I went to a fancy release party the other night. There were lots of beautiful, well-dressed people there—gorgeous Hollywood actresses, heads of networks, front-page writers, rising socialites. Booze and food flowed freely.
But as euphoric as the party was, I left halfway through, feeling hollow, and miserably musing with my friend on our main insecurities. He said his height. I said my Asian-ness, which caught him by surprise.
It’s not that I don’t like being Asian-American, or am ashamed by it, or have faced any real hardships from it. It’s just the simple fact of otherness. And that feeling of otherness emerges especially in rooms like those, with High Powered, Very Important and Beautiful and Famous People. The farther into those rooms I get, the less those rooms look like me or have ever looked like me or anyone in my family, and the more I feel my otherness emanating through the eyes of the room. My white friend didn’t realize it, but these interactions always feel like an uphill battle, in which I have to outcharm and outsmart him and everyone else to feel like I simply belong there.
Which is why Mitski’s new music video, “Your Best American Girl,” is one of the most important and poignant videos I’ve ever seen. The topic is ostensibly wanting love, but moreso about wanting American love, but moreso about wanting to be a white man.
Which means that Mitski has one more “affliction” than me: she’s both alien AND female. And “Your Best American Girl” is a furious, epic fight to shatter that kind of thinking and write new standards. But the old ones have been around for 240 years, and they’ve burrowed painfully, soul-crushingly deep.
In the video, Mitski wants the love of the American Boy. The American Boy is sexy, and because he knows he’s an American Boy, there is nothing that could possibly undermine his sexiness. He’s unshaven, his hair disheveled, with a ratty sleeveless tee, and his charisma is effortless because his existence is effortless, just like try-less idols before him, from James Dean to Harrison Ford to Matthew McConaughey.
Mitski, on the other hand, is trying very hard. Being ready for her close-up means eyeliner, makeup, conditioner, spray, a hot red power suit, cleavage. And at the beginning of the video you believe that despite her clear initial discomfort in the male gaze, she’s ready to meet him as an equal.
And then the Real Best American Girl shows up.
And the Real Best American Girl is a girl I’ve fallen in love with many times before. She’s curvy with an elegant gait and unblinking eyes; she is part of a tradition of American beauty passed down from the summer of love era; she is the prom queen, the sorority sister, the hippie muse, and every girl in the “Bad Blood” video.
And with a piercing stare, she makes Mitski look at herself and see her skin tone through the lens of others, which is to say, that there is something wrong with her, that no matter how much beautiful stuff she puts on, she will never be as classically beautiful as her counterpart.
So Mitski does the only thing she can do: she loves herself as fiercely as possible. And it is only when she turns inward, and begins to gently kiss her own hand, that her spellbinding screen presence, as well as the bitter, soaring chorus crushed by overdrive guitars, emerge with full force. The next time she looks directly into the camera, she’s armed with a smirk and a guitar. It’s not a gaze that is apologetic or asks for anything. It’s the self-created, self-motivated piercing stare of a new iteration of superstar.
This is how a lot of narratives would end. Protagonist is wronged; protagonist finds inner strength; protagonist ascends to previously unimagined heights.
But the Best American Boy and Best American Girl remain, entwined, without cares or inhibitions, playing with bubbles, lollipops and goofy sunglasses. Mitski might not need them, but they definitely don’t need her: their beautiful lives go on, and they will always get their screentime, and each other. And they remain, entwined, as Mitski walks forlornly off the set, out of the camera’s gaze, but still drawing the wary eyes of everyone else in the production room, who are all white.
So Mitski can play the fiercest solos, and write the best songs, and hear cacophonies of “YAS KWEEN.” But when the show is over and the lights go off, there will always be the lingering otherness that pervades every interaction. And that alienation—like the distortion of her guitar and vocals—is dense, and crushing, and gaspingly sad, especially when worn on such a strong woman.
But while Mitski is still on the outside, she can become a center for the rest of us. And maybe, if we take her lead, there will be a point in the future when we learn to love ourselves as passionately as the Best American Boy and Best American Girl—and in the process, take their place.