Women’s Day: “Mom, I failed, I’m coming home” – On music, loneliness, immigration, and Mitski

by Žarko Urošević          

On Sundays, alone, I sit in the dark staring blankly at the ceiling. On Sundays, alone, I have exactly 20 minutes to enter this state of meditation where I, for the sake of my own mental health, imagine myself calling my mom on the phone to let her know that I failed all my classes, I lost my job, that I am morbidly alone and that I must return home for a year or two. This is my worst-case scenario; going back home. Unacceptable. I feel like this would be alarming to many mental health professionals, who would ask “why would you visualize yourself failing?” and so on, and so forth. Not the healthiest of coping mechanisms, but bear with me.

On August 23rd, 2015 (also a Sunday), I moved to Iceland and embarked on the journey that is an immigrant’s life. Many other immigrants, I imagine, share my experience that, though life away from home can be exciting, new, and challenging, it brings with it a level of uncertainty and instability that can be extremely draining. There is a constant pressure to succeed, rise and live up to expectations, to prove yourself deserving of your status amongst the natives. Add to this the pressures of the academic life, and you’ve got yourself a decently spicy anxiety soup, washing your body with cortisol head to toe, daily, constantly, even in your sleep. Finish it off with a dash of loneliness, and bam – that’s how you get stuck staring blankly at the ceiling of your room every Sunday. At this point, it is very confusing as to why I’m talking about the issues of immigration, loneliness and so on, given that this platform is for film and music, and the truth is if I could, I’d work these topics into my master thesis, if it weren’t on cancer (I mean just imagine the headlines: Loneliness causes cancer).

Mitski Miyawaki, a Japanese-American singer-songwriter, whose music attracts many misfits, minorities, sad folx and underdogs alike, has lived a large part of her life as a nomad. Her parents’ careers never allowed for her to put down roots in a place long enough to call it home, or to form relationships with her peers. Being half-American half-Japanese, she often says she never felt like either enough to belong, and that in a sense, her true nationality was musician. Mitski’s indie, pop-rock, bubblegum genre mishmashing is filled with lyrics that reek of vulnerability, honesty, and hope. Mitski has a unique, beautiful, protruding voice that she uses more like an instrument than anything else, while her songs flare with astounding harmonies that even classically trained musicians rarely incorporate. Even though the lyrics might carry melancholic, heart-wrenching, stab-you-in-the-guts, period-cramps emotions, she often paints her pictures using major chords, unusual harmonies, and what sounds to me like modal scales. Naturally, me being a sad folx, overachieving underdog, soft baby for music, and a classically trained (former) musician, I developed a strong taste for Mitski. Her relatable style has given rise to a cult which spread through the internet as a pandemic of sad, relatable memes. In a way, Mitski made it ‘cool to be you’, fully exposed. Mitski – who had managed to stay pretty much under the radar for so long – was now a sensation, against whom even conspiracy theories and sexual assault allegations were made.

On June 4th, 2019, Mitski announces Last Show Indefinitely on Pitchfork. My inbox floods with messages, screenshots, people asking me if I’m okay. I have never seen her live, so obviously, I am panicking. I message my dear friend Tijana Perović, who already has a ticket to her show, and there I am booking a flight to Berlin and buying a ticket to Mitski’s concert at Heimathafen Neukölln on the 15th of August. In those two months that I am emotionally preparing for the concert, I have become even more invested in her music. I found new ways to relate to lyrics that, considering how different our lives and experiences are, I should not be able to. Yet there I was, on my bedroom floor, feeling things.

As I was boarding the plane to Berlin, listening to “Last Words of a Shooting Star”,and the lyrics, “So I am relieved that the turbulence wasn’t forecasted/I couldn’t have changed anyways/I am relieved that I’d left my room tidy/Goodbye” hit me with a kind of nostalgia and I thought to myself, “Mitski really wrote a song for every major emotion, every colossal experience,” perhaps not for me personally, but there I was on the plane, feeling things. 

I was staying with my friends – immigrants themselves – talking about our immigrant experiences, quoting Mitski lyrics, singing “Your Best American Girl”, many of us not even American, nor Girls, nor immigrants in the USA, sharing this common emotion: that our immigrant status puts us at a distance from our lovers, friends, and coworkers, creating an almost visceral gap that not even love can overcome. We get ready and go to the concert, I lose my friends in the crowd, but I instantly meet other people and connect. They too were immigrants! Mitski comes out on the stage, my heart drops out of my ass – metaphorically – and I am in a trance, just like everyone in the audience. The dissonance between the emotion of the lyrics and the upbeat melodies is fortified by the distortion between Mitski’s emotionless facial expressions, and the words coming out of her mouth. Almost overtly sensual onstage, Mitski delivers heartfelt lines of some of her softest songs such as “Francis Forever”, “Nobody”, and so on. It felt like a rock concert at a funeral, or a funeral at a rock concert. Like being invited to a celebration of an inevitably, inherently, hopeless situation at the end of life. Amicably, the audience agreed to just go with it and love her. It was not exactly clear who was saving whose life here. As if there were two sides, both holding a defibrillator, screaming clear! and taking turns reviving each other. She finished off her set with “Two Slow Dancers”. I am hugging people I have just met, a girl next to me is crying, a unifying emotion as if the song is touching on something universally human, as if we all have experienced that dance at a school gymnasium (god knows my queer ass hasn’t). I look at Mitski’s face, as if she is looking directly into my eyes, and I feel pure infatuation, gratitude, and bliss. I will not recover until two months after the concert. 

As an immigrant, I am always making myself small, burying my head in the proverbial sand to avoid any form of reprimand, almost as if sorry for merely being. Having an artist like Mitski who captures, and solidifies the experience of structural as opposed to physical loneliness, almost paradoxically alleviates its consequences. Frivolous as it may be, I can say Maybe none of my friends understand my experiences, maybe none of them ever will, however the relationship that I have with music, with myself and with other souls out there who have felt this uniquely human emotion, has given me hope. It helps me reconcile who I, where I am from, and compensate for the lack of inherent privileges pertaining to the majority. The hope that even if you are lonely, even if you cannot attain things out of your reach by birth, or passport, or even choice, rings with the imperative to Be the Cowboy, claim the spaces, live the mythology of unapologetic strength, as a solitary figure, a paragon of overcoming, even if music, science, poetry, or whatever field in which you shine, is your only friend, your only lover.

‘Class of 2013’, and the lyrics “Mom, I’m tired/Can I sleep in your house tonight?/Mom, is it alright/If I stay for a year or two?” have serenaded me so many times. A soundtrack to my Sunday calm space, soundtrack of the movie that plays in my head: calling my mom to tell her I have not succeeded and am coming home, and her comforting me. “Mom, would you wash my back?/This once, and then we can forget/And I’ll leave what I’m chasing/For the other girls to pursue”. Mitski is still chasing, and I am still chasing. It is time to pay tribute and recognition to an extremely talented artist who empowers me to say I am alright being me, and to celebrate an artist whose music, like her soul, defies borders of any kind – a nomad, if you will.

Žarko Urošević is an aspiring pole dancer and biomedical sciences lab rat, who dreams of being a big spoon one day. They spend most of their days explaining differences between sex and gender to other people, and contemplating moving to Venus.

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