I’ve been to 17 shows this year, and I’ve realized that, for most of them, especially the ones at the 9:30 Club, I’ve taken one of two positions. I either post up as close to the stage as possible to get the best view and, who knows, maybe catch the eye of one of my heroes, or I stand on the balcony and lean on the railing, which, while lacking in intimacy, provides a degree of comfort.
I’m usually able to finesse these spots because I’m a little obsessive about getting to the venue right when doors open. It’s never made much sense to me to show up after or during the opener because, by that point, you’ve missed out on half of the fun. Also, who knows where you’ll end up for the rest of the show. But, for reasons I won’t delve into so as to protect a fellow Postrider contributor from further embarrassment, I didn’t show up to Mitski’s Friday show at 9:30 until about half an hour after doors opened and had to wait on a decent (and slow-moving) line before I could pick up my tickets at will call (they really need to put a second window at that place) and get through the front door. As a result, we ended up standing further back in the venue than is customary for me, causing us to mix with a type of patron more energetic than the people who fight their way to the front or those who can’t be bothered with the effort of the crowd and hang out in the balcony instead. Though it was an unusual position for me to be in, it just so happened that being among the hoi polloi was the perfect place to experience this iteration of Mitski’s live show.
I first saw Mitski live in 2016 when she was touring in support of Puberty 2 and, truth be told, I was a little underwhelmed. She and her band hadn’t yet mastered how to bring her short and wispy songs to life in a compelling and charismatic way. There was an air of aloofness to the proceedings, as well – Mitski spent the majority of the set hiding behind a bulky bass guitar and didn’t speak much to the crowd. Her talent as a songwriter and a singer (I really don’t think we talk enough about how impressive Mitski’s voice is) were on display, sure, but she didn’t really feel like much of a performer yet. To be fair, this is partially to be expected – Mitski is a self-admitted introvert for whom the act of songwriting is intensely personal. It’s the mere act of song-smithing that’s important to Mitski, not performing those songs live in front of hundreds of people., And for someone who doesn’t naturally meld with others, reproducing a connection on stage night after night must be difficult. Add in that, during her most recent album cycle, she’s talked about how uncomfortable she is with people appropriating her largely narrative, character-based songs to fit their emotional needs, and you get the image of a reluctant pop star, a person thrust into the spotlight not because they crave it, but because their talent demands it. If I were Mitski, I’d probably come to hate touring, too.
For her Be the Cowboy tour, Mitski seems to have devised a solution to this dilemma. Instead of just showing up on an empty stage and rocking out like some many other bands do (and do well), Mitski stands at the unquestioned center of the stage, flanked by her guitarist and drummer on stage right, and bassist and keyboardist on stage left, in front of a projection screen, in intense chiaroscuro lighting, while she executes a series of choreographed motions. Instead of the confessional singer-songwriter exposed on stage, she’s– in the spirit of her new album– an actress, portraying through her songs a woman possessed, a woman enthralled, a woman seducing, a woman named Mitski. It’s unapologetically performative and theatrical and functions not only for the artist’s comfort but also for the audience’s enjoyment. Her moves range from a sort of arty calisthenics, to nervously pacing back and forth across the stage, to throwing her head back and almost convulsing, to falling on her back and kicking her feet up in the air like Tom Cruise. It’s as much performance art as rock show and a much more refreshing than it is pretentious.
Really, there’s something almost religious about the entire experience. For Mitski, the act of musical performance is a ritual, something that needs to be planned out and controlled to satisfy the true meaning of her songs. We in the audience may as well be a congregation watching a high priestess perform some kind of sacred rites. Our cleric, in her flowing white blouse, stretched her arms out to us, to the heavens, to the altar of music itself, and we followed her example, singing along to her hymns and psalms in turn.
Whether Mitski was pacing back and forth during “Frances Forever,” or throwing her head back in anguish during “Happy,” she seemed to be simulating equal parts demonic possession and religious ecstasy. In no song was this more apparent than “First Love/Late Spring,” where a smiling, benevolent Mitski opened up her palm under a glowing yellow light to encourage the audience to sing along to a song that includes a Japanese couplet; when we, as a collective, sang it, sounded like congregation speaking in tongues. There was a similar effect during the first verse of “Your Best American Girl,” when Mitski only had to say “karaoke?” for us to get the drift, and then, she, with her microphone offered up to the crowd, let us incantate words she had written. I felt like Peggy Olson being gifted a popsicle by her suddenly Christ-like mother. We were completely equal in her eyes.
The notion of rock and roll as religion is hardly a new one. Many of the greatest singers of all time, such as Aretha Franklin, got their start performing in the church and channeled that energy into the development of soul. Jerry Lee Lewis was literally studying to become a preacher before he realized he did a better job egging on sin than discouraging it, and The Hold Steady have made an entire career off of melding Catholic imagery with tales of drug abuse and 80s indie rock. In his new book Twilight of the Gods, Steven Hyden goes as far as to suggest that classic rock will live on through a form of pseudo-worship by a group of zealots who consider records like Led Zeppelin IV and Blood on the Tracks as religious texts. But the divine undertones of what happened at the 9:30 Club seemed almost subconsciously communal, the last attempts of a generation drifting further and further from institutions trying to grab onto some sort of collective identity.
Even Mitski’s anecdotes, about her hotel, her Danny DeVito worshipping alma mater, and her Bandcamp page, felt less like stage banter and more like homilies designed to humanize an ecclesiastic figure and loosen up the folks sitting in the pews. This isn’t to say that Mitski was being disingenuous or patriarchal – quite to the contrary, she seems like a delight – but it’s hard not to think that the woman whose opener described her as a “goddess” doesn’t hold some kind of sanctified sway over her audience.
This pseudo-religious experience got me thinking about my fellow congregants, too. Namely, I asked, who were these people who, like me, packed into a standing room venue two hours to midnight to see this indie famous artist play? Why didn’t I know any of these people, even though we share something so personal and profound in common? Do these people all know each other, and am I the only one missing out on a weekly Bury Me at Makeout Creek-study group? Where did we all come from?
I think a lot about Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, a vaguely alarmist take on political science and sociology that argues Americans are drifting further and further away from civic groups like religious organizations, social clubs, and even bowling leagues, and that this de-institutionalization has resulted in a learned distrust of our fellow man, precipitating a corrosive effect on our civil society and democracy. I wonder if this logic could be applied to sub-cultural “scenes” as well and if the increasingly insular way we consume music has a deteriorating effect on the groups that defined significant rock movements of the past. We all listen to the same bands, sometimes dress the same way, but, in my experience, at least, don’t really engage with each other.
Taking this into account, Mitski’s stage show takes on a whole new meaning as not just a communal experience but a communal experience shared by a group of individuals equally as starved for human contact. There’s a great irony to this, of course, and maybe it’s self-pitying to suggest that a group of a thousand people are lonely, but the evidence is there. After all, we express as much in the opening lines of one of our most famous hymns:
Oh God I’m so lonely, so I open the window/to hear sounds of people