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Be The Cowboy Setlist at Union Transfer, A Second Prize Essay in the New Art Writers Contest!

Dear readers, as we publish the cash prize and honorable mention winners in the 2018 New Art Writers Contest, we'd like to thank everyone who took the time to share their writing with us and congratulate all the winners! This year’s turnout was truly encouraging and we can’t wait to share the “Best of the New Art Writing Contest Anthology” with you all in 2019. Thanks also to Mari Shaw, whose generosity and support of local art writing allowed us to offer our biggest prizes to date.

Mitski at Union Transfer 10/19/2018. Photo courtesy of Danielle Kutner (Instagram: @danikutner)
Mitski at Union Transfer 10/19/2018. Photo courtesy of Danielle Kutner (Instagram: @danikutner)

Be The Cowboy Setlist at Union Transfer, Philadelphia, PA on October 19, 2018
By Erin O’Malley

I request a shared Lyft to get from West Philly to Center City. The two other passengers and I don’t talk; it’s only when we pull up at Union Transfer that we all realize we’re headed to the same place to see the same show, and that’s how my night begins.

1. Remember My Name

I’ve seen Mitski in music videos, interviews, photos, and even at an outdoor concert last August, but I’ve never seen her like this before: backlit in blue, the pink and yellow front stage lights illuminating her face with the colors of a fluorescent sunset.

This is what I’ve been waiting for since June. This is a room in the night filled with so much light that day never comes for her or me or the rest of the crowd. This is a show.

At the end of the song, Mitski closes her eyes, and the pink glow seeps away from the center of the stage, a yolk of yellow light crowning her golden and radiant.

Maybe I’m projecting, but when I see Mitski doused in this yellow-golden light, I think of being the only Asian in my church/family/grade/etc. I think of how Mitski was the first Asian Pacific Islander Desi American artist I’d ever seen or heard. I think of how long it took me to find her music or the music of any APIDA artist.

How long it took me to realize that I, too, could be seen and heard, and I imagine that the color she sees with her eyes closed is the same color surrounding us.

2. I Don’t Smoke

This past summer began with me lonely and ended with me lonelier and in love with Mitski’s music. (I won’t get into specifics, but there was a girl. There was a city, too). I had insomnia, and most of the time when I couldn’t sleep, I listened to two things:

a. Every noise awake outside my window.

b. A playlist of just the song “I Don’t Smoke.”

Somewhere in the middle of that summer and all its siren-loud nights, I bought a ticket to Mitski’s tour.

3. Washing Machine Heart
4. First Love / Late Spring
5. Francis Forever
6. Me and My Husband
7. Dan the Dancer
8. Once More to See You

I know nothing of music theory, of the mechanics of notes or melodies, but I know all the words to “Once More to See You,” yell them until they dissolve into coughing, and it’s as if I know everything about sound, about every mouth it can come from.

9. A Pearl
10. Thursday Girl
11. I Will
12. Townie

I remember a time before thinking “Townie” was a sad song when I was invincible in all the ways my heart had not yet been broken.

In an NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert recording of “Townie,” Mitski circa 2015 sings with a face fielded by acne, a furrowed brow, and a vengeance in her voice.

When the Mitski in front of me sings “Townie,” the core emotions of the song are still there—that feeling of needing to smash a beer bottle on every suburban sidewalk, of rebellion running your blood red—but Mitski is no longer in her early-to-mid 20s. Now, her skin is clear, and she seems more confident; the choreography of her head movements, looking up, down, and around her, adding a different texture to her performance.

When she sings “Townie” on stage, I wonder if memories of 2015 flood her head. I wonder which songs were always meant for a moon full of so much and which ones took four years to be sung the just-right sad of tonight’s show.

13. Nobody

The day I move to Philadelphia is the day Be The Cowboy is released. Before making the three hour southward drive from Pennsyltucky to the 6th-most-populous-city-in-the-U.S., I’ve downloaded the whole album on Spotify. Before turning on the speaker or even stepping into the car, I’ve already listened to all 14 tracks 6 times.

Months prior, in late June, the day before my birthday, the single “Nobody” is released. By the time I’ve turned 19, I’ve memorized all the lyrics.

When I arrive at my building, I’m told there’s been a mix-up and that the would-be former tenant of my room hasn’t moved out yet. I’m put in an empty room that’s two doors down from where I’m supposed to live for the rest of the year. My mom helps me carry up my suitcases before she leaves. My roommate isn’t coming until tomorrow. I am alone in a city with so many people I don’t know.

I put on “Nobody” like a dress meant only for myself. I dance in my living room. I open a window and sing and hope someone hears me.

14. I Bet on Losing Dogs
15. I Want You

I’ve always been fascinated by how we come to love the songs we’d previously skipped over when we hear them live.

When Mitski drags the last note of the song into a scream, I begin to cry.

I begin and begin.

16. Your Best American Girl
17. Why Didn’t You Stop Me?
18. Geyser

Mitski looks to her hand as if it were a lover. I clench my own hand into a fist tight with the dimming memory of the only July that’s mattered.

Mitski at Union Transfer 10/19/2018. Photo courtesy of Danielle Kutner (Instagram: @danikutner)
Mitski at Union Transfer 10/19/2018. Photo courtesy of Danielle Kutner (Instagram: @danikutner)

19. Happy
20. Come into the Water
21. Drunk Walk Home
22. A Burning Hill
23. Two Slow Dancers
24. Goodbye, My Danish Sweetheart

The two encore songs are not really encore songs because Mitski pre-selected them to perform tonight, but here is one last image: The microphone so close to Mitski’s mouth that I become jealous of the silver reflection glinting on her lips. Mitski standing in front of me, the every-colored light on its knees before her. We, the audience, singing the lyrics we know by heart at the top of our lungs. We, a chorus, the chorus, the song that ends the night.

Mitski leaves the stage, and I leave the concert the way I came: alone.

Erin Jin Mei O’Malley lives in Philadelphia. Their work appears or is forthcoming in DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, Cosmonauts Avenue, and others. They are the Managing Editor of The Ellis Review and have received a scholarship from the Lambda Literary Foundation and nominations for a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. You can find them at

More Photos

Mitski at Union Transfer 10/19/2018. Photo courtesy of Danielle Kutner (Instagram: @danikutner)
Mitski at Union Transfer 10/19/2018. Photo courtesy of Danielle Kutner (Instagram: @danikutner)