I cry like that too
me and Mitski vs. the knife
When Mitski announced her sixth album and an accompanying tour, she had just reactivated her social media after several years away. In 2019, she had decided to quit music for good before learning that she owed her label one more album.
In the months leading up to the show, I stalked ticket resales, but they remained high at over $100. I was close to giving up when I found myself in Houston for work where Mitski was playing before heading to Dallas. The venue was outside and an unexpected cold front hit midweek, so the price to see Mitski plummeted alongside the temperature. I wore every layer that I brought and showed up a few minutes before she started.
Earlier that day, Mitski had tweeted that she’s fine with fans taking photos at her show, but she would prefer that the audience stay in the moment with her, to experience the show as it happened and not watch her through a screen when she’s standing in front of them. Some of her fans responded insensitively, defending their right to record the show as if Mitski had tried to strip it from them. She deleted the tweets without comment, but the gross side of fandom had already revealed itself: they wanted to consume Mitski in the way they wanted. They couldn’t let Mitski have her own say in the experience of her show. To them, she was the product. She couldn’t dictate (she wasn’t trying to) how they consumed her.
Mitski skyrocketed to indie fame in 2018 with Be the Cowboy, but she quickly saw the platform she loved turn against her. “You are the product being consumed, bought, and sold,” she told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. After working to endure it, she observed that “my heart really did start to go numb and go silent. And the problem with that is that I actually need my heart — my feelings — in order to write music.”
I saw her deleted tweets in an article days later, after I had taken a brief video of her performing “Nobody.” I usually take a few pictures at shows for posterity, but it’s been years since I’ve recorded a clip. I don’t know why I did it, except that I was awed by her choreography and wanted to review it later since I was planning to write about her. The way she methodically moved drew attention to the show as a performance, and I saw a connection between it and her feelings about being on display for audiences.
But I also posted the video to my Instagram story, and—regrettably—tagged her, because I was thrilled to be seeing Mitski and didn’t have anyone next to me to talk about it.
It’s okay, I told myself. It’s unlikely she saw my post and it’s not as if I recorded the entire concert (the video is under 40 seconds). Besides, Mitski wasn’t trying to stop people from using phones altogether. Even so, it was a timely reminder that even as I would later discover and be annoyed by the fans tweeting back at Mitski, I wasn’t free from consuming her either.
Mitski’s first single from 2022’s Laurel Hell, “Working for the Knife,” was borne from the realization that she owed her label another album. In a title that provides a contemporary and sinister update to “Working for the Weekend,” the knife acts as a double-edged blade that will pay the bills while cutting into you. She begins:
I cry at the start of every movie
I guess ‘cause I wish I was making things, too
But I’m working for the knife
From the moment I heard those lines, they have lived rent-free in my mind. I’m in my ninth year of education, and in July 2021 I quit working at the school where I started my career. I love education, and I think I’m a good teacher. But something started to go numb in me, whether because of the way educators have been largely ignored throughout the pandemic or because working within a broken system can often feel futile and demoralizing. I decided to give myself a new start elsewhere.
I found a job working as a curriculum specialist within a school system. I’ve been at it for a few months, and though it generally feels like good work, there are still aspects of it that leave me strange at the end of a day. Since I’m employed there, it’s difficult to be specific online, but suffice to say the numbness remains.
While in Houston, my dreams were full of work-related horrors, and I woke up at 4am on Thursday with my heart racing. I lay in bed until it was time to get up, my anxieties an unwelcome adrenaline rush. I lost my temper hours later, a combination of a lack of sleep, a bad call by a manager that derailed my day, and too much time around other people. I went to the bathroom and bought my ticket to see Mitski that same night, then I took a twenty-minute walk to calm myself. I felt entirely out of control.
When this happens, I sometimes picture a fire in my body. I can’t put it out because it’s inside of me, and something external is fanning the flame. I am both the fire and its witness, and if only I could locate a source of water I might stop it, but ultimately I am at its mercy until it passes. I never felt that before working in education. And I feel it more frequently than I ever have.
“Working for the Knife” features five verses and no chorus, each verse a short observation that elevates the drama. Mitski is first only working for the knife, then living for the knife, and—finally—dying for the knife.
After a decade in the music industry, Mitski assumed “the choice was mine” to bow out (as she indicates in the final verse) but found herself stuck. “When the world put me in this position,” she told Rolling Stone, “I didn’t realize that I was making this deal where in exchange for giving me this platform and attention, I was supposed to give myself.” Elsewhere in the interview she remarks, “This is what really made me quit. I could see a future self, who would put out music for the sake of keeping the machine running. And that really scared me.”
Mitski was born less than three months before me, and she’s been releasing music since she was 21. Although she named 2019 as a breaking point, she’s always made keen observations about the business side of music as something apart from the creation of it. On “Drunk Walk Home” from 2014’s Bury Me at Makeout Creek, she dreams of retiring at 23 (the age she was then), dismissing money for the sake of freedom.
Laurel Hell’s “Everyone” echoes the lyrics more cynically, “Sometimes I think I am free / until I find I’m back in line again.” And on “Working for the Knife,” she moves the needle on her retirement with lines that resonate hard not merely because of our same age: “I used to think I’d be done by twenty,” she confesses, “Now, at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same / Though maybe at thirty, I’ll see a way to change.”
The song that first drew me to Mitski is “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” from 2016’s Puberty 2. In the short, punk-fueled adrenaline rush, Mitski sees herself as a miracle (as the title relays) but—alas—she is forced to pay rent. “My body’s made of crushed little stars,” she bemoans, “and I’m not doing anything.” She nearly screams the final two verses:
I better ace that interview
I better ace that interview
I should tell them I’m not afraid to die
I better ace that interview
I work better under a deadline
I work better under a deadline
I pick an age when I’m gonna disappear
Until then I can try again
Until then I can try again
In the first of these verses, the double meaning of interview links the process of getting a job to Mitski’s work as a musician, where interviews are part of her industry. Between the repetition of that line is the literal killer: to keep her job as a musician, she should mention that she’s willing to die for it.
Then, in the next verse, she makes a pun of this supposed willingness: “I work better under a deadline,” coyly asking for more pressure to be placed on her while making a winking reference to what it will ultimately do to her. What can only follow from there is a suicidal impulse: “I pick an age when I’m gonna disappear,” a line that’s all the more chilling given that when she tried to disappear from the limelight at 28 she found herself tied to a contract that wouldn’t allow it.
In light of these and other songs stretching deep into her catalogue, “Working for the Knife” is a natural evolution of an artist who has always had mixed feelings about making music (her passion) and selling it (the draining force). When I talk about loving education and wanting to leave it every day, this is what I mean.
I’m not big on podcasts because I’m a visual learner and tend to zone out the minute I turn one on, but my interest was piqued when I saw Brené Brown post about a new episode of her podcast Dare to Lead. In the episode, she speaks with Drs. Donald Sull and Charlie Sull about their MIT Sloan Management Review article on the Great Resignation. Within a record-setting six months in 2021, over 24 million Americans—myself included—left their jobs.
While the resignations have been attributed to burnout and low pay, the Sulls found that toxic work culture was a greater indicator of attrition. Using five metrics of toxic workplaces—exclusionary, disrespectful, dishonest/unethical, cutthroat, and having abusive managers—they found that these traits were far more likely to drive resignations than any other factor. I quit my previous job because of burnout (though there were toxic elements), but in my current job I can check at least three of the five characteristics listed above.
In her interview, Brown points out that these metrics point to dehumanizing practices, issues that a person can’t compartmentalize to work and which will bleed into their daily lives, driving depression, insomnia, and strained relationships. The Sulls agree, and they point out that a toxic work environment does not only affect mental health, but physical health too: stress at work is attributed to a greater likelihood (in the range of 35-55%) of medical conditions such as high blood pressure and risk of heart attack.
I’ve never been more attentive while listening to a podcast. The researchers affirmed my feeling that work negatively affects my mental health and may eventually do the same to my physical health, if it hasn’t already. With the Great Resignation, it seems we have finally reached an impasse, where people are no longer accepting work as just one of those things that is bad across the board. People are tired of being dehumanized, and we’re demanding a better world for ourselves and others. It’s not only possible to imagine better working conditions: it’s necessary.
I often have an impulse to find a message in the music and movies I consume. I guess it feels less like consumption when I’m learning from it. I know that when I saw Mitski, I wasn’t merely consuming her for the sake of putting content onto the Internet. There’s always more ambiguity than we allow. I had a bad day at work, I love her music, and seeing artists live is meaningful to me. I also took a video and posted it to the Internet so that people knew I was there. One doesn’t discount the other, and neither is entirely inseparable. We’re both complicit in capitalist behaviors and have the opportunity to slip past them, however briefly.
When I started writing about Mitski, I wanted to capture how she’s become a model for me as my job makes me question my place in education. There’s ways to stay in it while swimming against its currents, to exist differently in a system that can feel like it’s knocking you back and carrying you downstream. There’s also something to making money while not devoting yourself to the thing that’s making you money. I haven’t yet had a chance to pick up a copy, but ever since I heard of the book Work Won’t Love You Back those five words have become a refrain for me anytime I find myself angered by my job.
As I started to write, I got caught up on my guilt about sharing the video of Mitski. I wasn’t any better than fans who insisted on treating her as a product rather than a person. What right did I have to write about her? In fact, in writing about her, was I not merely consuming her in a different way? I stopped writing it, set it aside, and decided to think more before continuing.
Then I remembered the gray space between binary conceptions of consumption and love, or meaningful interaction. When I sit down to write, I am almost never making money from it. It’s not the point for me. Instead I am getting lost on a trail for hours, looking for a place I have never been to reveal itself to me, somewhere new where I can rest my body and think for a while, unencumbered by notions of productivity and what is demanded from me at work. I can just be.
I then remembered my initial impulse to write this was borne from these lines: “I cry at the start of every movie / I guess ‘cause I wish I was making things too.”
Because of work, I decided to take a semester off from my grad program in creative writing. In the last few months, my writing projects have nearly dried up, my creativity seemingly gone for good. Though it’s happened before and I know it won’t last, a part of me wonders whether this will be the time it finally escapes me without return.
I started this newsletter to fall in love with writing again, because when I watch a movie or hear an album, I cry like that too. I cry because I haven’t been making things and I feel I was born to make things. Mitski’s clenched-jaw “I’m not doing anything” loops in my mind. When work keeps me from making, I feel like less of myself.
But when I finally write, it’s a triumph. When I read back through it, I have less proof that writing is finished with me. I have proof I’m not always working for the knife.
In writing, I am free in the way that Mitski is when she dreams of her freedom: not an actual state, but an imaginary one that can sustain me until the next time I am able to “steal” some hours for something that is not productive but meaningful, to me if not others.
My body’s made of crushed little stars, too, and in writing I honor the miracle of my existence. I wrote this on a Sunday when nobody was asking anything of me. I have relished in these hours, and I will look at these words to remember they existed once, and can again.
Welcome to the general store, which houses my reflections on music, movies, books, and more. Like a store of knowledge, the general store looks to include something less definitive: my persisting questions and occasional attempts at answers, with space to change my mind as I think long and hard about what matters to me. As I listen, watch, and read, one might remind me of another, deepen or challenge my understanding of each, and lead me to places I would have never arrived without taking the time to consider them. I appreciate you stopping by the store, and I hope you’ll decide to linger with me.