Matriarchs of Music: Michelle Zauner


Sarah Beltran

Matriarchs of Music is where our writers share their personal experiences in music, discussing female artists that have influenced and empowered them most.

Growing up, the music I listened to defined the phases of my life. In my teenage years, I was big into punk and rock. As I was searching for a path that made me feel less ordinary in the mundane cycle that is high school, I found an ironic solace in its heavy drums, driving guitars, and wailing singers. I had my bands and I stood by them. But there was something missing.

Drawing of Michelle Zauner by Sarah Beltran

Did you ever have that moment when you scrolled through your iPod touch and realized, “Well, damn. I just listen to a bunch of dudes?” Sure, I had a Paramore song or two, and “Linger” by the Cranberries was always floating through my recently played. But take pop-punk, for instance, and it is literally flooded with bands of a few white guys doing their bit about white guy struggles. Don’t get me wrong — this can still be great music. What I am trying to get at is how can I, a biracial woman, fully connect to the art of someone who has never known or tried to know what it is like to be me? Sure, I can sonically. I easily escaped into the sounds, never confronting my own identity as a person or an artist. I was ignoring large parts of what made me who I am. At that vulnerable age, I needed more music that helped me feel valid as I was, not as someone I was trying to be. I needed to see and hear someone like me talking about things to which I could relate more. And I found that.

So, I turned to what I knew. I had long admired the voice of Dolores O’Riordan from The Cranberries, so I started there. Through the usual YouTube surfing of your average music fanatic, I found a cover of “Dreams” by an artist called Japanese Breakfast. It was electric. After listening to their debut album Psychopomp, I was hooked. The album takes this beautiful femininity and shoves it in your face. I felt myself in the album because it was the perfect mixture of all parts of me. Lead singer Michelle Zauner’s sweet voice had so much power and spoke to me in a new and genuine way. When I first heard “Jane Cum,”  I swear that everything stopped for a moment. I could actually see myself performing it on stage, sharing my whole self with an audience and hearing my voice in the lyrics. Being raw and strong and hard was not just for men. As a female musician and music-lover, I saw a light shine over a path to a place where I could feel comfortable and free. I thought, “There is a place for me in this industry.”

From there, I traced Michelle’s every move. I followed her on Instagram to keep up with her day-to-day life, musical and not. I had never felt like I had so much in common with an artist I loved. Through her posts, I discovered that she also freaks over fandoms. I found out we eat the same brand of ramen, and that sometimes she drinks her beer like a little bird without picking it up off the table (way too much work). Truly, I felt like we were best friends in another life.

Recently, I discovered her essay for Glamour Magazine, “Real Life: Love, Loss, and Kimchi.” When I read about the loss of her mother and the meaning it gave the food they bonded over, it made her even more real to me. She recently wrote another piece within that vein called “Crying in H Mart” with a more retrospective approach. After losing my grandfather, this article validated my ongoing struggle with grief. She shares her simple day-to-day experiences and the way her loss is embedded within them–something that most people have felt but don’t really talk about.

If you follow her, you’ll notice something else. There is a common theme: food. On her stories, you can often find her crafting and eating beautifully homemade Korean dishes. She shamelessly posts herself pickling kimchi or dining at a new dive. Literally, though, she will post a boomerang of herself gnawing at and destroying a huge piece of meat or something. It seems as though she could care less what people think of her. In this current culture of social media-enforced perfection, it is important for me to see a beautiful woman that I admire not caring what she eats or who sees it.

She is not only unabashed about what she eats, but who she is as a person. She is not just an Asian woman in an often white-male scene, but she is someone who shares her culture vibrantly and intentionally. Growing up half-Filipino, I remember there being this barrier between the two halves of me. I felt embarrassed about the clothes or food my Lola (Filipino for grandmother) would send home with me. If I did not hide them from friends, I prefaced them with a little joke or warning: “It’s so weird, I know,” or maybe “Oh my gosh, aren’t they funny?” Up until recently, I remember being anxious if I ever had to bring friends to my grandparents, hoping my Lola wouldn’t bring out an extra set of beaded slippers if they weren’t wearing socks (she always did) or that the smell of the chicken adobo didn’t offend anyone’s nostrils. However, as I have gotten older and have come to realize that this is a huge part of me that I do not need to be embarrassed by.

What Michelle has shown me is that there does not have to be separate “halves” or “parts” that people have, but that everything creates a person and there are no rules as to what goes together. I mean come on, her band merch’ includes jbrekkie chopsticks–how sick is that? And don’t even get me started on her style, which is often Asian-influenced but always so original. What makes my heart especially happy, is when I see her hanging out or supporting other amazing Asian female artists like Yaeji and Mitski. With them and many other woman musicians filling my playlists, I feel so much more full. To feel the strength of women in every sector of my life connects everything, and the support is palpable. I feel supported to feel and create and believe in myself, especially when I am sharing in another woman’s creation. And when I listen to their music I can’t help but think: We are here. We are talented. We are beautiful. We are women.