What Mitski Tells Us About Capitalism and Art

I cry at the start of every Mitski song / I guess cause I wish I was making things too.

Yeah, I know, very meta of me to almost quote the beginning of the song, but that line never ceases to amaze me. Mitski is describing the thought most artists have: the realization that you are probably never going to make it as an artist, ultimately having no choice but to submit to the dullness of capitalism. What makes this line so fascinating to me though is Mitski’s oxymoronically admittance of feeling this way. Mitski, in fact, made it as an artist, yet she too is unable to escape capitalism: she is working for the knife. 

“Working for the Knife” was Mitski’s first single after declaring that she was going to quit music back in 2019. However, her comeback is a reluctant one as this song perfectly exemplifies. Mitski reported in an interview with Rollings Stones that she was contractually obligated to release an album. Upon recording the album, she admitted to experiencing conflicting feelings: 

How does it feel to be releasing a record again? Terrible. Absolutely terrible,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Oh Jesus, here we go again. I thought I was having fun and now it’s no fun anymore.’”

It is not that Mitski doesn’t love doing art, it is the commercial process of it that scares her: “I put my most intimate feelings in a song and sold it”, she says in an interview with Vulture. The interviewer, E. Alexa Jung, comments on this process: Working in the music industry creates a paradox: “Writing demands vulnerability, but capitalism dehumanizes her”. In another interview Mitski revealed: 

The real struggle for me in getting bigger is, how do I maintain integrity in the performance? How do I make sure the audience experience is still intimate and emotional in this 8,000-cap room? How do I not resort to flashy pyrotechnics onstage? Because I don’t want my show to be about that — I want people to enter into a place with me and have an experience, and then leave having experienced something important.”

In February of this year, Mitski went viral on Twitter when she attempted to request a better emotional experience at her shows. She wrote: 

“I wanted to speak with you about phones at shows. They’re part of our reality, I have mine on me all the time, and I’m not against taking photos at shows (though please no flash lol). But sometimes when I see people filming entire songs or whole sets, it makes me feel as though we are not here together. This goes for both when I’m on stage, and when I’m an audience member at shows.”

The responses to this tweet were wild. Users went as far as to say that their mental illnesses like dissociation do not allow them to live in the present, their only option being to record everything on their phones. Mitski did not even ask to not film at all, she simply asked not to film ENTIRE songs in order to have a more intimate experience.

Art is, at its core, a form of communication. Mitski wants to communicate with her audience, otherwise, she wouldn’t be preoccupied with the integrity of her performance and would just put on a spectacle. This can even be seen in her dance moves. According to Jas Lin, Mitski’s choreographer, Mitski’s movements are based on “ankoku buto”, a type of Japanese dance theater that involves slow, hyper-controlled motions, and facial expressions — a dance that gained popularity after WWII. Mitski performs these types of dances because “she wanted the show to feel like a separate space, when the audience walks in and walks out, like kind of its own little dream space”. As I-D magazine writes, “it can be uncomfortable to watch someone experience this kind of emotion in a public venue — at times it feels like we’re seeing something we shouldn’t. But Lin doesn’t want us to look away. If anything, it’s meant to challenge the audience. If this tantrum she’s throwing on stage makes you feel some type of way… can you interrogate yourself?” Has her audience managed to interrogate themselves though? In Mitski’s opening show for Harry Styles a couple of weeks ago, people started calling her “traumatizing” and “too sexual”.

It seems that one of the things Mitski values most about art is the sharing of experiences and the connection between artist and audience. However, that connection is tainted with capitalism, her art is turned into a commodity and spectacle—resulting in commodity fetishism. 

Commodity fetishism refers to the condition in which production is no longer seen as a social endeavor but as the simple exchange of money and commodities (for example, whereas before people knew the people that made their clothes—like their local tailors—now people rather not even think about the kids behind their Shein clothes). In the case of art, as Guy Debord argues in his 1967 book, Society of the Spectacle

“The spectacle transforms human relations into objectified relations among images and vice versa.”

He maintains that the spectacle is the form that society embodies when the Arts have been commodified as commercial activities that turn an aesthetic value into a commercial value. Walter Benjamin states in The Work of Art in The Age of Mechanic Reproduction that this mechanical aspect of art reduces its aesthetic and its intimacy with the artist, or what he called art’s “aura”. Mitski refers precisely to this process in her interview with Rolling Stone:

“[M]y 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. It was this paradox”.

There are multiple reasons as to why Mitski experiences this numbness. She is estranged (entfremdung) like every individual in a capitalist society. She very obviously is alienated from her own production, like most musicians, as she was contractually obliged to record an album. This causes a rupture between what she produces and what she owns, and this is so incredibly devastating in art since what you are literally selling is your feelings. The demands of working for a label further complicate the act of production. Under those conditions, an artist cannot create freely, their feelings have to be palatable to the label and to their audiences. As Karl Marx states when talking about alienation from the act of production, “so is the worker’s activity not his spontaneous activity. It belongs to another; it is the loss of his self”. That being said, even if Mitski were to escape her label (like Taylor Swift did, for example), she would still be trapped by the society of the spectacle. 

In Working for The Knife, Mitski declares: “I used to think I would tell stories/ but nobody cares for the stories I had about/ no good guys”. As with her first line in this song, I find this line a bit paradoxical, given that she is known partly due to the unique narratives that she explores in her lyricism. However, as I mentioned in one of my previous articles, even though Mitski displays a complex variety of emotions in her songs, she is reduced to a “sad girl”. This is partially due to the obsession the society of the spectacle has with relatability and identity. As Theodor Adorno argues in Aesthetic Theory, “[true] art respects the masses, by confronting them as that which they could be, rather than conforming to them in their degraded state”. Nevertheless, the society of the spectacle is not interested in confronting the individual but rather in strengthening it. Debord claims that “celebrities necessarily “renounce all autonomous qualities in order to identify [themselves] with the general law of obedience to the course of things.” This is why there’s an obsession with relatability, with fetishism, with art merely conforming to your already existent emotions, and not shaking you to your core. Audiences then are more interested in finding a piece of art relatable than they are in critically engaging with it. 

I remember seeing this post on Instagram that said “and when the spectacle stops, everyone will be an artist, life will be creation, invention”, and it stuck with me. The core of Debord’s argument is that capitalism is inherently an uncreative system. It is our human nature to create, to express, to communicate, however, alienation wears off this spontaneity. Mitski sings “I always thought the choice was mine/ And I was right, but I just chose wrong”. Arguably, she is referring to the choice of making art her profession. As most struggling artists would admit, her “choice” is a privilege not many artists have. The dream of most artists is to be able to live off it, to do art for the rest of their lives. But in order to be able to live off art, you have to commodify it, and Mitski’s experience illustrates that that is not exactly a viable option either. Perhaps Mitski is saying that she would have rathered keep her art private and do something else instead as a “main profession” in order to survive, an option I have considered myself multiple times. But I can still feel I am working for the knife with every other job I have had, with little or no time at all for creating art. So what’s the other choice though? There is none when it comes to art in a capitalist society. We are indeed all dying for the knife.

Written by Emilia Barriga

1 Comment

  1. She has an important point concerning phones, and I admit that I am in a bad habit of spending too much time filming concerts, to post on my snap for example, rather than just being there to enjoy the music.

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