The last time Mitski performed in Milwaukee, we were living in a different world. Donald Trump was president, people were eating Tide Pods, and Zoom was most commonly known as a wacky PBS Kids show. Back then, things were a lot different for Mitski, too. The prolific singer-songwriter had performed an angsty, intimate set in front of a 300-person crowd just months before the release of her career-trajectory-changing album Be The Cowboy. It was clear the Japanese-American musician was ready to embrace mainstream success beyond glowing Pitchfork reviews and small venue gigs.

These days, it’s hard to talk about Mitski without mentioning TikTok. During the pandemic, the polarizing video app propelled Mitski’s fame to new heights. “Strawberry Blonde” was anointed the cottagecore lesbian anthem, while a short clip from “Nobody” was used thousands of times for whatever THIS trend was. Her signature “sad indie girl” music was being heard far and wide, and her Spotify stream counts continued to climb into the hundreds of millions.

Hours before Tuesday night’s show even began, it was clear how much TikTok fame had changed—at the very least—Mitski’s audience. When Mitski performed at The Back Room @ Colectivo in 2018, the crowd was mostly 20- and 30-something “angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion” fans. This time around, hundreds of teenagers donning shiny black Doc Martens and faded denim jackets spent their Tuesday afternoon waiting outside the Miller High Life Theatre—and it’s likely many of them came right after school. (It’s possible some might have even skipped school to camp out. Rock on.) There were even a few pint-sized, prepubescent fans standing in line with perplexed parents in tow.

When doors finally opened, Mitski’s army of eager fans filed into the venue and waited patiently for her to take the stage. New York City-based Michelle kicked things off with some high-energy harmonies and plenty of soft choreo. The collective, whose sophomore album dropped just last week, was clearly excited to be playing in front of such a huge crowd and eager to please the 4,000 people in attendance. Their sugary-sweet vocals and R&B-infused beats had audience members immediately on their feet.

Even though they were clearly trying to impress, the group’s excessive stage banter bordered on cringey at times, with one member making an eye-roll-worthy Wayne’s World reference. Another asked the crowd if they were ready to party like it was 1999, prompting one fan in the audience to ask, “Were they even alive?” There was also something extremely jarring about hearing a group of women dressed like early-aughts Disney Channel stars singing the lyrics “Fuck me like it’s the end of the world.” Awkward moments aside, their TLC-inspired sound and Y2K-influenced style undoubtedly charmed the mostly Zoomer crowd. It’s safe to assume they gained a few new fans after their lengthy opening set.

When the ever-ethereal Mitski finally took the stage, there was an immediate vibe shift throughout the theater. All eyes rested on the songstress as she began her set with “Love Me More,” a poppy, synth-driven track off her most recent release, Laurel Hell. Her famously cryptic lyrics set the tone for the rest of the night as she scratched her skin while belting, “I wish that this would go away, but when I’m done singing this song, I will have to find something else to do to keep me here.”

After a bewitching performance of the bleak “Me And My Husband,” Mitski stopped and addressed the crowd. (This would only happen one other time during the 90-minute set: when she said her goodbyes.) “I wanted to stop and say hello,” she explained, “because for the rest of the show I will probably be in character.” Mitski the person—the reluctant indie superstar—is extremely protective of her privacy offstage, and that carefully crafted fourth wall served as an invisible set piece throughout the night. Mitski the musician—the character—is certainly theatrical. Her girly-girl dress was a dead ringer for the poofy pink frock worn by Liesel in The Sound of Music, and while it was hard to tell from the balcony, it looked like she was wearing Capezio jazz shoes.

However, those jazz shoes weren’t simply an aesthetic choice. Eagle-eyed audience members probably noticed Mitski’s black knee pads as she stretched and crawled across the stage. Her complex choreography was equal parts sharp and graceful, almost mime-like in its grandeur. She swept the floor with an invisible broom during “Happy” and played air guitar during “Drunk Walk Home.” Mitski’s singing and songwriting are both worth the price of a ticket alone—but her one-of-a-kind choreography elevates her concert to a more complex piece of performance art.

One of the show’s most powerful moments was during “Nobody.” A lone white spotlight shone down upon Mitski while she sang, “Oh God, I’m so lonely, so I open the window to hear sounds of people.” Her voice in person sounds nearly identical to her voice on tape, and her longing is just as present live as it is in her recordings. Even her most tragic tracks, like “I Bet On Losing Dogs,” sound equally sorrowful when there are thousands of people singing along with her.

The setlist was a perfect mix of Mitski’s most viral hits (“Washing Machine Heart,” “First Love / Late Spring,” the aforementioned “Nobody”) and some deeper cuts (“I Don’t Smoke,” “Once More To See You”). After nearly every song, the stage went completely dark—adding yet another dash of theatricality to the show. The brief resets made the setlist feel like a storybook, allowing audience members to fully process what they just experienced before moving on to the next chapter. The set felt like a Mitski retrospective, a carefully curated journey through her 10-year musical career. Parents who came to the show with (or were dragged by) their kids may have walked out newfound Mitski fans. After all, they can probably relate more to the 31-year-old musician’s lyrics than their 11-year-olds can.

Earlier this year, Mitski told Crack Magazine she’s never been on TikTok and doesn’t understand why her music is so popular on the app. Last night’s set didn’t provide any clues. Frankly, it’s disrespectful to compare Mitski to other artists who have blown up on TikTok, most of whom are 15-second one-hit wonders. Her music, full of heartbreak, yearning and uncertainty, is so much more than a scene-setter for a “Get Ready With Me” video. But one thing’s for sure: Mitski’s legacy will last long after people leave TikTok and move on to the next social media craze. If she decides to continue making music, she’ll keep selling out shows and enchanting new fans—no For You page necessary.

Exclusive articles, podcasts, and more. Support Milwaukee Record on Patreon.

X