On Oct. 21 Mitski—or, as the marquee would have it, Mitsik—performed for a sold-out crowd at Club Soda. As anyone with a name too long or foreign to pronounce can attest, the switch of the ‘i’ and ‘k’ stings more than most typos. You can tour with Lorde and have an 8.8 on Pitchfork and sell out a North American tour, and they’ll still spell your name wrong. Fittingly, albeit coincidentally, Mitski opened with “Remember my Name.”
With the release of her most recent album, Mitski has achieved peak indie darling status. As my own attendance should testify, she is teetering on the brink of mainstream stardom, at a strange inflection point in her career. Her latest album, Be the Cowboy, released on Aug. 17, is sonically reflective of this transition: With hits like “Why Didn’t You Stop Me,” “Lonesome Love,” and “Nobody,” Mitski takes her insightful and emo lyrics, as popularized on Puberty 2 and Bury Me at Makeout Creek, and sets them to pop melodies. The result is a sense of loneliness you can dance to.
Thanks to A Star Is Born, debates about what constitutes pop versus ‘selling out’ overwhelm cool-alt-kid Twitter. In Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, country rock star Jackson Maine (Cooper) meets Ally (Lady Gaga), an unassuming waitress. The two fall in love, and Maine watches as Ally catapults to celebrity, perhaps, the film suggests, at the cost of her artistic integrity. Mitski, Twitter’s other obsession, is in the midst of a moment similar to Ally’s, but her career resolves any outstanding uncertainties as to whether mainstream success and individuality are compatible.
If Ally’s ascendance in A Star Is Born represents the demise of music, then Mitski is the antidote, proof that pop isn’t synonymous with industry, nor does it exclude originality. She was featured on NPR’s Tiny Desk, but did so screaming into her guitar; on Sunday, she performed to hundreds of doting fans, but when fans proclaimed their love for her, she responded timidly, “I’m not very good at banter.”
As Ally, the New York Times writes, Lady Gaga “transforms from a soulful crooner into a writhing automaton.” At Club Soda last night, Mitski was equal parts crooner and automaton, the two intertwined and inextricable from one another. In “Me and My Husband,” she shimmied like a cartoon ingenue, and in “Washing Machine” she jutted her arms out robotically. Her dance moves, ranging from mechanical to bizarre, were clearly choreographed, but no less authentic than Maine’s bare acoustic numbers.
Behind Mitski were three screens projecting psychedelic backgrounds reminiscent of 2000s Windows desktop screensavers: Cheesy optical illusions and computer-generated panoramas punctuated her guttural vocals. Neon spotlights adorned Mitski’s melodramatic facial expressions; performance is not a distraction from the music but integral to it. Mitski was magnificent not just when she was singing, but in the in-between moments, too.
Still, Mitski was not without her soulful “I’ll Never Love Again” moment. The crowd may have been counting down to “Nobody,” but it was slower hits, like“First Love / Late Spring,” that were really jaw-dropping. Her haunting rendition of “Two Slow Dancers,” set against American Beauty-esque rose petals falling on a black backdrop was a personal highlight. The couple next to me sashayed, and it didn’t make me roll my eyes.