On Mitski and the Revival of Recorded Live Shows

Image credit: David Lee. Photo collage: Kapp Singer / Yale Herald

Countless acts have performed on MTV’s ‘Unplugged’ in the 1990s and early 2000s, saturated with groundbreaking performances from the greatest in live music. In 1992, a young Mariah Carey proved that her voice was natural, shutting down skeptical critics. In 1993, Nirvana performed the most chilling acoustic rendition of “Where Did You Sleep Last Night”, originally by Leadbelly, where Kurt Cobain delivered a frightening scream at the songs’ climax. 

Though MTV ended ‘Unplugged’ in 2009, NPR began a similar program just a year before: Tiny Desk Concerts. These live performances originated when Bob Boilen, host of NPR show All Things Considered invited folk artist Laura Gibson to perform at his literal office desk after he was aggravated he couldn’t hear the performer over a loud crowd in a bar just the night before. After Gibson’s concert in 2008, NPR began inviting other artists to the set for a performance.Tiny Desk Concerts began as one of the most popular concert video series since ‘Unplugged.’ Since then, NPR has not only hosted popular artists such as Adele, Taylor Swift, and Hozier, but rising stars like Nao, Blood Orange, and Moses Sumney as well. 

During these trying times, Tiny Desk Concerts have been getting me by. Before moving to New Haven, I lived in New Brunswick, a college town home to Rutgers University and home to a great underground music scene. Though the shows were small, attending them and dancing and headbanging was an experience. I miss how it feels to be in a concert and watch live performers.

However, NPR has fortunately continued Tiny Desk Concerts from home during quarantine with even more hype. Starting in March, with all my extra time, I found myself tuning into every single new episode of the series. 

Even though I often know little about the artists featured on most of Tiny Desks’ “Home Concert” series, it’s still very entertaining. Obviously, it doesn’t exactly feel the same as attending a real live show. You can’t dance with a group of other fans,  you don’t attain a personal connection with the artist. For our current circumstances, though, it was more than enough to satiate me. To pass the time, I would even pick through the archives to unearth  old episodes of Tiny Desk. I enjoyed St. Vincent’s performance of “Los Ageless” and “Slow Disco”, as well as Angel Olsen’s warm rendition of “White Fire.” 

However, the best surprise was when I finally clicked on Mitski’s 2015 show. For all these years, I was unaware that one of my favorite artists had a Tiny Desk Concert, and what followed was magical. 

Usually artists introduce themselves to the crowd and online viewers, but Mitski began this show by strumming her guitar, her voice following behind the notes. I instantly recognized the opening sounds of “Townie,” arguably her most popular song at the time. She sang, “I want a love that falls as fast as a body from the balcony, and I want a kiss like my heart is hitting the ground.” From the beginning, the show was unsettling—in the best way possible. I was genuinely freaked out. On the studio version of “Townie” that appears on her 2015 album Bury Me at Makeout Creek, the song ends with, “I am not gonna be what my daddy wants me to be.” However, she ended this with a lyric never heard live before: “I want to be what my body wants me to be.” Mitski’s voice was full of anger, and her face irately reflected the agony of the subject matter “Townie” touched on. Still, I sang along, thrilled for what song Mitski was playing next. 

With the sounds of Mitski tuning her guitar offering only a brief interlude, the final lyric of “Townie” quickly transitioned into opening notes of “Class of 2013,” a vengeful track directed to her mother. For the first verse, Mitski sang looking down, making no eye contact with the crowd or the camera. As the song picked up, Mitski furiously strummed on her guitar. By the chorus, Mitski,in an act equally remarkable and disturbing, picked up her guitar, held it to her head, and loudly sang into the instrument’s pickup. “Mom, would you wash my back? This once, and then we can forget …  Mom, am I still young? Can I dream for a few months more?,” she yelled, the pickup amplifying her voice. 

I was wonderstruck. Her sheer voice could jar me, but the moment with the guitar and the pickup left me amazed. Mitski’s scream echoed Kurt Cobain’s during Nirvana’s ‘Unplugged’ set decades earlier. It’s eccentric moments like these that make recorded live shows captivating. I could not peel my eyes off of my screen, even after she put the guitar around her shoulders again. It was around this part of the performance when I began to wonder if Mitski was okay at the time of this Tiny Desk. I worried for her, though this set was recorded years ago. When the song finished, she uttered a small “Thanks” before taking a drink of her water, the only word thus far that Mitski had said outside of the lyrics. The crowd roared, deservedly so. Her performance was breathtaking; to see it live must have been shocking. I was amazed just watching the show from my own dorm room. I had no idea how Mitski was going to top that. Until she began to play “Last Words of a Shooting Star.” 

Now, personal emotional trauma that its caused me aside, this song is raw. Its personal meaning is left to be interpreted by the listener, but at a surface level, it’s a song about being relieved that you cleaned your room before you died, so that the people who came to get the body would never know that you spent your time there hating yourself. 

For this final performance, Mitski actually introduced the song. By the chorus, she stared directly into the camera. “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,” she sang, her hazel eyes piercing through the camera lens the entire time. On the final word of the song, “Goodbye,” Mitski did a half bow, picked up her water bottle, and walked away with a small grin on her face. 

Even with whatever demons she was battling at the time, Mitski was able to cathartically carry out her hits for Tiny Desk Concert. She turned these songs, most of which would reasonably be called “sad” when listened to alone, into a frightening experience. Her smirk grew into a smile by the time the video ended, as though she didn’t just tragically sing some of her most heartbreaking hits. This performance both astounded me and reaffirmed my love for Mitski. The ability to perform your music while adding distinctive features and qualities are why recorded live shows are so important, and Mitski’s Tiny Desk set proves that. 

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