Distancing #59: Be the Cowboy - Believer Magazine
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Distancing #59: Be the Cowboy

by Madelyne Xiao
October 19th, 2020

Upon hatching, the nymphs of the periodical cicada, genus Magicicada, retreat underground for two to seventeen years to prepare for their final metamorphosis. At the end of this term, they re-emerge in such perfect synchrony that each adult brood, on its own cycle of n years, is assigned an identifying number. 

Brood IX reentered this world last May. By then, I had returned to suburban Maryland to shelter in place with family, and it was my mom who mentioned the cicadas to me offhand. Remember those cicadas you saw in the park when you were in the second grade? They’re back. She was right, in a sense; the past summer’s cicadas were the offspring of the Magicicada septendecim adults I’d encountered seventeen years earlier.   

In the first week of June, Brood IX was everywhere evident but nowhere to be seen. The air thrummed with their courtship songs; their nymphal exoskeletons remained tacked to tree trunks long after the adult Magicicada inside had fled. When they began to die all at once, four weeks after they’d come, the sidewalks were suddenly speckled with their bodies. They were ungainly, but not without a certain beauty: their walleyes were bright red, their wings laced with fine orange veins. I mourned them and wondered at the simple absurdity of their seventeen-year wait. Soon, I had replaced their chorus with the music I’d been listening to before Maryland. This was Mitski, mostly, because there is no one like Mitski for making sense of alienation, of the confusion that comes with emerging shiny and dumb into a world that feels too cynical for shininess or dumbness. 


Mitski was supposed to play her last concert on September 7, 2019 at Central Park Summerstage. After that show sold out in an hour, she added another for the following night. I’d bought tickets to the September 7 concert and felt a little cheated: nobody talks about the gig the Beatles played before the Apple Corps rooftop. I went with three friends, one of whom had turned me on to Mitski a year earlier by way of “Nobody,” from Be the Cowboy. Then, as now, I was taken in by the song’s first verse, its lyrical tattoo: “My God, I’m so lonely / So I open the window / To hear sounds of people / To hear sounds of people.” 

By Mitski’s own account in a 2018 Genius interview, “Nobody” was the consequence of an unhappy homecoming to Malaysia, where she’d spent part of her childhood. She returned to Kuala Lumpur in her twenties, hoping for the easy intimacy that familiarity breeds, and found that the city and its people had grown away from her, and she away from them. She responded by withdrawing even deeper into her own alienation. At the time of the song’s inception, she was crouched on the floor of her rented room, in a “semi-fugue state,” beseeching the people beyond her wide-flung windows for connection. 

At Summerstage, Mitski was stoic, her movements carefully controlled. Each song was accompanied by sequences of poses that might be described as yogic—they were executed so deliberately—though most of them defied categorization. She leapt up and down in tight circles during a guitar solo in “Townie,” the impact of her feet coinciding with the thud of each downbeat. Her sole props onstage were a table and a chair, which she manipulated with a calculated ferocity: at the end of “Geyser,” she upturned the table and shook it by two of its legs, her arms pumping in perfect rhythm. 

The audience, interpreting these choreographed fits as some kind of incipient breakdown, screamed in anticipation of emotional pyrotechnics that never came. I was rabid for her to give any indication that, in moving us, she couldn’t help but be moved too. Proximity aside, half the draw of live shows is the schadenfreude of seeing your idols in a state of blissed-out discomposure—mascara smudged, sleeves darkened with pit sweat. I held out hope that Mitski’s voice would crack at the crux of the next melodic line, that she might shoot the shit between songs (“How’s everyone feeling tonight!”). But when she finally spoke, it was in the same crystalline tones that colored her vocals. “I’m so grateful to you all,” she said during a lull in the program, as though we’d turned out to help her move apartments in the middle of a New York City summer. 

Months too late, I read a New Yorker profile of Mitski in which she speaks frankly of her aversion to the kind of pump-up playacting designed to whip crowds into a frenzy. I learned, too, that her choreography was a nod to butoh, a form of Japanese dance theatre. Her onstage persona began to make sense. “What really just eats at my soul is that I’m actively being consumed as a person,” she says of her interactions with fans. “It’s not just my music that’s being consumed.”


My first thought was of her Summerstage performance of “Two Slow Dancers,” a sad, slow ballad about old loves revisited, and the first of two encores she played that night. A downtempo song gave the audience no outlet for the mania accrued over the course of the concert, so we shuffled our feet and waited for something to happen. 

And something did happen, after the first chorus: I realized that a guy standing three feet away from me had begun crying, his shoulders heaving with the force of his sobs. The crowd flexed invisibly around him, the way the air in a room shifts with the moods of its occupants. My secondhand embarrassment dissolved into envy as he cried through another verse, oblivious or indifferent to the attention he was drawing. 

With most live performances, there is an unspoken expectation of mutual exchange: a singer sings and her audience screams, each throwing fuel on the other’s fire. The crier had circumvented this equation entirely, had discovered that the easier way to idol-worship, requiring nothing of the idol herself, was complete emotional prostration. 


In the New Yorker profile, Mitski mentions that she desires connection with her audience, but only so much. (“The devotion of strangers freaks Mitski out.”) There’s probably a moral to be extracted here about the uncanny energy of crowds, maybe even a neat callback to the periodical cicadas, but what I return to is how much I miss both, now that the cicadas are gone. These losses are easier to mourn than the real tragedies in the news, so I bother them again and again, like loose teeth, resurfacing the same conclusions each time: that the guy who cried during “Two Slow Dancers” got more out of the performance than anyone else did because he’d felt everything and demanded nothing; that the next time Brood IX emerges I will be forty years old. Before her final concert in Central Park, Mitski said she wasn’t retiring, only resting, so I like to imagine her quietly thriving during quarantine. I like to think she has retreated to a nameless town and spends her time reading books and humming to herself, nursing the beginnings of a new album. Or not. Maybe the prospect of returning will become less appealing to her the longer she’s away. If she does return—in her own time, in a manner of her choosing—I’ll be there to listen. 

— Madelyne Xiao
Frederick, MD, day 178

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