As a female musician, there’s a lot of pressure to be the best at what you do, otherwise you’re “contributing” to the idea that females are mediocre at music. There’s a need to go above and beyond like that, and even Mitski, the Asian-American woman rocking the indie rock battlefields with the most versatile music imaginable, feels the pressure, too.
Following the release of her debut album, Bury Me at Makeout Creek, there’s been a mini revolution involving the perception of women, particularly Asian-American females. Numerous articles highlight her as a new role model for people to look up to. On her side, it’s impossible to see the change. The people who need to read these them the most, namely those who give women and people of color a hard time, aren’t reading those articles. They aren’t accepting change in tolerance and equality. In fact, they’re blind to it even surfacing around them.
“I’ve had other Asian girls come up to me at shows saying they felt more comfortable being there, or that they felt like pursuing their art/ambitions seems more doable now that other non-men of color like them are out there doing it, which means everything,” she says, taking time amidst tour to clear the air. But while they’re working hard to change their views, she’s still battling with the media’s push to be pigeonholed into the “sexy” Asian stereotype: “It still gets to my head.”
With that success comes a rush of backhanded compliments and hate mail. Even those praising her for what she does fail to see the issue with institutionalized racism, sexism, and biased ignorance, all the way down to the harm of asking for the contact info of “her producer guy” to get a similar sound. “I’ve gotten [backhanded compliments] so often that now they just pass me right by and I don’t pay them any mind,” she says.
If you’re a successful musician still suffering from the same ignorant remarks, then those beneath you certainly are as well. For help, we asked Mitski to clarify what works, what makes the issue worse, and how young women and those of color can keep marching forward in a world that needs their voices now more than ever.
How do you respond to people who are unaware of the weight of their words?
It depends. I usually don’t acknowledge them and then cut out those people who make them completely. I have enough noise in my life that I can’t avoid, so any opportunity to cut out excess clutter, I take it. But sometimes when I’m tired or already having a bad day I go off on them about how what they said was racist or inappropriate, and then I usually regret expending energy on them. Remember: it’s not your duty to educate these people.
What’s the best way for girls to respond to someone who can’t get over the fact that they’re a female who is successful?
I know it’s hard, but don’t focus on them. Don’t give them any more of your time and energy, don’t let them take part in your journey and current/eventual success, don’t acknowledge them. Don’t let them benefit from you whatsoever. I know it’s hard to ignore what’s right in front of you, but especially now with the Internet available and women of color all over using the Internet to reach out to others like them, know that there are millions more people out there who are/will be on your side, who will help you, and who will make you happy.
What stereotypes do you run into when people find out that you, as a woman of color, play music?
Most of the time people still just have a hard time understanding that I make my own music. I’ve often watched people’s faces as they try to wrap their head around my being a solo creative entity. I don’t know why it’s so baffling or hard to understand that I really don’t have a ghost writer, or some mastermind making my music that I then perform – I’m really doing this. It similarly makes me really angry whenever people just can’t seem to believe that FKA Twigs makes her own music, or insists that MIA can’t do anything without a producer. I also find that authority or power is always just handed to the nearest man around me – I get to a venue and the sound person immediately asks my drummer what the set up is; I’m never asked any questions.
There’s more attention on people of color in music now, but usually it defaults to African Americans as the first in that category. How do you feel Asians are represented in music and do you want to change that in some way?
Asians aren’t really represented at all. You try to imagine an Asian-American major solo musician and you have a hard time visualizing it. Even I’m half white; I’m a really pale shade of asian, and I don’t think my being recognized/noticed would be any drastic feat for asian americans in terms of media representation. We need Asians of all different heritages and histories and genders and skin colors to be represented in media so that we can finally get to a point where being Asian isn’t fetishized anymore, where Asian Americans can finally just be artists.
What advice do you have for female musicians or musicians of color looking to stand up to criticism themselves?
Surround yourself with and support fellow female musicians and musicians of color. Not only will that create a safer more comfortable space for you to be creative, but having those people in your support system and being part of theirs makes it less necessary for you to be dependent on oppressors.
MITSKI W/ ELVIS DEPRESSEDLY, ESKIMEAUX. CUISINE EN LOCALE, 156 HIGHLAND AVE., SOMERVILLE. 617.285.0167. THU 7.16. 7PM/ALL AGES/$12. CUISINEENLOCALE.COM