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Mitski, Misinterpretation, and Asian American Identity

Photo via Sophia Evans

Japanese-American, Indie-Rock musician, singer-songwriter, birth mother of breakdown songs, there is a litany of words that could be used to describe Mitski. The breakout musician has risen to a new level of popularity recently, despite being wildly popular since her debut album “Lush” released in 2012. You might even be familiar with Mitski’s music. Even if you have never heard of her, her song “Francis Forever” was performed by everyone’s childhood cartoon crush; Marceline from “Adventure Time.” Whether you like it or not, you’ve probably heard her music. She has a unique sound, lyrics that speak to a lot of listeners, and let’s not forget, a powerful voice that makes her music instantly recognizable. All of these components make for a hot, catchy, and infectious music career. Her most popular songs today “Nobody,” “Washing Machine Heart,” “Me and my Husband,” “Strawberry Blonde,” and “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” are among her most widely misunderstood songs.

To understand the grievous misinterpretation of many of her more popular songs, we first must understand why people enjoy her music. There is ample reason behind her critical acclaim: one diehard Mitski fan, Lucia Sano, says they relate to the music “because it’s sad, and emotional without being pretentious.” The same goes for a lot of teenagers today, with many of her songs sparking huge TikTok trends that sweep the internet. Her music resonated with modern teenagers dealing with complex emotions during quarantine, and it definitely reflected in the social media app most heavily associated with today's teens. Multitudes of her songs created their own trends, but none were more influential than “Strawberry Blonde.”

To preface this statement, I do not seek to paint anyone as openly or intentionally racist, nor of possessing ill-will. My issues with some of the interpretations of the song lie in their lack of context, not their quality or anything of that sort. “Strawberry Blonde” and its bright, sunny feel already made it quite popular in the “cottagecore” subculture, specifically among women-loving-women. There is nothing wrong with this surface level interpretation, all of Mitski’s songs don’t have a set way to interpret them, but knowing the context by which they are written aids in understanding them. The reality of “Strawberry Blonde” is not a soft, idyllic tale of a domestic life, barefooted exploration, and bee-keeping. It’s about Asian-American desirability in conjunction with white romantic desirability. This isn’t a latent theme in the song, the singer expresses that “All I need, darling / Is a life in your shape / I picture it, soft / And I ache” when addressing a strawberry blonde companion. The song continues as the singer “follows the white lines” in an attempt to keep the person she loves and have them abandon the pursuit of her fair haired rival- who she knows she’s bound to lose to.

This confusion between song tone and content becomes quite troubling when the internet is set ablaze by “Strawberry Blonde” parodies that atomize its complex topic of how women of color are time and time again seconded in favor of white women. In favor of superficial understandings of the song, many opted to rewrite the lyrics of “Strawberry Blonde,” replacing blonde with some kind of woodland creature or furry livestock and making the lyrics vaguely reminiscent of the song by replacing some of the more specific lyrics with some allusion to the animal it’s about. The most famous parody, and the one that started it all, “Strawberry Cow” by@_bbgril_ on Tiktok laid the groundwork for hundreds of parodies, and further misconstrued the meaning of the song.

Now, don’t misinterpret the intentions of this writing, there is no anger at the creators of these parodies, nobody should express genuine hatred towards someone who simply didn’t understand the contents of the song. I am not angry, I’m just disappointed. Disgruntled dad statements aside, I see the many, many parodies of “Strawberry Blonde” as a missed opportunity to have meaningful conversations about race and beauty in the western world. Mitski has several songs about Asian American identity that didn’t reach nearly as much popularity as “Strawberry Blonde,” and I personally looked forward to more conversations about Eurocentric beauty standards when this song went viral. Much to my chagrin, these ideas were neglected by many white listeners in favor of the happy-go-lucky melody, and little to no critical interpretations were discussed with the wider audience.

Another one of Mitski’s songs that isn’t half as popular as “Strawberry Blonde” is “Your Best American Girl,” a song with a much stronger message about how women of color aren’t seen as viable romantic partners in delineation with the American dream. Even with the explicit representation of these ideas in the song and music video, it surpasses many white viewers, often being read as a “why won’t he choose me” song, even when that question has already been answered. So, next time you put on a Mitski song, remember that she is a Japanese-American, Indie Rock musician, singer-songwriter, and birth mother of today's best breakdown music.

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