What’s Left of When We Swam Across Time: The Third Wave of Feminism and Mitski’s Song-writing
“I want a love that falls as fast/
As a body from the balcony, and/
I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground/
I’m not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be”
Townie crescendos into its last verse and the overwhelming instrumentals deepen the lyrics as Mitski pronounces, “I’m gonna be what my body wants me to be.” An adrenaline-shocked joy, resembling the cracked-open remains of catharsis, is left reverberating in the air.
The third wave of feminism gained speed in the late 20th century and revolved around efforts to reclaim the body by questioning ideas of femininity and making a full range of traits accessible regardless of gender. In June 2021, a Texan high-school graduate stated, “there is a war on my body”, in response to the recent six-week abortion ban in the state of Texas, US. In March 2020, 311,147 complaints of domestic violence were reported by women in India within a span of six days, as reported by The Hindu newspaper in June 2020. Movements like feminism don’t have waves that fully recede into the sea, more the kind that breaks over rocks and continues to lap at the port of the present. Evidently, the frontier of sexual and physical autonomy in the fight for gender equality remains open.
Mitski Miyawaki’s haunting songwriting, which mimics the feverish intensity of poetry, provides an impetus to her emotional expression of encounters with identity, love and herself. Stringing together genuine experiences and honest storytelling, her music sheds a more human light on the lens through which social prejudice towards sexually adventurous women and gender stereotypes in love and intimacy are explored. The music flings open a window overlooking a nuanced view into how feminism’s principles interact with real-life relationships.
“I always wanted to die clean and pretty/
But I'd be too busy on working days”
Mitski, Last Words of a Shooting Star
Reclaiming the body discussed as a principle is different from its identity as an action. The action of being physically autonomous, especially when women are sexually adventurous, is met with social and consequently emotional prejudice. The desire to be sensitive, graceful and gentle as well as to be autonomous and assert oneself is unmistakably common, yet prejudice plays the architect of social interactions and compels a trade-off: to express traditionally feminine traits and be pushed over or to assert oneself and face alienation. Mitski’s music articulates the maddening revelation that making either choice results in being disregarded. And so, a woman with physical autonomy loses emotional autonomy. Therefore, satisfying the principle of reclaiming the body leads to a bargain between one layer of reclamation and another.
This multifaceted reality, in turn, complicates how one responds to prejudice and protests ostracization. A representation of this is found in Mitski’s music, which often alludes to perceptions of “dirtiness” attached to promiscuous women – symbolic of a lack of respectability or “true” beauty – which exclude them from the traditional idea of femininity.“So today, I will wear my white button-down/I can at least be neat/Walk out and be seen as clean,” Mitski warbles with a melancholic lilt in A Burning Hill, sticking a spade into the skin and dredging up the painfully innocent longing to be held in higher regard. The musical narrative crafted by Mitski approaches the ostracization as painful but also captures the ambivalence of a woman’s emotional responses to it. Sometimes the woman in the song responds to the pain with a yearning for acceptance and inclination to alter herself for it, such as in A Burning Hill. “Toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart/ Baby, bang it up inside” (from Washing Machine Heart), in contrast, outlines an electric rejection of negative connotations by reinterpreting its image to illustrate enjoyment. At other times, she reconciles pain and judgment with silent resolve to hold her own, bidding a soft farewell, “I couldn't have changed anyways/I am relieved that I'd left my room tidy/Goodbye” (from Last Words of a Shooting Star), nestled in the aching sweet tune of the acoustic guitar.
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The pillar of mutual acceptance and support upholds the foundational structure of feminism and is built out of awareness. Facing social ostracization and reclaiming the body is multi-faceted and often, in the rush to usher in change, this nature is forgotten. Listening to music such as Mitski’s, especially in the modern world and especially when coming of age, is a validation of multiple experiences and consequently, a catalyst for acceptance.
“He laid me down, and I felt happy”
Conventional sexual stereotypes prescribe a certain range of traits based on gender and sex, presenting men as “assertive, aggressive, sexually adventurous, and emotionally restrained” and women as “docile, passive, sexually modest, and emotionally sensitive”, as explored in a 2019 study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Following the theme of reclamation, a prominent goal of feminism’s third wave was to make a full range of traits accessible to anyone, regardless of gender. An important part of this effort was challenging images of women as ‘passive’ or ‘virginal’ as well as ‘emasculating, slutty or demanding’, to create space for women to generate their own independent identities.
These aspirations have evolved over time and, as the discussion around feminism’s expired relevance to modern life begins to surface, it is important to re-contextualise these principles to contemporary experiences. Mitski’s discography can be lived through. By knitting together lyrics, tracks are laid for a journey across evolving and receding shades of emotion, transcending the barrier of gender-based conventions in love and intimacy. “But first, open up a window for me/And let the cool air in, feel the night slip in/As it softly glides along your back/And I hope you leave right before the sun comes up/So I can watch it alone,” Mitski sings in Bag of Bones, expressing detachment from a sexual partner and a desire for independence, subverting the traditional gender roles of intimacy. In Pink in the Night, she releases gently: “I glow pink in the night in my room/I’ve been blossoming alone over you”, soon rejoicing, “And I know I've kissed you before, but/ I didn't do it right/Can I try again, try again, try again;” the song reflects emotional sensitivity, tenderness, joyousness and unbridled affection as it progresses, all of which are tied to femininity. Mitski’s music validates experiencing emotions traditionally depicted as feminine and masculine simultaneously. It is in this grey area that her music finds remarkable freedom of expression and the listener finds a safe space to explore themselves autonomously.
“Underneath the exquisitely beautiful melodies there is rage,” The Guardian wrote on Be the Cowboy, Mitski Miyawaki’s fifth album, in December 2018. It’s “feminine in the violent sense,” Mitski elaborated on her album, “... wanting power but being powerless and blaming it on yourself.” Mitski’s songwriting explores shades of love and sex – ones that are lesser-confronted because of their extremity, romanticised because of their simplicity and beauty, or unknown to someone who has never experienced intimacy – and renders them eerily human. “You’re my number one/ you’re the one I want”, rings in the first verse of Geyser, the opening track on the album. A glitch after the words interrupts the discordant organ and twists the declaration into a sinister one. Although there is pain, there is also “a sense of fighting back against these forces'' that suppresses her intense emotions, asserting she’s “a geyser, feel it bubbling from below/ Hear it call, hear it call, hear it call to me, constantly.” While there is a sense of stifled rage in love, there is a balmy serenity in heartbreak: “I hear my heart breaking tonight/Do you hear it too?” Mitski asks before hinting, “It's like a summer shower,” in Pink in the Night, a track on the same album. Conventional scenarios of romantic love and “the social structures built around it constitute one of the main forces keeping women tied into traditional gender roles'' explains Jerold Heiss, a professor at the University of Connecticut through the summary provided by Collins in 1998 (p. 205). Mitski switches out, mixes, and matches conventionally depicted emotions pertaining to familiar situations in love- where the woman brims with violent emotion in love and with calm indifference in heartbreak. Listening to the album pushes the audience to challenge their perceptions of relationship dynamics and emotional reactions attributed to gender.
The range of experiences, or facets of one experience, reclaim a variety of emotions when written and sung by a woman. Bit by bit, Mitski’s music of pain, rage, tenderness, confidence, desire, and exhaustion fills gaps in the mosaic –a chronicle of experiences with love, sex, relationship dynamics, and character tropes– which all young women look to as they come of age. It reconciles the shortcomings of female characters in popular culture, the restraint and unspoken censorship of women’s sexuality in worshipped works of literature, and countless other media which create statues of women instead of birthing them in flesh and blood. Through her all-encompassing music, embracing everything that is accessible to the human mind and body becomes an effective, human form of protest. Modern feminism through Mitski’s songwriting is a departure from common conceptions of protest as a need to “prove” and a welcome into protest as an act of just being.
“I'm what's left of when we/
Swam under the moon”
Mitski, I Don’t Smoke
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Vignesh Radhakrishnan & Sumant Sen & Naresh Singaravelu. “Data: Domestic Violence Complaints at a 10-Year High during COVID-19 Lockdown.” The Hindu, The Hindu, 24 June 2020, www.thehindu.com/data/data-domestic-violence-complaints-at-a-10-year-high-during-covid-19-lockdown/article31885001.ece.
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