Today’s Song: Mitski’s “Working for the Knife” Reminds Us That Behind Every Artist There’s a Human Being, Not a Jester

working for the knife
It’s time we finally talk about pain exploitation in music, and how it affects artists. Mitski starts the conversation with her latest song “Working for the Knife”
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Listen: “Working for the Knife” – Mitski

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Art is the perfect medium to vent and let your deepest thoughts come out, we all know that. An artist could make music just to let the world know how happy they feel at a particular time in their life, like Laura Mvula did on her latest record Pink Noise. They could also choose to take their pain and turn it into timeless works of art as Lorde did with Melodrama. Songs full of pain (as well as negative intense emotions in general) are quite a peculiar case because they trigger a sort of addiction mechanism in listeners. Ironically, the sadder a song is, the more we crave it, the more we listen to it, the more we want tracks full of raw truths and pain. Mitski perfectly speaks about pain exploitation in her new, all too real, single, “Working for The Knife.”

working for the knife
Working for The Knife – Mitski

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

A stage, an exhausted artist on the floor who won’t stop dancing; She kicks, jumps, and writhes, in a dance that takes away all her energy and makes her collapse onto the floor again. It is a requiem, a swan song, a silent call for help. Around her, there is only an eerie silence. This is how the music video for “Working for the Knife” ends, in a grotesque but meaningful scenario. The oppression of the knife is heavy and can be felt in every powerful second of the piece.

It’s a type of oppression that comes from within and without, born from a sadistic society and dreams that risk becoming nightmares. If we add to this scenario the need to exploit and monetize pain, this knife is no longer a mere burden that Mitski carries around. It has now hit her (or the character “Working for the Knife” refers to, at least), and she doesn’t know if she will ever be able to take it off.

It would be reasonable to wonder why it is so difficult to close this wound and let it heal. You should let yourself live in peace without demanding too much of your abilities. However, you can’t make a living out of making music if it is not listened to. And, as music listeners, we all know too well there is nothing that attracts more than real pain. Mitski is well aware of this. She even mentioned (speaking of “Nobody”) how difficult it was for her to exploit her own mind, her own heart, her whole being. Art has become a prison that looks like freedom, and this can only result in an immense sense of frustration and feeling stuck in a situation with no visible way out.

What to do when what you love doing makes you feel mentally and emotionally exhausted, but this is the very side everyone loves about you? You start feeling like a jester, a martyr sacrificing your own well-being in hopes that it will lead to something good. And if something good does come, is it worth it?

Mitski © Ebru Yildiz

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How worthwhile is it to work for the knife and endure the wound, if you end up dying because of it? After all, the protagonist of the song goes so far as to lose her authentic self just to please others and be able to make money, she starts the day high and then gets at the lowest point in her life. The same thing happens in the “Working for the Knife” video, where a gorgeous Mitski walks through a theater with grace and elegance, only to end up floundering on the floor, on a stage that literally takes her breath away.

I cry at the start of every movie
I guess ’cause I wish I was making things, too
But I’m working for the knife
I used to think I would tell stories
But nobody cared for the stories I had about
No good guys
I always knew the world moves on
Just didn’t know it would go without me
I start the day high and it ends so low
‘Cause I’m working for the knife
I used to think I’d be done by twenty
Now at twenty-nine, the road ahead appears the same
Though maybe at thirty, I’ll see a way to change

That I’m living for the knife
I always thought the choice was mine
And I was right, but I just chose wrong

I start the day lying and end with the truth
That I’m dying for the knife

Let me be clear, for a moment. I’m not saying that you should never listen to Mitski or any other artist who makes sad songs, absolutely. They’re all works of art, made accessible to everyone in order to be listened to, appreciated, overly analyzed. However, it wouldn’t be a bad thing to remember from time to time that behind every song, behind every artist there is, first of all, a person. Just a human being who’s telling us their most intimate thoughts summed up in just two or three minutes.

It’s a rare privilege to be able to listen to them and create a bond with the artist, so demanding more and more painful art can’t be good for anyone. Treasure every piece you get to discover, every second spent listening to it. For an artist, this awareness (together with some affection, which could never be enough) can be far more important than we think.

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Listen: “Working for the Knife” – Mitski

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