Some notes on kissing in Mitski’s latest album.
Do you remember when you had your first kiss? Actually, instead: do you remember how significant the kiss was to you, before you had your first kiss? Did you ever agonise over when you’d get it, and create endless fantasies about how it would feel? In Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, the significance of the kiss reverts to the bubbling, manic significance it has for children, who only know of it as this mythical moment, and then throw all their pubertal desires into anticipating it. However, the difference is that, in Be the Cowboy, the kiss regains this significance through knowing too much of what comes after, and so, out of fear, or resignation, the kiss remains as the only legitimate form of tenderness.
In wider culture, there are many famous examples of the kiss. There’s Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece, “The Kiss”, of a couple dripping in gold, the man’s lips pressed to the cheek of a woman who is turned away with her eyes closed, but her desire evident in the way her hand clasps his at her face. Then there’s Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, two novels in which the kiss is a pivotal moment around which the character’s lives are changed forever. When they first kiss their beloved Odette and Daisy, Swann and Gatsby irrevocably give these women their lives, causing both men to spiral into confused fantasy. Then, there’s also Richard Hugo’s poem, Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg, with the famous lines, ‘You might come here Sunday on a whim. / Say your life broke down. The last good kiss / you had was years ago.’ Here, the kiss is the only form of tenderness remembered amidst desolation.
The kiss is the first step towards consummation, but sex has the potential to become messy and traitorous. The kiss then becomes the only form of consummation. It ends where it begins.
Kiss me and leave me / The kiss as self-deprivation
In Be the Cowboy, the kiss symbolises, at one and the same time, a desire that’s both too big and too small. Mitski’s voice in her album wants only a kiss, but she wants only that because it means too much to her already. The fame and pervasiveness that history has afforded Klimt’s painting perhaps speaks to a deeper, more fundamental and universally-shared truth: there is something sacred about the kiss. The kiss can be unbearable.
Mitski uses the kiss as a form of self-deprivation; she wants nothing more except ‘one good movie kiss’. One argument is that the self-inflicted deprivation results from fear; as we see in “Lonesome Love” and “Washing Machine Heart”, the consequences of loving without being loved back to the same extent can create an agonising, depressive state. Please, hurry, leave me. On the other hand, perhaps the deprivation isn’t an act of self-defence but rather of acceptance — acceptance of the eventual diminution of love’s passion and romance, acceptance that love in its full form resides only in the humblest, every day acts, such as in “Me and My Husband” and “Two Slow Dancers”. As in Hugo’s poem, only the kiss is worth remembering.
In an interview, Mitski was asked to name “one good movie kiss” as an example, and she answers, ‘the only thing that’s popping up in my head is The Notebook.’ Across time and space, across marriage, war, and illness, Allie and Noah’s eventual reunion against the odds spurs the legendary kiss in the rain, allowing Allie to throw off her engagement and reaffirm her suppressed passion.
The thing that distinguishes the women of The Notebook, The Great Gatsby, and Swann’s Way is that they are all utterly, financially dependent on the men in their lives. We are made to believe that the tragedy befalls the man whose love is scorned, but the real tragedy is the woman who cannot ever sincerely choose for love. Mitski wants only the kiss, without the subsequent dependency upon a man.
In the interview, Mitski continues, ‘[The kiss is] Something that’s just utterly romantic, and in the imagination, but not in real life.’
Everything is sex, except sex, which is power / The kiss as a forfeit of sexual power / Throwing down one’s gun
In “Lonesome Love”, Mitski’s character intends to take revenge against a halfhearted lover, but it’s only a superficial revenge through looking good (‘spent an hour on my make-up to prove something’) that of course fails for the very reason that it was intended to succeed. It succeeds because the lover desires her, but in the morning, Mitski is returning home in a taxi cab, ‘so very paying for…’ As a sharp contrast, “Washing Machine Heart” is all upbeat and delirious, as she sings sycophantically, ‘Baby, won’t you kiss me already? / and toss your dirty shoes in my washing machine heart / Baby, bang it up inside.’ The two extremes — one that manipulates the man’s desire, one that fully indulges it — are both tactics that sacrifice self-respect for still positioning the man as the main subject; both tactics are losing ones.
There’s something a little bit deranged about desire. Something a little bit crazy, something that throws everything a little bit off-balance. Suddenly, without conscious choice, your whole happiness rides on another person; even in love’s happiest state, total union with the other necessitates the disintegration of the self. The danger for a heterosexual woman is that every opportunity for love is an equal opportunity to be fucked over.
In Mitski’s discography, she knows that men often do not, will not, and cannot care for you. In “First Love / Late Spring” off her third album, Bury Me At Makeout Creek, she sings, ‘Please hurry, leave me, I can’t breathe / Please don’t say you love me,’ and one of her most famous song, “Your Best American Girl” off Puberty 2 is a fight against her own desire to be desirable. There would be nothing to fight against if we weren’t so sure of disappointment, and the doom of being a scorned woman, left alone, tending to our own ruin. Heterosexuality is a cage, and women trapped in it all rub themselves raw against its bars, trying to become desirable, or at the very least regrettable in the superficial way that “Lonesome Love”’s character tries to be regrettable, or in the way a post-breakup Instagram hoeing-out post tries to be regrettable.
The kiss becomes the final consummation — the only consummation that matters, before she needs to draw back and regain control. The kiss on its own can retain the promise of love, without going far enough to confirm love’s absence.
Love and death are so close. For Gatsby and Swann, the kiss sealed their doom. The heart aches in love as it does in loss, because the heightened state of love always means that much greater a fall. In “Pink in the Night”, Mitski’s character is crumbling over love, ‘blossoming alone over you,’ replaying the kiss that sealed her fate over and over again.
‘I know I’ve kissed you before, but I didn’t do it right, can I try again and again and again? And again and again and again?’
The kiss signals the beginning of disintegration.
Resignation and the forfeit of romance / The kiss as the last good memory
As Richard Hugo wrote in the aforementioned poem, ‘Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss / Still burning out your eyes?’ Hugo’s Degrees of Grey in Philipsburg paints a desolate landscape of a city, in which ‘the principal supporting business now / is rage.’ Mitski’s album, the cowboy’s home ground, is a bit like that desolate city. Her characters have suffered through love’s diminution, heterosexual disillusionment, have known what comes (or, rather, doesn’t come) after the first kiss, and all they’re left with are the facts of the matter. The choice is theirs as to how they want to move forward, but sometimes even that can be limited for a woman.
In “Me and My Husband”, Mitski takes on the persona of the suburban American housewife, who stands in the corner, resigned to watching her life go by, but still consciously affirming it. ‘At least in this lifetime, we’re sticking together,’ she sings of her relationship with her husband, counting the small, minute, domestic checks and balances that contribute to love in a relationship at the end of the day. Many songs in her album explore the contradictions between love and death, passion and control, delirium and choice, and this song offers a breather in which both extremes can sit side by side. Just as she made a conscious choice, with her songwriting on this album, to step away from the more infatuated and adolescent themes of her previous work to focus more on striking a balance, this song forsakes high emotion for the sake of affirming the banal every day with all its contradictions and hardships.
The album closes with “Two Slow Dancers,” a ballad celebrating this hard-earned mediocrity. The ancient kiss still burns out your eyes, and ‘it would be a hundred times easier if we were young again’, but the present moment still remains as it is, and it would be more sinister to regret, or to seek to regain time past, as Swann and Gatsby do.
The Hugo poem ends, ‘Say no to yourself. […] The car that brought you here still runs. / The money you buy lunch with, / no matter where it’s mined, is silver / and the girl who serves your food / is slender and her red hair lights the wall.’
The kiss is crystallised as the last good memory of tenderness and sincerity.
Let them into one another sink
So as to endure each other outright.
— from “The Lovers” by Rainer Maria Rilke
“I know no one will save me, I just need someone to kiss.”
For Mitski’s character in “Remember My Name,” her desire extends over all logical semantic boundaries. When she says she wants someone to remember her name, she doesn’t just mean it simply — of course people will remember Mitski’s name — instead, it takes on a larger significance, something ‘bigger than the sky’.
It hurts to want so much. It hurts to know how much you want, and how poorly the other person is capable of giving; the poverty of men in turn intensifies the desire of women. Be the Cowboy is Mitski’s most patient, structured, thought-out album, and yet it’s still bleeding with desire. The kiss is the symbol of simultaneously wanting too much and too little; the kiss is the conscious restriction of one’s desire. In “Nobody”,
I’ve been big & small & big & small & big & small again / And still nobody wants me / Still nobody wants me / And I know no one will save me, / I’m just asking for a kiss / Give me one good movie kiss, and I’ll be alright.
Desire becomes disgusting. Or I mean: a lover’s desire becomes disgusting when the other stops wanting to take responsibility for it. The hollow echo: nobody, nobody, nobody. Nobody can ever give you what you want, because you want too much, your desire bleeds over all logical boundaries. A fragment from Richard Siken: ‘Love, for you, / is larger than the usual romantic love. It’s / terrifying. No one / will ever want to sleep with you.’
The kiss is the attempt to reach a compromise with desire.
Be the cowboy
Mitski titled her album “Be the Cowboy” as a joke, referencing something she tells herself, to ‘be the cowboy you want to see in the world.’ Subverting the role of women in typical Westerns, in which the woman only supplements the cowboy by adding the excitement of sex and romance to his story, the album’s title instead urges women to be the cowboy himself. Be the cowboy, with the swaggering way he rides into town and leaves destruction in his wake; be the cowboy, with his life of self-restraint and instability; be the cowboy, with his worldly knowledge and his reliance on himself alone; be the cowboy, for whom love doesn’t exist; who rides horseback through the desolation of America’s roads, searching only for one good kiss, and nothing more.
*For the sake of coherence, this essay takes for granted the lyrical content of Mitski’s past and present work and assumes that she is heterosexual. This is an asterisk to acknowledge that she is her own living person, with her own private life, that I would never claim to know anything about.
Cover image: Screenshot from the music video for “Washing Machine Heart”.