I am a piano lesson dropout. Despite my parents’ best wishes, the only keyboard I touch these days is on my laptop and the only tune I know how to play is the storied “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” So this column, ostensibly centered around not only bangers but also bops, will not be about chord progressions or the history of music genres. Rather, it’s an exploration into lyrical content and an excuse for me to overshare (quirkily).
It would be a gross underestimation (and misinterpretation) of Mitski Miyawaki’s songwriting prowess to say that “Your Best American Girl” (2016) is a romantic pining anthem. While the single on her fourth album begins with Mitski crooning, “If I could, I’d be your little spoon/And kiss your fingers forevermore,” it progresses into a ballad that cuts to the very core of the Asian American experience.
“Your Best American Girl” is about more than a singular romantic relationship and more than Mitski wishing to be with this “all-American boy.” Throughout the song, Mitski is not only mourning the loss of a potential boyfriend but also the loss of the American Dream, accented with riffs from a distorted guitar.
For most Asian American communities, the American Dream has been defined by assimilation. Ideally, we name sons after Jesus’ 12 apostles and daughters Esther or Grace; we go to college and we’re all mathematicians. This blueprint that the Asian American community has often followed has made us become the so-called model minority. Besides the offensive assumption that other communities of color should follow in our lead, it is even more troubling that for some, this label is a source of pride. However, despite the denigrating title of model minority, we are still firstly defined by race, not nationality.
Assimilation is not about deconstructing the hierarchy that privileges whiteness but about trying to assert proximity to whiteness. In the Supreme Court case Ozawa v. United States, Takao Ozawa did not challenge the racist law that prohibited the naturalization of Asians. Instead, his argument was that Asians were “free white persons.” This is where Mitski enters the conversation. With the line “I guess I couldn’t help trying to be your best American girl,” Mitski summarizes the Asian American journey to assimilation.
The track builds up to a layered, loud heart-breaking chorus where Mitski declares that the differences between her and this man cut deeper than that he’s “the sun” and she’s “the moon“; they are inherently racial. Her use of “all-American” is a loaded gun. By evoking the imagery of the WASPy high school linebacker, contrasted with “your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me,” she can assert that there is an in-group and out-group relationship: even in the supposed post-racial American melting pot.
Her conclusion that she “finally” approves of herself is larger than that the approval of the all-American boy’s mother doesn’t matter. By declaring that the (dis)approval of this mother is irrelevant, Mitski is advocating for the idea that the worth of people of color is not dependent on whether or not they are accepted by white America. Whether or not proud “model” minorities are willing to accept this, the truth is that the approval of Asian Americans has always been conditional and tied to the idea of subservience. Despite every attempt to be the good kind of immigrants, proximity to whiteness is not and should not be construed as equality.