a jot about chekhov & mitski

We used to think of you as almost superhuman, but now the scales have fallen from my eyes and I see you as you are! You write on art without knowing anything about it. Those books of yours which I used to admire are not worth one copper kopeck. You are a hoax!

– Ivan (Vanya) Voitski, in Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life, by Anton Chekhov

In Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the titular character spends his life working to support his intellectual brother. Eventually Vanya becomes disillusioned about his brother’s intellectual prowess, then anguished. He wasted his life on someone else. In contrast, consider Mitski’s Bury Me at Make-Out Creek, soft and raw and strung with lines like the following atop reverberating guitar:

In the city, you make it there
and you make it
anywhere, anywhere,1
but I’ve been anywhere
and it’s not what I want.
I wanna be still with you.

– “Texas Reznikoff,” Mitski

I found the album on a bad day and cried during my commute, twice, once looking up to a sign saying: ‘Family Foot Care.’

The tone of the album is obvious. ‘Raw’ is often used in description, and I just used that as a description, but so much in music gets that label, it ceases to be a helpful adjective. A different attempt, less ‘raw,’ more mythological: it sounds like a mermaid discovered Joni Mitchell and Nirvana in a shipwreck and decided to play electric guitar and sing, wavering, about the boy she hopes will drown with her. A mermaid, yes. Because her voice is watery, because those are the womanly figures associated with destructive relationships (all those blue-lipped sailors), because even if she doesn’t drag him under it’s difficult to imagine how successful2 that relationship will be, because of the different things they are.

It’s chock full of references, but not in the style of Ezra Koenig, where the point of the reference seems to be simply the fun of it, the endearing frivolousness of a song about grammar.3 The title of the album is either a reference to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee4 or a reference to how the originating context of national travesty has dropped away, and either way, there is something about the choice of title that suggests much of its content. It is an album about knowing better than to love someone to the point of self-destruction, yet the narrator does. ‘Bury My Heart’ tells you this will be tragic; ‘Make-Out Creek’ tells you that she knows that the stakes are just one man, and kisses, and a tale as old as time. If it is frivolous, it isn’t because it is not deeply felt. And the references seem, to me, to be ways of qualifying this choice as not one made without ‘knowing better.’ Mitski’s narrator has read the big names, too. She’s heard all their advice. The emotional lows of the album occur despite advice about other ways to live. I found one reference particularly striking:

Wild women don’t get the blues,
but I find that
lately I’ve been crying like a
tall child.

– “First Love / Late Spring,” Mitski.

I got a sweet disposition, gonna wear my very own,
I ain’t never gonna spend not one lonely night
at home all alone.
I can go out, drink all the courvoisier I can find,
walk the streets all night alone,
and I can tell any man to go to Hell
if that man don’t know how to act right.
Wild women, we don’t never worry,
wild women never, never get the blues.

– “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” Ida Cox

Cox’s song is often taken as a feminist stand. You could read as a suggestion that doing everything you thought you ought to do gives women the blues, but acting exactly as you’d like, not how you ought, eliminates the source of sadness in a woman’s life. The source might be the endless list of oughts. The source might be the absence of choices about what to do — the oughts have it down. The source might be the expectation of perfect, angelic loyalty to one man, and the bind that puts a woman in when she stops caring for him.

I wrote a bit about what I consider good lyrics, and I described them as anthems for emotion — not mantras, because some of the best lyrics describe feelings I’d like to lose. Listening to Bury Me at Make Out Creek put a voice to a kind of martyrdom I’d been hiding lately, not thinking it was all the wise or relevant, which allowed me to feel that perhaps-unwise-perhaps-not-relevant lowpoint, and it makes me think about various conversations about the oughts in art. Videogames often feature combat, and the violence inherent in that combat is sometimes finger-wagged as sowing a seed of violence in the people that play videogames. Sometimes the response is that such games provide an outlet, either because we’ve all got a violent streak, or because some of us might have one, and a good game can let off that streak without really hurting anyone. But then there’s something to the suggestion that taking a piece of art seriously involves taking it as a suggestion about how the world is, or how you might behave in it. Defending the continuing existence of a piece of art on grounds of impotence is a failure to defend it as a piece of art.

So though this album scissored open a deep feeling in me, I wonder if the narrator and I would be better off without the sources of our deep feeling.5

Yet, the point that art can provide insight into life seems to be behind Mitski’s reference to Ida Cox. She heard the song, but even so, her life doesn’t quite look as described. Same goes for that “Texas Reznikoff” lyric, where the narrator denies Sinatra’s invigoration over success in a tough environment – she’s done that, and now she wants to curl into the afghan with you. In asking whether one ought to listen to this album, in a lovely double sense of the word, it’s important to consider that Mitski’s narrator is responding to a failure involved with learning something from those other songs. The tragedy of the album’s narrative is feeling something which ought to have been precluded by what you know. So if there is question about the value of this piece of art as imbued with, and allowing a listener to keenly feel, a kind of honest self-destruction, it seems key to consider how the narrator of the album became self-destructive after not being persuaded by powerful pieces of music. Someone who believes in the potency of art to persuade a person about how to live their life ought to be uneasy about Mitski’s work here.

I feel a similar sense of unease when I listen to Weezer’s ‘No One Else,’ off the Blue Album. The song is largely about the desire for a person who is defined by their adoration of you, so much so that they don’t even laugh at someone’s else joke. My dog loves anyone within ten feet, and sometimes I’ve looked longingly at the guard dog breeds that bond with one person, maybe. I get the sentiment. But it still seems like an unworthy desire, and you wonder at the kind of validation that desires get when they’re made the subjects of songs. Being artistically portrayed makes the feeling ‘real’ — I’m not alone6 –and because of that ‘reality,’ something no worth acting on.

…here comes this petulant, aggressive rocker acting like he ain’t some sensitive little guy. He starts telling you how whack his super hot girl is, but whatever, he’s on his way out, looking for someone better, more loyal.

These sensibilities were so contrary to the sweet, romantic existentialism on the rest of the record that, to my lovelorn teenage heart, it almost felt like a betrayal. That taken with the relentless instrumentation made it feel more like a bro song.

It wasn’t until I discovered that “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” was a follow-up consequence to being that selfish prick that I started to realize the gravity on “No One Else.” In the music itself, we feel the faux bravado and scary saber rattling that accompanies the lyrics’ insecurities. The gradual escalation of Pat Wilson’s frantic snare fills. Matt Sharp’s goofy acrobatic bass scale in the pre-chorus (that at he would eventual hone into a historical signature on Pinkerton). Even the debut of Brian Bell’s bratty, nasal backing vocals on the climax. They all reveal a tribe of little boys trying to hide their fear of rejection behind big noises.

– from “20 Years of Weezer’s Blue Album,” John Watterberg (of Dead Stars)

In the case of ‘No One Else,’ the track’s suspect quality is undercut by the other presences that Watterberg indicates, and certainly the core idea is different than the running theme of Bury Me At Make Out Creek. ‘No One Else’ features the desire to be someone else‘s ideal, their primary moral motivation; Bury Me At Make Out Creek features the desire to make someone else your ideal, the raison d’être of the young woman singing about that someone else, a commitment to a love that destroys you. In ‘No One Else,’ because the young woman fails to put her make-up on the shelf, because she laughs at other people’s jokes and laughs at them too loudly, she is denied value, and ultimately left in the dust. Poor treatment in Bury Me At Make Out Creek does not decrease any one’s value — instead, it becomes a challenge, to more perfectly accommodate the desires that underlie that very treatment.

Perhaps the master on the matters of no-holds-barred idealism is The Boss, and in particular Born to Run. It’s difficult to appreciate his hits on their own, because it seems unbelievable that someone could be so sincere about motorcycles and tramps, but he is. Born to Run begins with the following lines about music, and loneliness, and a plain woman:

“The screen door slams,
Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again.
I just can’t face myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside.
Darling, you know just what I’m here for,
so you’re scared and you’re thinking
that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright.
Oh, and that’s alright with me.

– “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen

“Thunder Road” is a subtle mixture of the angst of loneliness, of imperfect lovers, of art as solace but not solution. Ultimately, these are Mitski’s themes, too. She avows loving ‘you,’ yet there’s hardly an adjective to the subject — not even an obvious gender. One wonders, in the face of such powerfully avowed affections but such little apparent attention to object of those affections, if Mitski really valued that person, as anything beyond a placeholder for value. Though Sinatra and Cox had things to say about what she really ought to have valued, those claims came up empty.

That’s the trick, with art, and art appreciation as offering knowledge. If art really does offer insight, but not everyone gets it, well, what then? If someone fails to see the value in ‘making it anywhere,’ in being a ‘wild woman,’ is that failure on them, or is it somehow in the work, as either imperfect communication or as imperfect insight? There’s a way where Mitski’s self-immolation is a kind of self-assertion, because she acknowledges those works, but they failed to offer her the insights into value that would have prevented her from making her end-all be-all the neglectful ‘you’ of the album.

The choice to ‘go down with the ship’7 seems like one of many bad solutions as to what one ought to value as their end, or goal, in life. A wild woman could value her own pleasure, but that choice has to contend with the question of why one’s own pleasure ought to matter so much, particularly when other people rarely make your pleasure their exclusive goal. Same goes with our competitive Sinatra, who might wonder at the constant effort required for New York City success, whether it’s really success, and is he successful, and if so, why does he have to work so hard?8

Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes,
unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery
serving something beyond me.

– “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes

You might make yourself (perhaps your own pleasure, perhaps your own excellence) your goal in life, or perhaps you’d like to be a small part of something very large. “Helplessness Blues” came out right after I’d graduated college, and it elegantly presents a temptation that I think those with a little luck can feel. They have a choice about what to do; they’d like to do what is best; which thing is best to choose to do? No matter what sort of value one selects, there seems to be difficult questions that will remain, perhaps about why that choice when there are other options, or perhaps why that choice when no one else sees it.

Uncle Vanya is about that sort of question. As said, Vanya spends the majority of his life working hard so that his brother can achieve academic success — but now Vanya considers that a mistake, being more familiar with both his brother and his brother’s work. Note the ‘Uncle’ in Uncle Vanya. His brother’s daughter, Sonia, is sweet-tempered and ugly and hard-working. She has the final words of the play, where she responds to Vanya’s despair:

Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile—and—we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith… We will rest.

– Sonia, in Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life, by Anton Chekhov

Unlike Vanya, whose further acquaintance with his brother ruined his ability to believe in him, Sonia believes in something she cannot have evidence against. She believes in an afterlife that will reward her for perfect effort, where she may rest.

The search for rest, and the right way to value endless effort, are classic existentialist themes — and classic rock-n-roll. When I listen to this album, I think about those themes, and I think about why someone would choose to make an awful lover have ultimate importance in their life. Vanya picked his brother’s scholarship as the most important thing in his life, which he tried to support in any way he could; but in choosing a person, rather than Sonia’s intangible afterlife, as the goal for all of his efforts, and the justification of his suffering for those efforts, he choose poorly. The choice of a tangible item meant that Vanya could consider whether or not his brother in fact was up to snuff, and when Vanya looked closely, he wasn’t. A great deal of Chekhov’s work seems to consider the temptation to make someone, or something, of the utmost importance, and I think Sonia’s speech explains this temptation. As Nietszche said: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” No matter what you choose to do, there’ll be pain involved. You want to believe that all that pain, all that trying, was for something, in the end. Yet the choice of what makes effort meaningful doesn’t stop the anxiety of whether or not that really was the thing you ought to have chosen; one desires a rest from those sorts of questions, to choose well and finally, as well as a rest from effort full-stop.

In ceasing the search for value and choosing ‘you,’ Mitski has given into both senses of rest. There are few lines questioning her choice, and perhaps that’s part of why we learn so little about ‘you,’ about why it is that she is willing to die for it.

And die she does.

You wouldn’t leave till we loved in the morning.
You’d learned from movies how love ought to be,
and you’d say you love me and look in my eyes
but I know through mine you were
looking in yours…

I always wanted to die clean and pretty,
but I’d be too busy on working days.
so I am relieved that the turbulence wasn’t forecasted
I couldn’t have changed anyways.
I am relieved that I’d left my room tidy.

– “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” Mitski

The end to the open question of value seems to often be connected in art with the end of a life. Part of why the album is so touching is because its central fantasy is terribly familiar, both historically and personally. Star-crossed love ain’t nothing new, and that existentialist squirm to pick something to value haunts all of us. Mitski’s voice is breathy, soft, pitiful at points and then a snarl among a tangle of electric guitar; the emotional variety appropriate to the narrative is mirrored with the right musical variety. When listening to it, I wondered about what an appropriate record review would look like. Do I mention who she’s emulating? Do I make historical claims? When I read reviews, that’s what I see, but I don’t have those details, and I don’t know where to look for them in Mitski’s case. Yet, even lacking insight to the musical history which leads us to Mitski’s, lacking insight into whether or not this is sonically ‘fresh’ despite its familiar theme, I think this is an album worth listening to.

It is also dangerous.

Bury Me at Make Out Creek presents a woman who makes a disputable romantic choice while fully acknowledging that dispute. She makes a judgment about value, knowing that others will question it, but commits to it. If art really does present insight, and the insight here is that this choice is endorsed and endorse-able by you, then this album is dangerous because choosing self-immolation is dangerous. But if I’m right about the existentialist temptations underlying this choice of a doomed romance, then part of that temptation is ceasing investigation into value, and failing to listen to Mitski is a failure to investigate whether or not she’s right about what to value. The narrator’s temptation is the listener’s temptation when faced with powerful pieces of art. To turn it off, and stop seeing a real question in the avowal that she listened, but just didn’t see why she shouldn’t move forward. To stop seeing a real question about what to value, even if one does commmit.

Country music features several women objecting to a certain kind of story. Let me leave you with the most famous, and the most famously mis-interpreted:

Stand by your man,
and show the world you love him.
Keep giving all the love you can,
stand by your man,
after all, he’s just a a man.

– “Stand by Your Man,” Tammy Wynette

If only Vanya had known.

  1. In a moment, I’d like to say more about this, but here is one of the many references in the album, and it seems to me that part of how Mitski employs these references is as pieces of purported knowledge in art.

    If I can make it there,
    I’ll make it anywhere.
    It’s up to you, New York, New York.
    – “New York, New York,” Frank Sinatra

  2. As Futurama brilliantly pointed out.
  3. Consider the following OED definition, featuring some of the song’s sentiment (“Who gives a fuck about an Oxford Comma?”):

    Oxford comma n. {after the preferred use of such a comma to avoid ambiguity in the house style of Oxford University Press} a comma immediately preceding the conjunction in a list of items.
    1978 P. Sutcliffe Oxf. Univ. Press iv. i. 114 It was {F. H.} Collins who invented the ‘Oxford comma’, for which he obtained support from Herbert Spencer.
    1990 Orlando (Florida) Sentinel (Nexis) 9 Nov. a2 Do you know what an ‘Oxford comma’ is? One that precedes a conjunction. As the one between the ‘b’ and the ‘and’ in: ‘a, b, and c’. Hardly anybody uses the Oxford comma anymore. It’s rarely needed.
    1996 R. W. Burchfield New Fowler’s Mod. Eng. Usage (ed. 3) 162/1 The ‘Oxford comma’ is frequently, but in my view unwisely, omitted by many other publishers.
    2004 B. Wallraff Your Own Words 109 This is called a serial comma or, sometimes, an Oxford comma, and styles differ as to whether to use it.

  4. Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, by Dee Brown. An except exhibiting some of the original tone:

    “I want to say that further you are not a great chief of this country. That you have no following, no power, no control.” Logan continued, “You are on an Indian reservation merely at the sufferance of the government. You are fed by the government, clothed by the government, your children are educated by the government, and all you have and are today is because of the government. If it were not for the government you would be freezing and starving today in the mountains. I merely say these things to notify you that you cannot insult the people of the United States of America or its committees …the government feeds and clothes and educates your children now, and desires to teach you to become farmers, and to civilize you, and make you as white men.
    – Senator John Logan, 1883

  5. A favorite bit of The Republic seems to reflect caution about what you learn:

    Thrasymachus: And how am I to convince you, he said, if you are not already convinced by what I have just said; what more can I do for you? Would you have me put the proof bodily into your souls?
    Socrates: Heaven forbid!

  6. Art has to be a kind of confession. I don’t mean a true confession in the sense of that dreary magazine. The effort it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people. This has happened to every one of us, I’m sure. You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discovered it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that they are alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important. Most of us, no matter what we say, are walking in the dark, whistling in the dark. Nobody knows what is going to happen to them from one moment to the next, or how one will bear it. This is irreducible. And it’s true for everybody. Now, it is true that the nature of society is to create, among its citizens, an illusion of safety; but it is also absolutely true that the safety is always necessarily an illusion. Artists are here to disturb the peace. They have to disturb the peace. Otherwise, chaos.

    – from a 1961 interview with James Baldwin

  7. In the 2007 game Passage, the player moves without instruction across the game, occasionally finding boxes, some with stars, some empty. The boxes are difficult to reach, and the stars are not tabulated at the end of the game, not at the top of the screen, nor in comparison with other players. Nothing more powerfully demonstrates the potential emptiness in achievement.

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