Cut Straight To The Heart: On Mitski’s “Working for the Knife” and Leaving My 20s Behind

Mitski Working For The Knife Music Video
Mitski in the "Working For The Knife" music video (mitski mitski/YouTube)

It’s being confronted with a world that doesn’t seem to recognize your humanity, and seeing no way out of it

– Mitski on “Working for the Knife”

When Mitski’s last full-length, 2018’s Be the Cowboy, was released, I was at the top of … well, if not the world then certainly my world: a thriving freelance career (I was making double digits — in Indonesian rupiah, of course — for the first time in my life), was with who I thought was The One™, and became a skinny legend, also for the first time in my life.

As someone who was constantly on the heavier side weight-wise — and it was always made clear to me how undesirable or even disgraceful this was — I reveled in the fact that I could fit into size 30 jeans instead of 42 or an S shirt instead of an XXL.

I had read somewhere that changing your eating habit would do the trick if you wanted to lose weight. And after a former friend had suggested that slimming down would make everyone who had rejected me “come crawling back” (his words, not mine), I thought there was no harm in trying. So I just went for it. And it worked! Or so I thought.

I didn’t realize this back then, but in hindsight, I find it funny and coincidental that Be the Cowboy’s second single and breakout hit “Nobody” contains the following line:

“I’ve been big and small,

And big and small again,

And still nobody wants me…”

In the ensuing three years, that line more or less defined my dating life. As my skinny self, I went out — or tried to go out, rather — with a slew of guys: that Australian social worker who was not The One™ after all, that locally-bred, Western-educated academic who ended up ghosting me, that Dutch executive who ended up sleeping with a friend instead, and eventually, that fake-pious Muslim boy who wanted to try being with a girl, having kids and making his parents happy. Yeah, sure. Very cool.

Nobody, nobody, nobody…

Mitski’s long-awaited return was a thoroughly amusing turn of events. Announced in the thick of the great Facebook/Instagram/WhatsApp outage (following her two-year absence from social media to boot), it premiered the following day, just a couple of days shy of my 30th birthday.

There’s always a lot to take in when you listen to a new release by your favorite artist for the very first time: How does it sound? What do they say in the lyrics? How does this compare against their last release or their previous lead singles? Does this live up to my expectations? Should it? Given that English is not my first language, I still struggle to fully focus on a song’s lyrics at first listen.  

As it turns out, the song is standard Mitski fare in all the good ways: steady, languid drums; icy, jagged synth lines; raw, discordant guitars; and of course, Mitski’s trademark airy, detached vocals. What had me dumbstruck from the very first listen, though, was this line:

Now at twenty-nine,

The road ahead appears the same.

Though maybe at thirty

I’ll see a way to change…

But with each increasingly manic replay of “Working for the Knife,” it became all the more apparent to me how Mitski is, yet again, singing about my life and all the larger-than-life aspirations I harbored over the course of my 20s: making the gay and Indonesian answer to the Before-like trilogy (“I cry at the start of every movie / I guess ’cause I wish I was making things, too”); releasing poetry books (“I used to think I would tell stories / But nobody cared for the stories I had about / No good guys”); and, of course, forging a career path in music, which I had willingly dropped out of university for (“I always thought the choice was mine / And I was right / But I just chose wrong”), none of which came about the way I had envisioned them to.

“It’s about going from being a kid with a dream to a grown-up with a job, and feeling that somewhere along the way you got left behind,” said Mitski of “Working on the Knife.” “It’s being confronted with a world that doesn’t seem to recognize your humanity, and seeing no way out of it.” When I first read this statement, I damn well near choked up. I was always excited to turn 30 and at the prospect of growing older and wiser, but with the ongoing pandemic and the climate crisis looming large, long-held rules and ways are practically out of the window. 

In a staunchly neoliberal and queerphobic nation, concepts like meritocracy and equality simply do not register. As a firm part of the sandwich generation too, I didn’t get the chance to experience my 20s in all the typical ways like having my own place, getting into a serious, monogamous relationship, and traveling domestically and overseas. As a consequence, I figure my 30s will not look like how the previous generations experienced their 30s either. At this point anyway, I just think there’s no being at the top of any world when everyone’s world is being turned upside down. Maybe having the Indonesian middle-class urbanite privilege is not too shabby after all?

What intrigues me the most is that Mitski, a bonafide sensation with constant critical acclaim, a too-cool-for-school reputation, and a groundbreaking presence as an Asian woman in Western indie rock, feels and goes through exactly as I — and so many people of my generation, for that matter — do. If that’s the case with someone of her stature, where does that leave the rest of us who are not a sensation of any kind, in any scene?

It’s all the more amusing, then, that I initially misheard “I’ll see a way to change” as “I’ll see a wave of change”. Wouldn’t we all love to see a wave of change? I sure would, whether in my own ways or the ways of the world, as my 30s unfold.

“Until or in lieu of a revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist system, how can we hope to lessen or prevent — instead of just temporarily stanch — burnout?” ponders BuzzFeed news reporter Anne Helen Petersen in her thought-provoking piece on millennial burnout. “Change might come from legislation, or collective action, or continued feminist advocacy, but it’s folly to imagine it will come from companies themselves. Our capacity to burn out and keep working is our greatest value.”

Here’s hoping that at some point the knife will finally be laid down to stop this collective, generational bleeding.


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