Music

Stop Asking Mitski if She’s OK

Her new music video is haunting, disconcerting, and 100 percent her.

A woman with short black hair wearing a white T-shirt sings into a microphone in her hand. She is leaning on a gray table onstage.
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

It’s happening: Mitski is back. Aside from a few collaborations and soundtrack appearances for other projects, it’s been over two years of radio silence from the now-31-year-old musician, who announced an indefinite hiatus from performing at the close of her most recent tour in 2019. She suddenly reactivated all of her social media accounts this past Monday to announce her return—albeit she herself remained off-limits to fans, instead ceding the Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram keys to her management.

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It was a shocking and exciting moment for those of us who have missed her in the intervening years, hoping that she was resting and recharging while we continued to inhale the music she’d left us with in the interim. Not only was Mitski back, we were told, but with only a 24-hour warning, she was to release a new song: “Working for the Knife,” which dropped last Tuesday and was accompanied by a music video, some mystery merch, and 2022 tour dates in North America, Europe, and the U.K. Both presale and regular tickets sold out almost immediately, indicating that her time away did not lose her any fans—perhaps, in fact, the opposite was true. More than a handful of her songs went viral on TikTok during the last two years, introducing her music to a whole new legion of fans.

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Clocking in at just over two-and-a-half minutes, “Working for the Knife” is an understated track, and while it may not be a pop-disco banger like her 2018 hit “Nobody,” it is a reminder that Mitski is a classically trained musician. The track’s relative subtlety is purposeful and powerful; it’s emblematic of what continues to lead some listeners to revisit and fall in love with tracks of hers they may have initially dismissed. There is a reason Iggy Pop once described her as “probably the most advanced American songwriter that I know.” An NPR headline from 2018 hailed her as “the 21st century’s poet laureate of young adulthood.”

For her grand return, Mitski offers us a simple framework that serves as an opportunity to highlight her knack for writing razor-edged lyrics, alternating certain words to drive home the symbolism of the very “knife” she laments. This metaphor could mean many things, from the conformity of a capitalist society to the obsolescence that comes from aging or internal pressure of perfectionism and mental illness. Mitski’s words could even be hinting at the external pressure of the music industry itself. In a willowy delivery, Mitski equates “living,” “working,” and “dying,” each regarding how we exist “under the knife,” and she leaves the door open for all to interpret this in their own ways.

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The music video for “Working for the Knife” is another beast entirely, speaking much more to her return as an artist in the public eye. Nobody—not fans, not the internet that continues to romanticize her— had seen the artist since she went dark after her final Be the Cowboy tour show in September 2019, held in New York’s Central Park. There’s no doubt that Mitski used her surprise reemergence to make a statement about what to expect of her music now that she’s back. But the visuals force us to reconsider our understanding of her, herself, too.

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At the beginning of the video, the handheld camera shakes like a camcorder in The Blair Witch Project, and we hear the steady click of spurred heels on concrete. Blurry, a figure in a black leather trench coat and matching cowboy hat walks out of the darkness and into view. The lens struggles to focus on her face as she walks away—but we know who it is. It’s the person Mitski seemed fated to become following 2018’s breakout Be the Cowboy, which earned her Album of the Year accolades from outlets like Pitchfork and Vulture. She told us that she wanted to “be the cowboy,” and what’s more cowboy than riding back in town after mysteriously disappearing from the limelight for a couple of years?

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Yet the getup is only a getup, as we find out. Mitski mimes one last drag from a cigarette and then pointedly sheds the outfit, leaving the cowboy behind to reveal an azure blue two-piece outfit. It’s a symbolic gesture and an explicit one; after her time away from the wanting eyes of her fans, the era of the cowboy is over. Who Mitski is instead plays out in the rest of the video, in which she embodies increasingly disconcerting choreography to portray someone who is not totally OK, it seems.

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The dancing that defines “Working for the Knife” may surprise more casual fans, but those who remember her live shows will recognize it. While physical performance has been important to Mitski’s act for years—recall her NPR Tiny Desk set, in which she belted into her guitar strings—she first introduced experimental dance movements into her live shows at the beginning of the long-running Be the Cowboy tour with guidance from the performance artist Monica Mirabile. The addition of choreography changed the experience of her live shows completely: Now, instead of the typical guitar-and-mic setup, there was robotic pacing across the stage, jerky bowing, jumping, and, most memorably, her signature hand interactions.

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By the time Mitski was wrapping up her tour just over a year later, in fall 2019, she was sporting spandex shorts and knee pads to facilitate her increasingly acrobatic choreography. There was now furniture for her to use as props, and she would even lay upside down on a tabletop at a certain point during the show, cycling her legs in a yogalike plow pose to the roaring approval of the crowd. The only time the artist ever spoke to the crowd was to introduce them to her band, her eyes looking straight out to the horizon. There was a well-oiled, machinelike quality to her routine; it was organic but rigid, expressive but restrained.

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Mitski is still using a mixture of performance art and dance in her music videos two years later, even after the indefinite hiatus she took that left her future up in the air. But now, something is different. In “Working for the Knife,” she enters a theater, where she licks a banister and crawls slowly down the stairs on her hands and knees, as if something is pulling her gently down to the stage before her, where the spotlight inevitably awaits.

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As the song nears its end, Mitski is poised onstage with her back to the empty room. The lights come on, indicating that this one-woman show for no one is over, and she stares wide-eyed into the camera, looking fearful for the first time. She sings the last lines of the verse, “I’m dying for the knife,” and mimes slitting her throat with one finger. When she falls onto her back, the camera retreats and the song is over.

In the silence, Mitski pulls herself halfway up from the floor and the atmosphere shifts. The spotlight cuts out to darker, more colorful strobing, and she begins to undulate her body, pumping herself up and down on her knees, reaching for her neck and then for the sky. It is here that we see the influence of the Japanese art of butoh in her choreography; the movements are now simultaneously lonely and sexual in nature—we’ve taken a turn toward something darker.

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“Is Mitski OK?” some fans asked, after watching this last part of the video. Many of the YouTube comments express excitement that she’s making music again and concern about her happiness. This possessed dancer is not the rested and recharged Mitski some were expecting to see. But anyone questioning the artist’s composure need only look at her career for an answer. Her Be the Cowboy song “Geyser” is a similarly self-possessed, intimate song, the lyrics of which might sound like she is declaring herself to a lover, but in an interview with NPR in 2018, Mitski revealed that it’s music and songwriting itself she’s promised herself to—these are the things that have always had the most importance to her. “I will be whatever it needs me to be,” she says. “I will do whatever it needs me to do in order for me to continue to be able to make music.” It’s this manic force that sees the five studio albums she’s put out before she’s even turned 30 and that propelled her through years of nonstop touring until she finally had to give herself a break from the momentum.

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As the video nears its end, we are subjected to the cyclical exorcism of this desire to keep going, the heavy breathing and thudding of her body as she throws herself around the stage with abandon. One second, she’s a deer in the throes of death on the side of the road; the next, she’s a cockroach, convulsing on its back. Unlike the rest of the choreography, which is controlled and measured, these last few minutes are ugly, primal, and vulnerable. When Mitski has collapsed for the last time, having fully exerted herself, she turns to the camera with a look of absolute euphoria.

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This final moment is what’s most telling about “Working for the Knife” and Mitski’s simultaneous return. The gap between the unconcerned cowboy of 2018’s album and the intimate hysteria of this latest physical performance may be too wide to reconcile for some, but it bears repeating that Mitski has always been in control. Everything she writes or performs is an extension of her mastery as an artist, no matter how sad or how chaotic some may call it. In interviews, she has often complained that critics who call her work “confessional” or “emotional” remove her own agency from the music she makes. At the end of the song, at the end of the day, at the end of the world, it’s not really important to her who is listening or watching. It’s always been about the music and what it does for her alone. Don’t be worried about Mitski. She’s more than fine—she’s doing what she loves, and she’s finally ready to share it with us again.

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