IN A SMALL VENUE, I watched Mitski perch on a white chair behind a white table, fold her hands, and start to sing emotional ballads.
The 29-year-old musician was performing in Carrboro, N.C., from her fifth studio album, Be the Cowboy. It’s one of my favorites from 2018 and plays with the American cowboy mythology in its loneliness (“My God, I’m so lonely ... still nobody wants me,”) and longing (“I just can’t be without you”).
I expected a typical concert, hearing favorite songs and seeing Mitski’s personality. But I was jarred by the lack of emotion she showed. The entire time she sang, her face was resolute and hardened, a seeming contradiction with her heartrending lyrics.
Second, she danced sensually, even while her face remained impassive. She wore nothing “sexy”—a white T-shirt, biker shorts, and kneepads—as she executed carefully choreographed sequences. But she leaned forward, slanted her hips, and flicked her hair. She climbed onto the table and spread her legs toward the audience. Yet she never broke a smile, never performed the emotion of eroticism.