Billboard is celebrating the 2010s with essays on the 100 songs that we feel most define the decade that was — the songs that both shaped and reflected the music and culture of the period — with help telling their stories from some of the artists, behind-the-scenes collaborators and industry insiders involved.
Indie singer-songwriter Mitski is an expert at making technical proficiency sound punk. Her music is graceful and jagged, elegant and chaotic at once. “Your Best American Girl” communicates in the parlance of ‘90s alternative bands like Weezer, as an acoustic strum slowly builds into an explosion of distortion. But her voice’s crystal-clear enunciation cuts through all the fuzz.
“Her music is adventurous. The way that she performs is adventurous and experimental,” says Ashley Connor, the cinematographer on the acclaimed “Girl” video. “And she’s willing to adapt and grow.”
“Your Best American Girl” is a love story about a couple from different worlds who can’t make their relationship work. The narrative is refracted through a series of metaphors, and her lyrical devices mirror the distance of their cultural divide. You could almost say they’re star-crossed lovers, but she’s “not even a star.”
Metaphors trade removal for meaning, obscuring the object through a figurative stand-in. “You’re the sun,” she sings, “you’ve never seen the night.” Even when she addresses her lover, she still sings about him indirectly. Their cultural upbringings are simply too far-away to keep them together, even in a lyrical setting.
Critics wove “Your Best American Girl” into larger narratives about sticking it to “the white boy indie rock world.” It’s a reading that’s emblematic of the tension between the interpretive richness of her work and the expectations of confessional songwriting tacked onto women, which came to head toward the end of Puberty 2’s album cycle. In a Facebook post, Mitski set things straight: “I wasn’t trying to send a message. I was in love. I loved somebody so much, but I also realized I can never be what would fit into their life.” Still, it’s hard to deny that her success was a refreshing variant of indie-rock stardom that proves it’s a good thing when acclaim isn’t only reserved for the white boys.
If the arrangement played with male-centric tropes, the music video was more of an ode to women that came before her. “It was kind of referencing old PJ Harvey videos,” Connor says, “the sort of ‘woman with guitar and nothing else in a white space.’”
In the captivating clip, Mitski pines for a conventionally attractive hunk, who is swept away by a long-legged “babe” — which prompts the singer to break away with a guitar in tow. It’s tempting to read the visual as a journey from romantic longing to self-fulfillment. But that’s not exactly what director Zia Anger initially had in mind.
“I really wanted to create a scenario that first made your heart ache, then represented what one might do to deal with that heart ache,” she says. “When I was trying to figure out what Mitski should do at the end of the video, I think I asked Ashley, ‘whats the most don’t-give-a-fuck thing she could do right now?’ And Ashley said, ‘shred.’”
The director pitched the shoot by filming herself acting out the thumbnail-worthy moment when Mitski kisses her own hand. It’s a scene that echoes the line, “kiss your fingers forevermore,” putting a literal spin on the lyrics. “It takes a very specific performer to look at that video that she sent her and say yes,” Connor says. The musician — described by Anger as “trusting, fearless, and exact” — threw herself into the role.
“And at the end of the take, the entire crew, everybody just stopped and clapped for her,” Connor adds. “Zia and I just kind of looked at each other like, ‘F–k yeah, man. That’s how you do it.’”