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Mitski and the Art of Performance, by Emma Rudkin

After attending many over the years, I’ve found that I’m not a crier at concerts. That is, until my sixteenth concert, Mitski. 

I may not have a very long history with Mitski, but it certainly is a rich one. It started in early December 2022 when I was studying for finals during my first semester at Miami. Of course, Nobody blew up on TikTok in 2020, so I had heard that, but it didn’t leave much of an impression on me back then. My initial perception of her was that she made really depressing music that mostly resonated with queer women. This Is A Life served as my “gateway drug” to Mitski’s discography. It was an original song made for the film Everything Everywhere All At Once, easily my favorite film of 2022. Mitski’s part of the song is captivating, and her performance is elegant and intimate. So, I decided Mitski would be the soundtrack to my biology final exam preparation. While it was an odd choice, it was a good one. 

I started with Be The Cowboy, Mitski’s fifth studio album. With that album alone, she cemented her place as one of my favorite artists before I had even heard the other records. Album by album, I listened to her discography and fell deeper and deeper in love with what I heard. I would spend a couple of weeks with each album until I had heard everything available online. When 2023’s Spotify Wrapped came around, I was in the top 0.5% of listeners at a total of 2,642 minutes of listening throughout the year. Her music perfectly articulated feelings I once thought were indescribable. 

I chose a good time to begin listening to Mitski because around half a year after I became a fan, she announced her seventh album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We, only a year after her previous album, Laurel Hell. This turnaround rate was an unexpected surprise. The time between Laurel Hell and Be The Cowboy was four years, so fans were expecting to wait much longer than just a year between albums. With the announcement of Mitski’s new album came the announcement of a tour — a tour that I was absolutely dedicated to securing tickets to.

Like any other large artist, getting tickets for Mitski was not easy. I had to jump through so many hoops that my faith began to wane. Finding myself on a waitlist for tickets, I had resigned myself to either paying scalpers or staying at home. That being said, weeks, if not months later, I eventually received a text notifying me that more seats had opened up. However, the show was on a school night in Nashville, Tennessee. Not even knowing how far of a drive Nashville was, I purchased my tickets without a second thought. 

The concert was on Wednesday, April 10, 2024, at Ryman Auditorium. A historic venue, Ryman was originally a church and has hosted talent from Johnny Cash and Elvis to Harry Styles and Coldplay. The audience sat in pews while Mitski and the opener, Sarah Kinsley, performed. 

Prior to Mitski, I had seen ten different artists in concert. At none of those concerts was the audience seated during the performance. While every artist caters a unique concert experience to a degree, I had never experienced anything like what Mitski did, to the point where I’m apprehensive to call it a concert in good faith. It was more of a performance than a concert. In my mind, a performance is more of a transfer of energy from the performer to the audience. At a concert, on the other hand, energy is reciprocated between the audience and the performer. 

Mitski’s presence commanded the room from the second she walked onstage. Talking during the performance was kept to a minimum, and doing so in excess was looked down upon. Members of the audience, myself included, did sing along to some songs, but it was in a much different way than I’ve ever sung along at a concert. Unlike other concerts, my voice didn’t hurt afterwards because yelling the words wasn’t the point. To yell the words would be to sabotage my own experience of her performance. Concerts, to a certain extent, are performances for the audience as much as they are for the performer, where high energy and excitement are encouraged from both parties. However, this tour was much more intimate, sullen, and focused on the music and Mitski herself. She was the sole performer, and the audience etiquette was much more formal than any concert I’ve ever attended.

This is not to say that one way is better than the other, but I really enjoyed this experience. However, this doesn’t mean every concert should be like this because not every artist is like Mitski. Some music is meant to be shouted, jumped and danced to with friends at the barricades. This style of performing on tour is perfect for Mitski. It lends to her elegance and artistry, which is incredible to witness live.  

Mitski’s set began withEveryone from Laurel Hell. The instrumentals throughout the entire concert lent to the folk and country influences throughout The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We (The Land Is Inhospitable). While Laurel Hell and Be The Cowboy have elements of synth-wave and even disco at times, her performances of these songs recontextualized them within the sound palette of her latest works.

The choreography of the performance created a profound and beautiful relationship between Mitski and light. One example that’s stuck with me is when two thick beams of spotlights rhythmically moved around each other as if they were dancing. At one point, one of the spotlights went out, and Mitski took its place. She placed her hands around the remaining spotlight and began slow dancing with the light. It was a beautiful moment.

The other instance of stage lighting during Geyseris what brought me to tears. At the end of the song, when only the instrumental was playing, Mitski kept walking to the edge of her circular platform, only to be hit by a thin ray of bright light. This light knocked her back to the middle of the platform and pushed her to the floor. Yet, she kept walking towards the edge even though she knew it would hurt her. When the music stopped, she was hit one last time with this light, only this time, she didn’t get back up. This served as a metaphor for how she put herself in harm’s way with the false promise of love in return — a behavior I’m all too familiar with. 

It wasn’t the song that made me want to cry — I was fine the entire song until she did the routine with the light. It was the performative aspect of the “concert” that evoked such deep emotion in me. The songs, while profound, were things I’d already heard before. However, the choreography that went alongside it during the performance breathed new life, depth and understanding into the song. The music and the routine dovetailed beautifully together to create art right before my eyes. So I cried. And I cried even more when she performed I Love Me After You,” a song that indicates growth and a newfound sense of self-worth compared to the codependent longing of “Geyser.” To see these songs juxtaposed live was inspiring, overwhelming and tear-jerking. 

While the post-concert depression was brutal, the Mitski tour is something I’ll never forget. It felt like a celebration of the human experience: the highs, the lows, the yearning, and above all, the love. 

Seconds before post-concert depression set in for my friend Riley Courtney (left) and me.

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