the mythological lost past, as exemplified in Rick Dalton’s character, then the character of the perfect angelic starlet seems like the female version, as exemplified by Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, or Lana Del Rey’s Lana Del Rey. (Even the three-part name seems like a throwback to a golden age where it wasn’t pretentious yet [think JFK, FDR, LBJ…].) The cowboy is noble, self-sacrificing, handsome, and unafraid. The perfect maiden is the same, with the caveat that she is all these things for love of the cowboy, while the cowboy is allowed to be all these things for some “higher”, manlier pursuit, such as Honour, Justice, The Truth, etc.

In music critic Ann Powers’ review of Norman Fucking Rockwell! for NPR, she summarised the album in such a way as directly struck me in my deepest insides: 

‘The album’s dominant story line describes an affair with a fellow artist in which the power roles never solidify, a situation Del Rey depicts as unsustainable but clarifying. Addressing this bohemian deadbeat, she upends the gender roles she’s so often fetishized, trading in her kitten heels for kicks that allow her to keep walking. She cusses at her “man child,” demanding that he grow up; she describes herself as the more active breadwinner (“you write, I tour, we make it work”). At one point, in a sonic nod to Leonard Cohen, she simply announces, “I’m your man.”

It’s the trope of the self-sacrificing maiden but supplanted into 21st-century reality, out of the movies and far from the cowboys. What Powers’ review points out is, despite it all, despite how “woke” we’re supposed to be now, there’s still something compelling and highly relatable about this unliberated female figure who sets the feminist movement back by decades. The princess who wraps her arms around her man, who wages everything on him, who has never stopped indulging in the clichés of 2011’s Video Games, Del Rey’s first major hit. Heaven is a place on earth with you.

Powers’ review confronts this question: in the age of #MeToo and #DumpHim… what if bright, young, smart women fall in love with problematic men, and it’s no one’s fault? Del Rey is relentlessly a conservative heterosexual. You can say that, or you can say, as Ann Powers did, that Del Rey is relentlessly pursuing ‘what she still guilelessly calls “love”.’ Norman Fucking Rockwell! is a love story. 

I’m afraid to suggest that heterosexuality probably is a protracted power struggle. All intimate relationships are probably, however subtly, a protracted power struggle, but heterosexual ones most of all. Del Rey doesn’t denounce this or try to change this in any way, and there lies, at least for me, NFR!’s most compelling quality. In another recent album I loved, Mitski explored various “personas” of a cowboy (or approaching the cowboy) in Be the Cowboy, released just last year. Among the songs, she takes on personas that are similar to that of the cowboy archetype, being cold and rigid when it comes to sex and intimacy; leaving before the opportunity to get hurt. The album is polished, tightly-wound, well-executed, each song perfectly self-contained within its 2-3 minutes. Within this perfection of sound, she explores yearning and romantic delirium, and there’s one song, Me and My Husband, that explores the yearning of domesticity, a yearning that stretches into the endless horizon.

I wonder if Mitski would think that Del Rey’s NFR! has attained to the cowboy. If the cowboy is the figure who perpetually, perhaps naively, yearns towards the unattainable, the perfect ideals, then yes, the figure of the woman in NFR! is cowboy. However,  where certain personas in Be the Cowboy seem to turn away from love in order to follow the true path of the cowboy, the persona in NFR! fixates on love as the ultimate ideal. LDR’s persona is committed to her “man child”.

The album begins with the lines (indelibly imprinted in my brain), ‘God damn, man child. You fucked me so good that I almost said I love you. … Your poetry’s bad, you blame it on the news.’ Brash, disgusted. But the album ends with songs of hope and quiet persistence. Happiness is a Butterfly is the one that a colder person might say “I told you so” to (as a lot of us straight females have un-self-consciously said to many other girl friends, or at least thought to ourselves while watching them sob [I will never love like that, such a stupid thing could never happen to me]), as it recites pleas of hurt over and over again. It’s a sparse song, relying on the strength of Del Rey’s voice and her piano. 

Don’t be a jerk, don’t call me a taxi 

Sitting in your sweatshirt, crying in the backseat 

I just want to dance with you… 

God, it’s so childish. At least Mitski’s Two Slow Dancers had a bit more sophistication to it, at least it wasn’t so desperate, at least it wasn’t crying, at least it didn’t have such a hackneyed title like “happiness is a butterfly”, which, in another context, you could imagine as typed in some terrible font on a cheap notebook in the stationery section of a bookstore that’s been making losses for the past few years. In any other mouth, in any other hands, NFR! is an album of songs that the modern woman might cringe away from, but isn’t it another cliché that clichés capture humanity’s most basic and universal truths. 

Del Rey’s unique quality is that she wrenches all the terrible clichés and terrible beliefs out from our hearts where they’ve continued to reside this whole time, and, with the album, presents them back to us as the beautiful things they’ve always been. With all this talk about cowboys and who has the more perfect ideal, what I really mean is I’m glad she’s given us Norman Fucking Rockwell!, an outlet through which to believe. I’m glad she’s saying all the things I’m too scared to say, for fear of being thought weak. I’m glad a bright, young, talented woman out there is still singing about love, and falling hard, because I, too, continue to make the non-decision of falling terribly in love.  

♫: “Otis”, Kanye West and Jay-Z, ft. Otis Redding

It’s been a while since the release of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s collaborative project, Watch the Throne, and an even longer while since streaming platforms came to dominate the way we listen to music. Since the album’s release, it’s only ever been available to stream on Carter’s own Tidal platform. At the time that Watch the Throne came out, I naïvely considered it one of my most-loved rap albums, because I barely knew any rap albums at the time. It was a time when people still used to say “swag”.

I was thinking about Otis Redding’s Try a Little Tenderness today, and when I heard that descending piano key I remembered the way it acted as the “bass drop” point in a Watch the Throne song, except I couldn’t remember which. (Incidentally, how funny that for most people around my age, their first introduction to various modern classics like Otis Redding are through the samples on contemporary rap music. It’s only through rap that I discovered Redding, Gil-Scott Heron, James Brown.) For the past few years, I’d been almost exclusively listening to all my music on Spotify and ignoring everything that wasn’t on it. I’d forgotten the days of downloading music illegally, of not having the entire musical world at your finger tips; the days when you could listen to an album on repeat for weeks straight for no other reason beside that you just hadn’t downloaded any new music recently. The days when discovery took a bit longer, but music was allowed to seep in a bit deeper. When I looked up Otis on Youtube for the first time in years, I couldn’t help a big grin spreading across my face in public at the memory of lines like, “They ain’t see me ‘cuz I pulled up in my other Benz / last week, I was in my other other Benz.”

A couple years after Watch the Throne came out, it would soundtrack Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Two black men deep in 21st-century American decadence soundtracking the decadence of white Americans in the 1920s. It seems odd that this album is now almost a decade old, odd that there’s such distance between now and a time when West and Carter would make music videos as simple and honest as the one for Otis, in which they’re smiling, revelling in their own excess; a time before Carter became more art-house following Beyoncé’s footsteps, a time before West went a little more off the rails in his success. They were still Gatsbys in the way they flaunted their wealth, not yet the Buchanans they are now.

The album, so deliciously, arrogantly titled, was my first introduction to decadence-rap. I hadn’t discovered trap music yet, in which everything –love, politics, anxiety — is put into the service of flaunting wealth. Maybe if I’d stopped at this album, allowed it to fade peacefully into the ether of not-on-Spotify, I might have been saved from discovering everything else that came after, all the Youngs, the Yungs, and the Lil’s. Watching the video now is a surreal retrospective realisation of how naïve we’d been, and by “we”, I mean me, but also West and Carter. How naïve I’d been to think this was the best/worst it could get, how naïve of West and Carter to think that one luxury car was enough, even if it did have suicide doors.

*Please read all my writing on rap music with a heavier dose of irony than usual.

(Do not) Kiss the Cowboy

Some notes on kissing in Mitski’s latest album.

Do you remember when you had your first kiss? Actually, instead: do you remember how significant the kiss was to you, before you had your first kiss? Did you ever agonise over when you’d get it, and create endless fantasies about how it would feel? In Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, the significance of the kiss reverts to the bubbling, manic significance it has for children, who only know of it as this mythical moment, and then throw all their pubertal desires into anticipating it. However, the difference is that, in Be the Cowboy, the kiss regains this significance through knowing too much of what comes afterand so, out of fear, or resignation, the kiss remains as the only legitimate form of tenderness.

In wider culture, there are many famous examples of the kiss. There’s Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, “The Kiss”, of a couple dripping in gold, the man’s lips pressed to the cheek of a woman who is turned away with her eyes closed, but her desire evident in the way her hand clasps his at her face. Then there’s Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, two novels in which the kiss is a pivotal moment around which the character’s lives are changed forever. When they first kiss their beloved Odette and Daisy, Swann and Gatsby irrevocably give these women their lives, causing both men to spiral into confused fantasy. Then, there’s also Richard Hugo’s poem, Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg, with the famous lines, ‘You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.’ Here, the kiss is the only form of tenderness remembered amidst desolation. 

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt (detail)

The kiss is the first step towards consummation, but sex has the potential to become messy and traitorous. The kiss then becomes the only form of consummation. It ends where it begins.

Kiss me and leave me / The kiss as self-deprivation 

In Be the Cowboy, the kiss symbolises, at one and the same time, a desire that’s both too big and too small. Mitski’s voice in her album wants only a kiss, but she wants only that because it means too much to her already. The fame and pervasiveness that history has afforded Klimt’s painting perhaps speaks to a deeper, more fundamental and universally-shared truth: there is something sacred about the kiss. The kiss can be unbearable. 

Mitski uses the kiss as a form of self-deprivation; she wants nothing more except ‘one good movie kiss’. One argument is that the self-inflicted deprivation results from fear; as we see in “Lonesome Love” and “Washing Machine Heart”, the consequences of loving without being loved back to the same extent can create an agonising, depressive state. Please, hurry, leave me. On the other hand, perhaps the deprivation isn’t an act of self-defence but rather of acceptance—acceptance of the eventual diminution of love’s passion and romance, acceptance that love in its full form resides only in the humblest, every day acts, such as in “Me and My Husband” and “Two Slow Dancers”. As in Hugo’s poem, only the kiss is worth remembering. 

In an interview, Mitski was asked to name “one good movie kiss” as an example, and she answers, ‘the only thing that’s popping up in my head is The Notebook.’ Across time and space, across marriage, war, and illness, Allie and Noah’s eventual reunion against the odds spurs the legendary kiss in the rain, allowing Allie to throw off her engagement and reaffirm her suppressed passion. 

The thing that distinguishes the women of The Notebook, The Great Gatsby, and Swann’s Way is that they are all utterly, financially dependent on the men in their lives. We are made to believe that the tragedy befalls the man whose love is scorned, but the real tragedy is the woman who cannot ever sincerely choose for love. Mitski wants only the kiss, without the subsequent dependency upon a man. 

In the interview, Mitski continues, ‘[The kiss is] Something that’s just utterly romantic, and in the imagination, but not in real life.’ 

Everything is sex, except sex, which is power / The kiss as a forfeit of sexual power / Throwing down one’s gun 

In “Lonesome Love”, Mitski’s character intends to take revenge against a halfhearted lover, but it’s only a superficial revenge through looking good (‘spent an hour on my make-up to prove something’) that of course fails for the very reason that it was intended to succeed. It succeeds because the lover desires her, but in the morning, Mitski is returning home in a taxi cab, ‘so very paying for…’ As a sharp contrast, “Washing Machine Heart” is all upbeat and delirious, as she sings sycophantically, ‘Baby, won’t you kiss me already? / and toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart / Baby, bang it up inside.’ The two extremes—one that manipulates the man’s desire, one that fully indulges it—are both tactics that sacrifice self-respect for still positioning the man as the main subject; both tactics are losing ones. 

There’s something a little bit deranged about desire. Something a little bit crazy, something that throws everything a little bit off-balance. Suddenly, without conscious choice, your whole happiness rides on another person; even in love’s happiest state, total union with the other necessitates the disintegration of the self. The danger for a heterosexual woman is that every opportunity for love is an equal opportunity to be fucked over. 

In Mitski’s discography, she knows that men often do not, will not, and cannot care for you. In “First Love / Late Spring” off her third album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, she sings, ‘Please hurry, leave me, I can’t breathe / Please don’t say you love me,’ and one of her most famous song, “Your Best American Girl” off Puberty 2 is a fight against her own desire to be desirable. There would be nothing to fight against if we weren’t so sure of disappointment, and the doom of being a scorned woman, left alone, tending to our own ruin. Heterosexuality is a cage, and women trapped in it all rub themselves raw against its bars, trying to become desirable, or at the very least regrettable in the superficial way that “Lonesome Love”’s character tries to be regrettable, or in the way a post-breakup Instagram hoeing-out post tries to be regrettable. 

The kiss becomes the final consummation—the only consummation that matters, before she needs to draw back and regain control. The kiss on its own can retain the promise of love, without going far enough to confirm love’s absence. 

Love and death are so close. For Gatsby and Swann, the kiss sealed their doom. The heart aches in love as it does in loss, because the heightened state of love always means that much greater a fall. In “Pink in the Night”, Mitski’s character is crumbling over love, ‘blossoming alone over you,’ replaying the kiss that sealed her fate over and over again. 

‘I know I’ve kissed you before, but I didn’t do it right, can I try again and again and again? And again and again and again?’

The kiss signals the beginning of disintegration. 

Resignation and the forfeit of romance / The kiss as the last good memory 

As Richard Hugo wrote in the aforementioned poem, ‘Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss / Still burning out your eyes?’ Hugo’s Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg paints a desolate landscape of a city, in which ‘the principal supporting business now / is rage.’ Mitski’s album, the cowboy’s home ground, is a bit like that desolate city. Her characters have suffered through love’s diminution, heterosexual disillusionment, have known what comes (or, rather, doesn’t come) after the first kiss, and all they’re left with are the facts of the matter. The choice is theirs as to how they want to move forward, but sometimes even that can be limited for a woman.

In “Me and My Husband”, Mitski takes on the persona of the suburban American housewife, who stands in the corner, resigned to watching her life go by, but still consciously affirming it. ‘At least in this lifetime, we’re sticking together,’ she sings of her relationship with her husband, counting the small, minute, domestic checks and balances that contribute to love in a relationship at the end of the day. Many songs in her album explore the contradictions between love and death, passion and control, delirium and choice, and this song offers a breather in which both extremes can sit side by side. Just as she made a conscious choice, with her songwriting on this album, to step away from the more infatuated and adolescent themes of her previous work to focus more on striking a balance, this song forsakes high emotion for the sake of affirming the banal every day with all its contradictions and hardships.

The album closes with “Two Slow Dancers,” a ballad celebrating this hard-earned mediocrity. The ancient kiss still burns out your eyes, and ‘it would be a hundred times easier if we were young again’, but the present moment still remains as it is, and it would be more sinister to regret, or to seek to regain time past, as Swann and Gatsby do. 

The Hugo poem ends, ‘Say no to yourself. […] The car that brought you here still runs. / The money you buy lunch with, / no matter where it’s mined, is silver / and the girl who serves your food / is slender and her red hair lights the wall.’ 

The kiss is crystallised as the last good memory of tenderness and sincerity.

Let them into one another sink 

So as to endure each other outright. 

—from “The Lovers” by Rainer Maria Rilke 

“I know no one will save me, I just need someone to kiss.” 

For Mitski’s character in “Remember My Name,” her desire extends over all logical semantic boundaries. When she says she wants someone to remember her name, she doesn’t just mean it simply—of course people will remember Mitski’s name—instead, it takes on a larger significance, something ‘bigger than the sky’.

It hurts to want so much. It hurts to know how much you want, and how poorly the other person is capable of giving; the poverty of men in turn intensifies the desire of women. Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s most patient, structured, thought-out album, and yet it’s still bleeding with desire. The kiss is the symbol of simultaneously wanting too much and too little; the kiss is the conscious restriction of one’s desire. In “Nobody”, 

I’ve been big & small & big & small & big & small again / And still nobody wants me / Still nobody wants me / And I know no one will save me, / I’m just asking for a kiss / Give me one good movie kiss, and I’ll be alright.

Desire becomes disgusting. Or I mean: a lover’s desire becomes disgusting when the other stops wanting to take responsibility for it. The hollow echo: nobody, nobody, nobody. Nobody can ever give you what you want, because you want too much, your desire bleeds over all logical boundaries. A fragment from Richard Siken: ‘Love, for you, / is larger than the usual romantic love. It’s / terrifying. No one / will ever want to sleep with you.’ 

The kiss is the attempt to reach a compromise with desire. 

Be the cowboy

Mitski titled her album “Be the Cowboy” as a joke, referencing something she tells herself, to ‘be the cowboy you want to see in the world.’ Subverting the role of women in typical Westerns, in which the woman only supplements the cowboy by adding the excitement of sex and romance to his story, the album’s title instead urges women to be the cowboy himself. Be the cowboy, with the swaggering way he rides into town and leaves destruction in his wake; be the cowboy, with his life of self-restraint and instability; be the cowboy, with his worldly knowledge and his reliance on himself alone; be the cowboy, for whom love doesn’t exist; who rides horseback through the desolation of America’s roads, searching only for one good kiss, and nothing more. 

*For the sake of coherence, this essay takes for granted the lyrical content of Mitski’s past and present work and assumes that she is heterosexual. This is an asterisk to acknowledge that she is her own living person, with her own private life, that I would never claim to know anything about. 

Cover image: Screenshot from the music video for “Washing Machine Heart”.