Mitski’s “Working for the Knife” Lyrics Meaning

The first thing that jumps out concerning this piece is of course its title, which reads like a metaphor we never heard before. And most simply explained, what it apparently points to is the concept of mundane labor. That is to say that within context, “working for the knife” would be the same as Mitski saying that she’s stuck in an unedifying, dream-crushing 9 to 5 job. 

Owing to the above, most of the lyrics are actually dedicated to the songstress contrasting what she, in her youth, thought her adult life would be like to the reality of the situation.

To some extent, said visions of her youth were unrealistic. For instance, based on the fourth verse, it would appear that the vocalist thought she’d be retired by age 20, or something like that. Either way, she never imagined that she’d actually be entering her 30s, as she is now, feeling so unfulfilled.

Then there is the fifth verse, where the singer acknowledges that in the grand scheme of things she really has no one to blame for this scenario but herself. Essentially it isn’t as if her ambition to be free, if you will, is wrong. Rather the fault was in the execution, i.e. she chose the wrong path to achieve this goal.

All in all

So this whole narrative reads like the lamentations of someone who, perhaps as we all more or less do upon growing up and becoming responsible adults, took a job more out of necessity than an actual desire to perform it. 

At that time, she never foresaw that she’d actually end up stuck in the rat race. But as it stands, the vocalist is in fact ‘working and living for the knife’. So at the end of the day, this character Mitski is portraying comes off like a free spirit who, to her dismay, is trapped in the somewhat unavoidable world of having a day job.

Mitski, "Working for the Knife" Lyrics
Mitski explains "Working for the Knife"

Mitski and “Working for the Knife”

Mitski is a singer who, up until this point, has released five studio albums. And truth be told, her discography doesn’t necessarily appear as anything special. For instance, only the last of the aforementioned efforts, 2018’s “Be the Cowboy”, has made it onto the Billboard 200 and UK Album Chart. And in both cases, it didn’t really perform exceptionally well. 

However, it also broke the top 10 of 3 other Billboard charts by far marking it her most-successful project to date. This therefore implies that the songstress’s career is currently experiencing an upward turn.

That said, the reason we’re even bringing this point up in the first place is because “Working on the Knife” is getting an A list level of press attention. It has been covered by some of the top publications in the world such as MTV, Vogue and Forbes.

Perhaps that would have something to do with Mitski sorta announcing her retirement in 2019 and kinda remaining out of the spotlight since. Perhaps this exceptional level of notoriety also has something to do with the fact that she’s quite unique as far as pop singers go. For instance, Mitski is actually Japanese-American, being born in the Land of the Rising Sun. 

Also, due to her father’s profession in the US government, she has lived in many diverse areas of the world (though having come, from a professional standpoint, from New York City).

“Working for the Knife”was written by Mitski. It was produced by another musician she’s been working with for years, Patrick Hyland.

The song’s official date of release was on 5 October 2021.

Working for the Knife

5 Responses

  1. Under the Knife says:

    I took “done at 20” as not living past that age. I felt similarly that I would never make it past 25. Here I am…

    More than just being stuck in a 9-to-5, this song speaks to being trapped in a system in which real generative creativity and spirit is suppressed or commodified and processed into capitalism.

    I’m curious about the line “no good guys,” which I take to mean either encounters with others that were harmful or failed romances, or as nobody wanting to hear about or live in those gray areas where there are no “good guys,” where life is more complex than the “good guy” mentality we seem to love in the US.

    • Olivia Haglund says:

      I love this take, dude

    • aldana says:

      yes i also thought of it that way. like she didn’t thought she was going to get to certain age so she didn’t plan her future and now 10 years later she still doesn’t have a plan in her life she’s just working for the knife, maybe expecting something else to happen but trapped in some kind of routine that drains her energy, like she doesn’t quite know what to do so she continues doing what she’s been doing and repeating the routine over and over

    • camila says:

      im not sure that’s what mitski meant!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Probably not what SHE meant by the phrase, but I tend to see Mitski as stabbing and tearing away at the convoluted tapestry of the delusions and distractions we all create.

    Her art is a good kind of violence, imo. No good guys; she’s reminding us.

    I love this song.

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