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The Freedom to Be a Little Fucked Up

Mitski’s ‘Puberty 2’ is a transcendent album about being young, a little weird, and very American

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

No disrespect to Francis Scott Key, but if we’re ever in the market for a new national anthem, we could do worse than Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl.” The song is a complete coming-of-age story that unfurls, succinctly, in a little over three minutes, and 25-year-old indie singer-songwriter Mitski Miyawaki delivers it in a warbling voice that suddenly builds in confidence as, right when the chorus hits, her distortion pedal ignites like a late-summer firework. “You’re an all-American boy,” she shouts over the din. “I guess I couldn’t help trying to be the best American girl.” It is a song about trying to live up to impossible expectations, inevitably failing, and in the end making peace with a flawed reality. It is a very American song.

It is also the lead single from Mitski’s new album, Puberty 2. (“Wait, are you actually going to call it that?” was her manager’s initial response.) The idea for the album’s title, she tells me when we meet up for lunch in late May, came to her while she was spending some time back in her parents’ house. “I would have the same kinds of thoughts and conversations, and get into fights with my parents as though I was a teenager. It’s just like, ‘I thought I’d graduated from this. Puberty strikes back!’”

It’s understandable why someone would bristle at that title: The past decade or so has seen a deluge of not just music, movies, and TV shows about the so-called “quarter-life crisis,” but a veritable cottage industry of online #content making universal generalizations about this phase of life. (See, for example: The BuzzFeed listicle “25 Signs You’re Having a Quarter-Life Crisis.”) Judged from its title alone, an album called Puberty 2 could very likely be an attempt to ride that wave, to make a joke that becomes stale before the punch line hits. But luckily, it is neither of these things; Mitski complicates clichés and stereotypes with the idiosyncrasies of her songwriting.

Her music is alive with wit, pathos, and crisp melodies — like punk-rock nursery rhymes about the modern American twentysomething. The people in her songs are trying to navigate a world in which stable, “traditional” relationships often feel like too much to ask for, but in their private moments they still long for them anyway. (A track called “I Bet on Losing Dogs” is — actually, kind of — a love song.) Her songs are sometimes sad but often hopeful, propelled by a desire to break out of the limitations placed upon her by society, circumstance, or perhaps just her own self. One of my favorites on Puberty 2, “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars,” is a two-minute song that sounds like Alanis Morissette putting a Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke. (Listen and tell me I’m wrong.) In the middle of the song, with an urgency like they could be her last words, Mitski yells, “I wanna see the whole world! I wanna see the whole world! I don’t know how I’m gonna pay rent! I wanna see the whole world!”

More or less, she already has. Though a U.S. citizen, Mitski didn’t really live in the States until she was a teenager; her father’s job demanded international travel, so she spent her youth bouncing around the world, from Japan to China to Turkey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“I was a weird person and didn’t belong anywhere,” she says of her formative years. “So there was this mythical land called America that I was truly from.” As was the way of young, pre-high-speed-internet expats, she inherited only the most popular parts of mainstream American culture, and at best a few months late (“Friends, The Simpsons, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake — that was my education.”) She daydreamed about her “home” country, from which these beloved cultural products came, in soft focus as though it were the Emerald City. “In America, I can be a unique individual and belong,” she says she used to think.

And then Mitski actually got here — plopped down, in all places, in a public high school in Birmingham, Alabama. “And then I was like, ‘Ohhhh,’” she chuckles. “When I was in other places, I had this feeling, ‘I’m different because I’m from a different culture.’ Whereas here, it was like, ‘Oh, I’m different ’cause I’m weird.’”

Mitski and I have plans to meet up on Memorial Day. There has been discussion of whether or not this means we should do something Memorial Day–themed, and what that even means — going to a parade? crashing a friend-of-a-friend’s-friend’s barbecue? — before we agree that the most Memorial Day thing we can do is restore our aching bodies on the final day of what has already been a long holiday weekend. We go to a restaurant and I order breakfast food for the second time that day; Mitski has a ginger tea. “This morning I felt disgusting,” she explains. “But not even a cool, honorable disgusting. I just ate some shitty food last night.”

I am not completely misguided in expecting to trade hangover war stories; one of the thrilling things about Mitski’s songs is that they depict women who unapologetically drink, smoke, have sex (or some combination thereof; from her last record: “I don’t smoke, except for after I’ve held you, baby”), and generally do all manner of things that until recently male songwriters got to sing about more freely than women. Mitski is coming up at a time when the indie-rock world is (finally) a little more supportive of complicated female perspectives, thanks to the success of lyrical female-fronted acts like Waxahatchee, Swearin’, and Speedy Ortiz. But there is a matter-of-fact frankness to her musings on sex in particular that the indie world hasn’t really heard since the early days of Liz Phair. As if to weed out listeners who, for whatever reason, still cannot handle this, Puberty 2 begins with a dirty joke, though — deft and punny lyricist that Mitski is — it eventually morphs into something even more evocative. The album’s first song is called “Happy,” a St. Vincent–esque fable in which Mitski gives her love interest the titular nickname. “He laid me down, and I felt Happy come inside of me,” she sings. “He laid me down, and I felt happy …”

Mitski’s life is not so wild these days, at least when she’s off tour. She still spends most of her time in suburban Pennsylvania (“There’s a supermarket and a drug store,” she marvels), about 30 minutes outside of Philadelphia. “A lot of people in New York move to Philly for the social aspect, or the money aspect, but I just moved because I wanted to go where I could be quiet,” she says. “Just to organize my brain. I think that I am social, but when I’m social, I’m social for other people …. I’m almost too concerned with other people that when I’m around them I focus on them too much. So I need to remove myself to be a person.”

She also does her best writing in solitude. She vividly remembers the first time she ever wrote a song: She was in Turkey, 17 years old, and it was either 6 or 7 in the morning. “I was so drunk,” she remembers with a laugh. “And I just started hammering away at the piano. I have a very short attention span, but drinking helps me focus. I don’t really drink that much anymore,” she says now. “But at the time it was something that mellowed me out. So I could focus long enough to … at least finish a song.”

You can listen to a version of the song she wrote that night (morning?), because it ended up on her first album as a winding, Fiona Apple–esque piano ballad called “Bag of Bones.” It’s kind of difficult for her to listen to it now, because its creation represented a personal moment of no return. “Right there, I saw my life both begin and end in that moment,” she recalls with equal parts ecstasy and horror. “Like, ‘This is what I’m gonna do for the rest of my life!’”

One more strange thing about being back in PA: Her parents live there, too. “What’s unnerving about going back to living in your parents’ house and meeting up with your old friends is that you revert to the same person you thought you were no longer,” she says. One of the best songs on her breakout 2014 album Bury Me at Makeout Creek (a Simpsons reference and a nod to her expat childhood) was called “Townie,” a scorching little ditty about being young and hungry and wanting to break free of the people and places that made you. “I’m not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be,” she hollers at the end of the song, “I wanna be what my body wants me to be!” She sings it exhilaratingly; it is a declaration of independence.

Puberty 2 is about something a little more complex — stumbling into maturity, taking two wobbly steps forward and one step back. “Today I will wear my white button-down,” she sings forlornly to herself on the last song, “I can at least be neat / Walk out and be seen as clean.” Elsewhere, she sings of self-acceptance with an almost spiritual reverence (“Glory, glory, glory, to the night that shows me what I am”) and dreams of a lover who is at least serious enough to look her in the eyes during sex … and maybe even to stick with her long enough to “watch [her] die.”

Given the frankness and honesty of her lyrics, it’s tempting to stamp her music with the “feminist” label — which has recently become so ubiquitous that it’s started to ring hollow. Mitski has mixed feelings about the rise of pop cultural feminism.

“The good thing about feminism being a trend is that people who wouldn’t have access to it before are aware of it,” she says. “It used to be a word that was kind of trapped in academia. And now it’s a pop cultural phenomenon, so it’s in people’s hands now and they can investigate it.

“So I am here for it becoming a popular term, but now we have to not settle for the Dove commercial and move beyond that. … Right now there’s just a girl-power, ‘women are wonderful,’ ‘you’re beautiful,’ one-dimensional message. And it doesn’t give you any space to be a fucked-up person.” She adds: “You can be a woman and also be really fucked up.”

The freedom to be a little fucked-up: Maybe this is the version of liberty that Mitski has always been after. Her songs are full of high hopes, bad nights, and — inevitably — fresh starts in the morning. A very American tale, when you think about it. “I pick an age when I’m gonna disappear,” she shouts with wild conviction, “Until then I can try again.” Put that shit on the dollar bill.