Mitski Miyawaki doesn’t look like the average indie-rock artist. She is celebrated not only for her music, released under the mononym Mitski, but for being one of the first and most prominent Asian-American women in the music industry. Breaking into the predominantly white and male music scene proved to be no easy feat, and Mitski dedicated herself wholly to her music, acting as a singer, songwriter, pianist, guitarist, and bassist. Since the release of her first album in 2012, she has risen to fame for her catchy tunes and impressive guitar skills that hide melancholy lyrics and dark themes underneath. Her goal isn’t to make people cry; she wants listeners to understand the thought and experience behind her songs, to understand what it is exactly that makes them so sad. A notable example of this phenomenon is her song “Happy”, the title acting as a sort of paradox to the lyrical content. Seemingly superficial and melodramatic based on lyrics alone, the music video adds another layer of depth to the meaning, creating a short film with talented actors, beautiful imagery, and a biting narrative. Mitski uses her music video to analyze and further explain what goes into her lyrics. In “Happy”, she uses visual metaphors to connect the unhappiness she describes in the lyrics to her real-life issues of being multicultural in a monocultural environment.
The lyrics depict Mitski’s cyclical unhappiness as she tries and fails to find joy in relationships with others, in this case, a sexual partner. Falling into a trap of forever chasing happiness that she can never achieve; she becomes more and more obsessed with the pursuit. “Happy” uses personification to turn Mitski’s happiness into a physical entity, one that is ever elusive and disappointing. The song opens with the lyrics “Happy came to visit me”, comparing happiness to a person that flits in and out of her life, but doesn’t stay for long. Mitski is dependent and desperate for any moment of affection or relief from her misery, as she would “do anything” to feel “happy come inside of me”, furthering the personification of her own happiness and creating a sexual double entendre. She is overly reliant on other people, projecting her hopes onto them only to be left disappointed and depressed when “Happy” ultimately abandons her. He leaves without saying goodbye to her, leaving only “wrappers” and “empty cups of tea” that she “again (has) to clean”. These empty cups and wrappers connote once-great relationships and experiences that are now empty and unfulfilling. She now has to live with her sadness and pick up the pieces or “clean” the mess of her heartbreak. Because Mitski has put all her stock into another person, she is emotionally drained and unable to have self-compassion or self-worth, telling her fleeting happiness that “when you go, take this heart / I’ll make no more use of it when there’s no more you”. By giving away her heart to someone who clearly doesn’t care about her, Mitski is giving up completely and resigning herself to a life of unhappiness. It is only human to seek validation in others, but ultimately unfulfilling. It is impossible to achieve inner satisfaction while basing self-worth on other people who may or may not remain in our lives, yet we as humans crave contact and attention, thus repeating the vicious cycle.
Unlike the song’s lyrics, however, the “Happy” music video is more scornful and self-assured than weepy and wistful. It exemplifies Mitski’s struggle as an Asian-American woman unsure of where she fits in in either culture. In contrast to the lyrics’ message, the video tells the story of a woman overcoming societal pressures and expectations in a radical act of defiance. The video opens with an interracial couple made up of an Asian woman and a white man. The man is dressed in a soldier’s uniform, a symbol of American compliance and national pride. The woman sticks out as a foreigner, dressed in a cheongsam, a traditional dress popular in China and Japan. The setting appears to be somewhere in the mid-19th century, based on the vintage style of the clothing and home decor. This time period is one where tradition was of great importance; expectations for women and people of color were strictly enforced. Women were expected to be submissive to men, to take care of the home, to do as they were told. People of color were severely discriminated against and looked down upon, and a relationship between a white person and a person of color was considered unacceptable. Thus, the woman is rebelling against societal norms right from the beginning, with only her existence. She continues this trend when she is shown as clumsy and dissatisfactory in a position of servitude, tripping and spilling cups of tea when she tries to offer them to her husband. The theme of the harmfulness of American beauty standards comes into play around halfway through the video, when the female main character learns that her husband is cheating on her by discovering a clump of blonde hair on his clothes. Later, she finds a purse that she assumes is a gift to her, but bears the embroidery “To my blue-eyed cookie”. As an Asian-American, these are standards that she will never be able to live up to, a representation of whiteness and its superiority. Her husband, and the rest of America, chooses whiteness over the woman and her perceivably imperfect, inferior race.
Feeling unwelcome in American culture is a recurring theme throughout Mitski’s discography, and one she has discussed at length. Half-Japanese, half Caucasian, she struggles with an internal conflict between the two cultures, having one foot in both worlds but belonging to none. She grew up with a diplomat father and moved from country to country, starting over in a completely different culture almost every year. Isolated, she felt that “everyone else just thought I was different and weird … I just didn’t make sense to anybody”. Mitski expresses those fish-out-of-water feelings in the video for her breakout hit “Your Best American Girl” as she laments that she will never truly fit in as an American. She looks on forlornly as the white object of her affection rejects her, instead kissing another white woman under an American flag. The artist described the idea behind the song as “wanting to fit into… American… life and simply not being able to. Just fundamentally being… different”. Just as the real-life Mitski feels discomfort in her identity, the woman in the “Happy” video cries, feeling inadequate and alienated because of her race.
The music video takes a dramatic turn towards the end, representing these feelings of abnormality in an explicit extended metaphor. The woman ventures downstairs after seeing a bright golden light emanating from the basement of the house. This light feels almost holy, a beacon of light guiding her towards something, contrasting starkly with the scene she finds at the bottom of the stairs: her husband stands over the mangled corpse of the woman he cheated on her with, bloodied and holding an axe. The gory scene provides shock factor as well as connects the emotional violence of America’s racist beauty standards to physical violence. The husband, as a man, holds the power in that he gets to decide which woman is beautiful and valued, and which one is not, and that power indeed has the capacity to kill. As he removes the murdered woman’s jewelry, the main character realizes that he has given her the same ones, further emphasizing her position as second-best, an afterthought. The woman begins to flee, but is unsuccessful, and engages in a physical struggle with the man. She is eventually able to free herself, but not without engaging in violence herself; she strikes him with the axe, killing him. The ending of the video’s narrative differs from that of the lyrics in that the main character, presumably representing Mitski, is able to free herself from her societal oppression, while the real Mitski is not. At the end of the song, she is in the exact same emotional state as she was at the beginning, repeating the same dispirited, slightly self-pitying lyric: “And when you go, take this heart / I’ll make no more use of it when there’s no more you”.
A deeper meaning to “Happy” can be found in the music video that isn’t immediately apparent in the lyrics alone. The lyrics capture a feeling that reads as an extremely raw and personal account of heartbreak, but lacking in growth or change. While Mitski’s main character does experience some heartache, the video is inspiring, a testament to the strength and resilience of oppressed people everywhere. The woman’s rebellion against societal expectations of race, gender, and beauty is a form of resistance to the oppressive politics of the 21st century, as well as a message to viewers and fans: whatever’s holding you back, you are capable of overcoming it. The “Happy” video is unique in that it functions on both a micro and macro level. It simultaneously tackles the history of oppression in America and its modern-day effects and tells a personal, heartfelt story of a lost love. As Mitski stated after the song’s release: “The personal is political and the political is personal”.
Written by Julia Beecher