Selected ambient works: Mitski’s equally strange and elegant stage presence elevates her artistry

A drawing of Mitski performing in front of a door, bathed in purple light. Heads of people block some of the view.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

As I arrived at the Shrine Expo Hall in Los Angeles on March 3, I was greeted with a familiar indie show scene: masses of Doc Martens-wielding teenagers waiting for their supreme indie sad girl to bless their ears. I felt comfortable, prepared for an intimate and somber Mitski performance like I had seen from so many other indie artists in her class. And yet, as in so many other ways, Mitski exceeded my expectations.

Mitski is frequently dubbed as one of the quintessential indie “sad girls.” It’s true that in a similar fashion to indie contemporaries like Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo, Mitski’s tracks are often quite somber, exploring themes of depression, hopelessness and longing. Down-tempo tracks like “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” “I Bet on Losing Dogs” and “Two Slow Dancers” tug fiercely on the heartstrings. Even on upbeat and sonically addicting tracks like “Nobody” and “Washing Machine Heart,” Mitski writes about feelings of immense loneliness and inadequacy. 

Given the heavy subjects explored by Mitski’s art, I anticipated a subdued performance, relying on carefully crafted melodies and sophisticated lyrics to do the work. Instead, Mitski delivered a show that beautifully accentuated her dark lyrics while remaining exciting and eye-catching throughout. Throughout her set, Mitski’s onstage movements clearly reflected the mental images evoked by her music. She doesn’t aspire to put on a performance that simply duplicates the listening experience of her pre-recorded music; instead, she creates an entirely new experience that is sonically unique and visually enthralling. 

This is exemplified beautifully as Mitski sings along to “First Love / Last Spring,” a track that explores a love that is so intense that she begs for freedom from it — she would rather be alone than carry such a maddening attachment to one person. During the instrumental break, Mitski spins around the stage, stopping to shove away an invisible figure as to strike at the central ethos of the song: the need to escape. 

“Townie,” another track off of “Bury Me At Makeout Creek,” explores similar feelings of love and insanity and yields yet another pleasantly bizarre performance from Mitski. The song is sung from the perspective of a woman who has become fed-up with the expectations levied on her from male figures in her life, especially in the case of romantic partners. After gleefully singing “I am not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be,” Mitski falls to the ground and pounds the floor with her fists. In this moment, she perfectly personifies the rage that is felt through the frenzied lyrics and explosive instrumentals. 

Towards the end of her set comes “A Pearl,” a track sung by a narrator who has developed an addiction to the toxicity of past unhealthy relationships, thus lacking the skills to navigate a healthy relationship with a partner who seeks to do right by them. Mitski sings “Sorry, I don’t want your touch,” while shielding herself from an imagined partner and shivering in fear of accepting their well-intentioned love and affection. Her actions are not necessarily illustrated as righteous or moral, but they portray the true and honest essence of someone who is unable to function in relationships after being shattered by prior mistreatment. 

It’s always exciting to watch artists we love perform our favorite songs, but Mitski’s fascinating onstage presence truly elevates the experience. I would’ve been content just singing (or screaming) along with Mitski to bangers like “Nobody” and “Your Best American Girl,” but instead, I got introduced to an entirely different version of Mitski’s music, one that I could see unfolding right before my eyes. With this, Mitski elevates what it means for artists to perform their music. She utilizes a new medium, this time with a capacity for visual expression, and creates new meanings from her already exceptionally rich discography. 

Mitski’s on-stage movements are at times strange, at times elegant, yet always mesmerizing and meaningful. I should’ve expected a commanding stage presence from Mitski; her artistry frequently surpasses those of her indie contemporaries. Mitski’s sometimes folksy, sometimes punk indie rock has lifted her to legendary status in the alternative music space. Dubbed by The Guardian as “the U.S.’s best young songwriter,” Mitski is no stranger to acclaim, and for good reason. Throughout her career, she has been praised for her immense songwriting talent and her ability to “make being bummed sound fun.” As I discovered that night at the Shrine, Mitski is perfectly capable of translating the concurrent agony and pleasure of her music into an outstanding live performance — one that I will never forget. 

Nicholas Black PO ’24 is from Rochester, New York. He is proud to have discovered Mitski in 2019, a year before TikTok. 

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