Indie singer-songwriter Mitski’s popularity has skyrocketed since 2020, which is somewhat of an anomaly for an artist whose most recent album was released in mid-2018 and whose last performance prior to that had been announced to be her last performance ever. Her 2018 single “Nobody” achieved popularity online, but until 2020, her popularity remained more insular. This can be attributed to many things, whether it be her excellent songwriting, her often melancholy lyrics speaking to people living through quarantine, or, funnily enough, TikTok trends.
In October 2021, Mitski released “Working for the Knife”, the lead single of Laurel Hell, which would go on to release in February. The album, and the lead single especially so, explores her complicated relationship with artistry and songwriting. She regards them as things from which she derives joy and passion, but also as an industry that asks her to keep making more content and continually put her heart on the page. She explores this topic, lyrically and sonically, evolving throughout the album. While I doubt that anyone reading this has the expectations of an artist with nearly 10 million monthly Spotify listeners, I think that these themes can feel relatable to many students who have such a relationship with academics.
“Working for the Knife”, the second track and lead single of the album, introduces many of these themes. Throughout the song, Mitski approaches various aspects of the knife with cynicism, repeating throughout that she is “working for the knife” as a songwriter. In an interview, Mitski described the song as “going from being a kid with a dream to a grown-up with a job, and feeling that somewhere along the way you got left behind”. This can be relatable to many students, whether they find their workload more intense than expected or are pursuing a path in which they don’t feel rewarded.
She further explores these feelings of cynicism in “Everyone”, where she opens with the lyrics “Everyone, all of them / Everyone said, ‘Don’t go that way’ / So, of course, to that, I said / ‘I think I’ll go that way’”. Similarly, this sentiment can empathize with those who chose studies about which they have more passion, but fewer clearly-defined opportunities. In today’s world, and especially for Honors students, the expectations of being a good student and the pressure to figure out what to do post-graduation can feel overwhelming.
Later in the album, Mitski takes a more proactive approach to her feelings with artistry. In “Love Me More”, and throughout the album, she writes about romantic relationships in a way that can similarly apply to relationships with art or school. Throughout the chorus, she tells her audience that she needs them to love her more, a request to get something more from them–whether it be a person or her career. In the second verse, she wonders how other people live life without burning out, repeating “When today is finally done / There’s another day to come / Then another day to come”.
This feeling of burnout can feel all too common to many students, and is reflected in the album’s structure, with “Love Me More” being followed by “There’s Nothing Left for You” and “I Guess”. The former explores someone who spent so much time devoted to a singular goal in life–and suddenly realized they no longer could, and that they had to find something else. “I Guess” plays with a similar idea, with a set of lyrics I personally adore: “I guess this is the end / I’ll have to learn to be somebody else / It’s been you and me since before I was me / Without you, I don’t yet know quite how to live”. Again, for someone who’s dedicated years to something like academics, this can be how it feels once graduation comes. As college students we have existed in an academic environment for nearly two decades, so when it comes to a close, many are left to wonder “What now?”
Laurel Hell closes with “That’s Our Lamp”, a song describing a relationship where Mitski feels as if she’s in the dark without her partner, though she recognizes that this partner doesn’t love her the way they used to. Despite the rather sad lyrics, “That’s Our Lamp” is sonically bright and cheery, a triumph over the doubts Mitski had throughout the album. The song truly feels like a finale, not only for the album, but also as a reflection on her career. I believe that this realism in the face of the situation is a helpful perspective for those who may feel burnt out or overwhelmed academically. Mitski recognizes that her relationship with artistry isn’t the same as what it once was, but pushes forward by recognizing that fact and carving a new space out for herself.
2019 proved to be a tumultuous year for Mitski. In June, she quit social media to create a barrier between her private life and that of her artistry (privacy she maintains through today). She also announced that she would take an indefinite hiatus from touring. In August, she had to handle a fabricated allegation against her that spread online, the denial of which briefly ended her social media silence. Because of this turbulent period of time, in September, after her final concert on the Be the Cowboy Tour, she understandably planned to quit music entirely and live a new life–-but she didn’t.
Not only did she still have another album in her contract, but she realized that she truly loved performing. So, she went back on her decision and worked on Laurel Hell, and is currently touring for the album. From an academic perspective, I see this applying by setting more boundaries between academic and personal activities. As Mitski says in “I Guess”: “If I could keep anything of you / I would keep just this quiet after you […] From here, I can say, ‘Thank you’”. Whether it’s simply giving yourself more leeway, taking an extra break if you need it, or deciding that you’d like to do something new, an experience is never a waste if you learned from it.
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