The 61st Annual Grammy Awards were presented on Feb. 10, effectively delivering a show full of star-studded performances by musical acts such as St. Vincent, Dua Lipa, Lady Gaga and Dolly Parton.
The Recording Academy President Neil Portnow once said that women need to “step up,” marking the blatant male-dominance that occurs surrounding the award ceremony.
However, the Grammy’s this year felt distinctly female-driven; hosted by Alicia Keys and featuring female artists Kacey Musgraves taking home the award for Album of the Year and Cardi B taking home the award for Best Rap Album. However, there was one vital piece missing from this year’s Grammy awards. With the critically acclaimed album “Be the Cowboy” securing positions such as number 1 on Pitchfork’s “The 50 Best Albums of 2018” list and Vulture’s “15 Best Albums of 2018” list – I couldn’t help but wonder, where was Mitski?
Mitski Miyawaki is a Japanese-American singer-songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist. She released her fifth album, “Be the Cowboy,” in August, 2018, and it quickly reached 3rd on Billboard U.S. Independent Albums and 7th on Billboard US Top Rock Albums. The album garnered attention and was placed on over 20 notable music publications “Top Albums of 2018” lists, including Time, Vulture, The New York Times and Pitchfork. This prompted my surprise that Mitski was only nominated for one category – Best Recording Package. An aesthetic based nomination, which was ultimately lost to St. Vincent’s “Masseduction,” felt unbefitting for the album “Be the Cowboy.”
With the title “Be the Cowboy,” Mitski breaks away from the inherent confinement she feels within the music world in order to simply be the cowboy, a mantra she uses to harness and redefine the unapologetic nature of a cowboy who can destroy what stands in his way and still remain the hero.
In an interview with GQ Magazine, Mitski explained this mentality.
“When I say ‘cowboy’ I mean the ideal swaggering Clint Eastwood cowboy,” Mitski said. “In my daily life I tend to be the quintessential Asian woman so I thought, ‘What if I was a tough white cowboy?’”
“Be the Cowboy” is extensive, with 14 tracks that defiantly resist to be put into a genre. The opening track “Geyser” is a polarizing start to the album, drawing one in with it’s overwhelming cathedral-like tone and slowly enunciated singing. Disco-rock track “Why Didn’t You Stop Me” and the swooningly nostalgic track “Old Friend,” kick off the multi-instrumental experimentation that melds into the melodically complex pop landscape Mitski paints this album onto.
“A Pearl” viscerally brings back the defining characteristics of Mitski’s previous albums, which were balancing acts of drowning distortion and intimacy, with a grunge chorus that gleams powerfully. This song in particular shows the lyrical prowess Mitski has, using urgency and complacency in synchronicity to convey her aversion to losing control in any situation.
Songs such as “Lonesome Love” and “Me and My Husband,” in light of the album title, have a swinging cowboy-western feel, lyrically illustrating the inevitable loneliness that occurs in all-consuming love. “Come Into The Water” possesses a similar feel as well, but with less swinging and more swaying; a cowboy’s siren song. In the end of “Lonesome Love,” you can hear her walk away, a strong segue into “Remember My Name,” a swift, garage rock plea where Mitski both asserts and humanizes her self-awareness.
The song “Nobody” is a stand-out pop single that epitomizes the crazy spiral that unravels after too much time is spent alone. With the constant repetition of “nobody” in the chorus, there is an undeniable erraticism that the song radiates as her voice melts farther and farther away, transporting dizzy key changes into the clouds, until all that’s left is Mitski repeating “Nobody… Nobody… No” through a distorted vocal, as if she’s just called you on the telephone from the sky.
“Pink in the Night” marks her descent back from above, almost inducing Synesthesia by creating a synth-infused aura that sounds pink. With a triumphant beat, Mitski proves that she is a master at growing songs. Many songs that barely pass the two-minute mark still possess a strong pop skeleton, worthy of being the base for a track twice as long. It is clear Mitski is at no loss in her ability to write a hook that brings the listener in close before taking them on an emotional journey along with her.
“Washing Machine Heart” is arguably the greatest diversion from Mitski’s prior style, straying from rock and instead adopting an electronic, rapid beat that serves as the heart of the song; pounding to exemplify her desperate passion as she lyrically balances between confusion and denial, knowingly questioning “why not me?”
“Blue Light” combines aspects of tracks that precede it, starting with a distinctly upbeat rhythm yet slowly transcending into psychedelia with non-lyrical vocalization, re-embracing the airy atmosphere created in “Pink in the Night.”
“A Horse Named Cold Air” is reminiscent of Mitski’s first self-released album “Lush,” when piano was her primary instrument. This track is jagged and raw in comparison to the highly produced nature of the rest of “Be the Cowboy”; specifically, in relation to the last track, “Two Slow Dancers,” which is a polished, delicately nostalgic ballad that is strung together with sparkling synth sounds and string accompaniment. With Mitski providing one line of harmony over her melody, the vocals emphasize that the album ends with not one, but two slow dancers, ultimately leaving behind the loneliness that she explored throughout the entire album.
With an overwhelming influx of albums created yearly, it is somewhat understandable that “Be the Cowboy” was not nominated for a Grammy, yet its disregard marks The Academy’s ostensible shift of respect from critically-acclaimed artists to chart-topping artists.