Music

Mitski Asked Fans to Put Their Phones Down. Then Things Got Ugly.

The notoriously private artist started a very public debate about who’s really calling the shots.

A woman in a red dress lies on her back with her eyes closed and holds her hands palms out in front of her face
“Pls turn your phones off, they’re hurting my eyes.” Ebru Yildiz/Dead Oceans

On Thursday, Feb. 24, a note appeared on indie musician Mitski’s Twitter account. “Hello!” it read. “I wanted to speak with you about phones at shows. … Sometimes when I see people filming entire songs or whole sets, it makes me feel as though we are not here together.”

It was a simple request, one that the average music fan would likely scroll by without so much as raising an eyebrow. Live music, Mitski continued, offers “the feeling of connection, of sharing a dream, and remembering that we have a brief miraculous moment of being alive at the same time.” But when her fans watch her perform live through their phone screens, she said, “it makes me feel as though those of us on stage are being taken from and consumed as content.”

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Despite the post’s unobtrusive nature, it triggered a fiery debate. But in the combative, hyper-emotional world of Mitski fans, the response it garnered comes with the territory.

While Mitski wrote the note, she wasn’t the one who actually uploaded it to Twitter: Her management team now runs her social media accounts, after the artist quit both social media and touring entirely in 2019. In the years before then—before she was a mainstream music darling topping “best of” lists—Mitski kept an active online presence. But after years on the road touring with her 2018 album Be the Cowboy, she took a hiatus from the public eye, only to reemerge two years later to release Laurel Hell, a gloomy synth-pop hallucination of an album that dropped this February.

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The pushback her innocuous Twitter note received might explain some of why Mitski chose to withdraw from her fans, and everyone else, in the first place. In response to her plea to put the phones down during her current tour, followers lashed out. One Twitter user replied, “Bestie that’s great and all, but some of us have mental health issues that cause dissociation & i film to remember the moment i’m not looking at my phone the entire time just to press record on.” Other fans piled on to that sentiment, claiming that ADHD and depression necessitated their reliance on their phones. Eventually, the response grew so fervent and negative that her management team deleted the tweet.

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Soon, a different set of fans leapt to Mitski’s defense, arguing that artists have the right to request that audiences put away their phones, and that Mitski was far from the only artist to have made that ask. While banning the use of phones entirely may be excessive, Mitski simply did not do that—all she asked for was respect for her own privacy and comfort during her performances.

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As in many fandoms, the connection many of Mitski’s fans feel to her is often intense, and you’ll find plenty of intense posts about her on social media. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a fan to only semi-ironically tweet something like “the only god i worship is mitski.” There’s also a multitude of Facebook groups and forums dedicated to her, in which fans post everything from tattoos of her lyrics to paeans to the artist herself. While these places mostly consist of memes and ticket requests, they’re not averse to entertaining controversy. That includes one group moderated by a fan whom Slate spoke with, which is appropriately named “do you really want to disappoint mitski?” Over the years, members have debated everything from whether white fans dominate the conversation to the veracity of rumors about her. Today, however, the group is relatively free of controversy, perhaps because it’s actually moderated and, like much of Facebook in comparison to other social media platforms, populated by a subset of fans who are extremely defensive of the artist.

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“As people who say they’re Mitski’s fans,” said the moderator Slate spoke to, “we know that she’s been off social media for so long, and a lot of that had to do with feeling commodified by the listeners and people at shows, and feeling like nothing was really hers, or personal information wasn’t sacred anymore.” Other fans Slate spoke to echoed the moderator’s sentiment, connecting the criticism Mitski received for her ask on Twitter to a sense of entitlement and ownership that a subset of the artist’s fan base tends to exhibit. This parallel cropped up on Twitter, too. “Some of the responses to the mitski phone tweet really highlighting how fandom trains ppl to think of artists as products they have a right to consume,” wrote one Twitter user, “and not human beings they’re in communion with.”

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Currently, the most visible of Mitski’s fans tend to see her music, and by extension her persona itself, as a cathartic vehicle for their own angst, fostering deep personal connections. Mitski is acutely aware of this relationship: “I am a musician, but the reason they really pay me the big bucks is to be the place where anybody can put all of their feelings, their ugliness, that doesn’t have a place in their own lives,” she told the Guardian in February 2022. “I’m like the black hole.”

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But the degree to which fans attach their personal feelings to Mitski has led to a number of splits among her fan base. These factions—those who appreciate her for her diversity within indie music, those who use her as a symbol of teenage depression and anxiety, and everything in between—have only deepened as her music becomes increasingly popular, particularly on TikTok. That particular app has been another place where these disparate takes on what Mitski represents have played out, thanks to Mitski’s music going viral on the platform.

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Her song “Nobody,” for example, started to appear in a trend in summer 2020, where users run away from their problems (or, alternatively, from healthy relationships) as the song plays. “Strawberry Blond” soundtracks countless cabin, picnic, and otherwise “cottagecore”-style videos. One current trend puts the label “The Mitski Shuffle” in front of montages of people having various sorts of mental breakdowns. Mitski’s TikTokification has earned her a number of Gen Z fans for whom she has become, as put in a New York Times article last month, “something of a meme, a vessel used by other people to feel deeply, or talk about feeling deeply.”

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Where this has left Mitski herself is in a unique position, especially as someone who maintains such a private persona. While it’s common to stereotype the fan bases of certain image-based bands and artists—a Metallica fan might be a black-haired middle-aged punk on the Port Authority, for instance—the stereotypical TikTok Mitski fan is a figure that deviates greatly from Mitski’s self-presentation. On social media, the stereotypical Mitski fan is generally considered to be a teen or twentysomething who uses the artist as a symbol of some kind of aestheticized mental illness. Perhaps she’s a deeply depressed teen girl who spends all of her time in bed crying to Mitski’s music and retweeting her popular lyric bot on Twitter.

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Mitski, for her part, is not always comfortable in her role as a digital patron saint of agony. In a March 2022 New York Times profile, when asked about her particularly visible sect of emotional Gen Z fans, she said that she wished she “didn’t have to perform pain and struggle to be valued,” specifically the “screaming, most expressive, outgoing, adolescent pain” that she’s become a symbol of.

Mitski’s hyper-emotive TikTok subset of fans aren’t exactly universally well-liked across the internet, and critics of this stereotypical Mitski fan also note the sect’s whiteness as another factor in the fandom’s ill repute. For example, an ongoing debate among fans concerns the fact that “Strawberry Blond,” a song that references feelings of inadequacy in comparison to a blond white girl, has become one of the main soundtracks to white users’ cottagecore content on TikTok. “If mitski decided to cancel all her shows and never perform again i’d support her fr these yt tiktok girlies ruining the entire experience for everyone,” wrote one user in response to the Twitter incident. “I’m so convinced yt girls who make listening to mitski a part of their whole ‘sad girl aesthetic’ do not actually read her lyrics or watch her interviews or even care about her,” wrote another. Mitski, who is Japanese American, has also criticized her tokenization as a rare woman of color in the indie rock scene—another request that has largely gone unheeded.

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Not every Mitski fan is like this, of course. “You hear people criticizing Mitski fans and rolling their eyes at the stereotypical Mitski fan,” said the Facebook group moderator. “They’re just the ones that make themselves the most visible.” Of course, stereotyping and minimizing entire groups of fans also minimizes the complexity and humanness of the individuals that compose these groups. Still, the most visible fans are the ones who set the tone of the fandom, and in the case of the Mitski fandom, then, the artist herself has been reduced to an emotional symbol, in order to prioritize the emotional impact she has left upon the listeners. “As happens with stars, people seem to love the idea of Mitski as much as the fact of her,” wrote Jia Tolentino in a 2018 New Yorker piece. But as with other artists often considered for their image and branding over their personhood, the idea of Mitski and the fact of Mitski are two wholly separate things, and the flattening of them into one person may be what makes Mitski’s recent Twitter backlash particularly dispiriting.

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In Mitski’s case, the commodification of her persona over her personhood can divert the conversation away from her music and toward arbitrary categorizations of her identity and her fans. Mitski herself has spoken out about the consequences of commodification many times. “Every day, all the time, is exploitation,” she said in a January 2022 interview with Vulture. “You can’t be a human being. You have to be a product that’s being bought and sold and consumed, and you have to perceive yourself that way in order to function.”

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And yet she has continued to create in spite of it all. And despite all their infighting, there is one thing that defines Mitski’s fans, even when they disagree on how to stump for their favorite artist: Mitski is, above all else, most celebrated for her art. “When I say I love Mitski, I do appreciate the persona she has put into the world,” the Mitski Facebook group mod said. “But certainly, my love for Mitski did stem from my love for her music … for the relationships that I have fostered under direct influence of Mitski. So many Mitski fans I’ve created personal relationships with have been like-minded individuals and wonderful people, but in order to find those people, you have to have a high filter to avoid the scarier Mitski fans out there.”

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Fortunately, Mitski is not on social media to see any of this. Instead, she is as always focused on her music, which is nuanced and mysterious, sometimes atonal, always complex. It reaches deep, cutting through the barriers of screens and through the walls most of us put up, tapping into—as Mitski wrote in the post that started all this—all the feelings that are part of this “brief miraculous moment of being alive at the same time.”

Of course we will always be documenting, deconstructing, filming, and critiquing our favorite artists. But ultimately, Mitski’s request that fans spend a little more time being present with her music, instead of trying to capture and analyze her through some kind of lens, will always be worth considering.

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