MITSKI MIYAWAKI has something to say about labor. Loosely enveloped in a genre known for taking umbrage with the 9-to-5 (“work sucks, I know”), the mononymous 33-year-old prophet of alternative rock has a more pronounced bone to pick with the relationship between labor and love in her most recent release, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We.
Damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t, Mitski loves her job in a way that has been killing her since at least her fifth studio album, Be the Cowboy. The folk/rock/pop luminary’s seventh album, The Land Is Inhospitable and So Are We is an intimate foray into that slow death. On previous projects, she has hinted at and even decried the facade that is the Spotlight, but on TLIIASAW, she takes us by hand and leads us into the darkness, only to uncover for us her secret fluorescence.
The 11-track TLIIASAW clocks in at just over half an hour but wastes no time in staging the battlefield where the singer’s personal and professional lives duke it out. It is a war for truth, the future, and the icon’s legacy as much as it is a struggle to make it to the end of the day. Mitski boasts a mellifluous, clear voice in sound and meaning, relying more on the open space left by relatively simple musical stylings than the instrumentation itself. Her voice is strong and sound but also inviting and warm. It allows seamless travel between folk-rock and country, with even stints of smooth jazz, all in the name of underscoring the contradictions by which she is defined: sincerity versus commercialism; connection versus profit.
Sifting through these inconsistencies with Mitski is a welcome obligation for fans left unsure of the artist’s future in the media and entertainment industry. In 2019, Mitski ended a show in New York’s Central Park with an ominous “indefinite” farewell to live music. In early 2022, she released Laurel Hell, a bold if slightly disordered collection of relationship woes, with lead single “Working for the Knife” setting the tone for resentment of others’ expectations (those of her partner, her fans, and her industry managers). In interviews following the album's release, Mitski revealed her growing frustrations with the constant cycle of exploitation levied by the industry, even for someone as commercially successful as she. “It’s funny. People keep telling me that I’m the boss . . . But I don’t feel like the boss. You know?”
The music industry’s profitability has always relied on the exploitation of artists. Labels pressure them into predatory contracts, royalties are calculated in convoluted ways that result in meager residuals, and artists are often left with little creative freedom over their work despite it being the very product labels are selling for their monstrous profits.
On top of these longstanding practices, streaming is now king in music distribution. In 2020, streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music took home over 60% of total music industry revenue. Without the guarantee of revenue from physical records and albums (which still paled in comparison to the take-home of record labels), and with the decline of royalties in the streaming age, many artists have to rely more heavily on touring and selling merchandise to make ends meet.
But the fiscal capacity to front-load a tour is fleeting, even for established acts. Trailblazers of experimental electronic-pop Animal Collective announced they were canceling their 2022 European tour due to “an economic reality that simply does not work.” The financial plight of musicians is everywhere. In 2021, the UK’s Musicians Union garnered signatures of over 150 artists in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanding streaming economy reforms, citing complaints of artists making 15% of streaming revenues compared to 50% of radio revenues. Artists running the gamut of fame are decrying industry exploitation.
Despite a propensity to avoid scandal or levy accusations, Mitski has been a leading voice in the commentary on industry exploitation. After the release of Laurel Hell, fans were left to speculate if the artist would ever make a return. Two months before the release of TLIIASAW, however, she put their apprehension to rest with a statement in her mailing list explaining she was there to stay after renegotiating her contract: “Ultimately, I recognized that I really want to keep making music, and I’m willing to take the difficult stuff with the wonderful stuff — like any job, or relationship, or worthwhile thing in life.” While the public may never know the details of these renegotiations, it is hard to imagine a contract that severs the equation of Mitski as a “product.”
Mitski may have more financial stability than smaller artists at this point in her career, but the power dynamic is still present: She is beholden to the contractual obligations created by her label, and the distribution of her music is tethered to their whims. Additionally, along with the unusual level of financial success reserved for the industry’s brightest stars comes another degree of subservience: meeting the expectations of her ever-growing fan base, who have reviled her for as little as politely asking them to be present and limit phone recordings at shows. She has learned the hard way that ticket sales and glowing reviews are not reciprocal to the care with which she has inundated her art.
TLIIASAW explores these realities. Can Mitski ever really be free as an artist? At the album’s breaking point, Mitski approaches the brink and reels it in with a steely answer on “The Deal:” Freedom and soul are intrinsically entwined, and she has already sacrificed the latter to The Business.
Reminiscent of a family therapy session reaching catharsis, album opener “Bug Like an Angel” breaks the cold, hard truth that for Mitski, moving up in the industry meant self-betrayal. Over soft strums, she asks knowingly, “Did you go and make promises you can’t keep? . . . Amateur mistake / You can take it from me.” She continues the feeling of disillusionment on dreamy track seven, “My Love Mine All Mine,” declaring, “Nothing in the world belongs to me / But my love, mine, all mine, all mine.” For Mitski, fulfillment and wholeness have never come from the success she does not own, but from the love she is still able to eke out after being milked like a cash cow.
Denunciations aside, Mitski’s sense of self is sustained by the industry. At one point she may have been able to break free – but at this point in her career, the artist’s defining asset is her engrossment in her craft. She clings to it for dear life on “I Don’t Like My Mind,” begging, “Please don’t take this job from me,” after illuminating the utility in throwing herself into work to drown out her memories. Work is a lifeline in maintaining her sanity, and yet it obliterates the things that make her human: memories and connections. Opening with near Jefferson Airplane-level stridency, “When Memories Snow'' also relegates memories to burdens, with Mitski dreading the day she breaks down and is forced to confront them.
The only hope of making it out alive of such a reckoning is by garnering the adoration and validation of the hordes of fans inside her head. On “Buffalo Replaced,” she portends her own obsolescence, bitterly accepting the cyclical status of a "freight train stamped in' through my backyard” which will “run across the plains like the new buffalo replaced.” Her rise may have been meteoric, but it will not last forever.
One day, Mitski predicts, she will be exposed as the fallible individual, ripped away from the symbol of the musical tour de force that has changed so many of her fans' lives. “I’m Your Man” reconciles with this fall from grace: “One day you'll figure me out / I'll meet judgment by the hounds.” More aware of her flaws and the false pedestal onto which she has been hoisted than most mega-stars, Mitski is still repentant for failing to live up to the adoration she did not ask for.
As Mitski perceives the nefarious exploitation cycle of the industry, she recognizes the toll it has taken on her psyche and her positionality to the world around her. And yet she cannot help but emanate love alongside the exhaustion and disenchantment of being Mitski. “Heaven” is a lullaby difficult to choke down without tears — a melancholic love song whose power lies underneath the surface. Recalling Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven is a Place on Earth,” the ambling third track posits that heaven is a mundane, lived experience. An old coffee mug left out by a lover is Mitski’s apotheosis – its fleeting nature makes it all the more worth reveling in. On “Star,” hope rides the waves of the singer’s powerful crescendos that summarize the album’s playful dance between bursts of energy and control. The love she found with the subject is larger than life and temporary all at once. “Isn’t that worth holding on?”
TLIIASAW demonstrates the futility of working for love and engulfing one’s work with love. Mitski has done both and received little in return, save for bad faith accusations from fans and contractual obligations that had her rethinking her life’s calling. TLIIASAW exists in a world where critical socialist thinking about labor has empowered workers not traditionally involved in labor organizing to make the same connections to their own work.
TLIIASAW can be applied in conversation with Sarah Jaffe’s 2021 book, Work Won’t Love You Back. Jaffe argues that workers’ dedication to their jobs ends up biting them in the long run, much as Mitski’s has. Jaffe takes care to cover not just the typically represented tradespeople in discussions of exploitation, but athletes, care workers, interns, and artists as well. Many hear complaints of exploitation by stars like Mitski as frivolous disregard for the real tribulations of low-income workers, those living paycheck to paycheck, those who do not have the privilege of speaking out against a system controlling their economic and creative freedom. Her qualms, however, are universal, and disseminating them in interviews, statements, tweets, and most saliently, her music, is an effective way of engaging the masses.
Workers who do not reap the full fruits of their labor, including successful musicians, are in the same struggle: to overturn capitalism’s model of economic distribution. TLIIASAW is an arresting defiance of that model, and if Mitski is right about her eventual banishment from the industry’s limelight, her contributions to the conversation about love and labor will outlive her career.