Pop Sensation Incoming: Rina Sawayama
If you allow me to set the stage, to lower the house lights, I will present this scene to you. Imagine casting your eyes upon a stunning 21st century version of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, except Venus is a Japanese-British chanteuse serving neo-nostalgia and pop bangers right from her clamshell.
She released the most dynamic music project of 2020, she’s an icon in the making, and she’s here to save pop music — she is Rina Sawayama. Enjoy the show.
Crash course on Rina
Sawayama’s first complete body of work appeared in the form of an EP titled Rina on October 27, 2017. The EP was a fresh cyber-love letter to the internet age, and it included crowd favorites like “Ordinary Superstar”, “Take Me As I Am”, and “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.”
Sawayama was suddenly an artist to watch. Not only was this introduction to the music industry well-received by critics, but she was also quickly embraced by a cult following of fans, affectionately named “Pixels” (cue the That’s So Raven “yep, that’s me!” sound byte).
She landed a spot on Pitchfork’s 20 Best Pop and R&B Albums of 2017, in which Rina’s sound was described as “experimental J-pop, cyberpunk, turn-of-the-century nostalgia.” Each track delivers its own dose of pop dopamine to be tied up in a nice sparkling bow and hung above dance floors everywhere like a disco ball. All of this buzz marked a promising new beginning in Sawayama’s career trajectory.
Pop genius status
Yes, it was true: after a few singles were dropped by the artist, the highly anticipated debut album was coming. Sawayama, Rina’s more experienced and developed older sister, was released on April 17 of this year. The debut album also had a new birthplace — rather than Sawayama’s bedroom studio, it was Dirty Hit, home to The 1975, a band of experimenters in their own right.
With more resources at her fingertips, Sawayama worked like crazy to release (I’m gonna say it) one of the best albums of the decade. Unlike anything you’d expect to find on a typical pop album, she tackles topics like intergenerational trauma, capitalistic greed, and personal failure in friendships. Just that alone is revolutionary, raw and so deeply true in the face of a genre which is known for its easy-to-swallow sweetness and uplift factor.
In her Rising interview with Pitchfork, Sawayama says, “Making the album so dramatic helped satirize the whole thing and make it feel a little bit lighter, in a weird way…It’s kinda like drag, where you’re making so much light and humor out of something that is so painful.” Continuing that flair for the dramatic, I can only think to describe the songs on this album through metaphors since it renders me completely unable to string together a coherent, logical thought:
“Dynasty” is rising from the ashes or whatever bullshit you were going through on any given day, no longer allowing your scars to get in the way of your rule; “STFU” is blowing the perfect bubble with chewing gum and having it pop all over your face in a sugary, face melting, reality check type of mess; “Bad Friend” is you leaving twenty drunk voicemails to your former best friend and the humiliation of them still not calling you back; “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” is putting on the best show of your life as a rockstar and the stadium literally crumbles around you because the world is ending! I could go on because yes, I do have moodboards and scenarios for every track but I don’t want to give all the magic away.
This project is so dynamic and exciting and heartbreaking. But oh, is it inspiring. The replay potential on this album is astronomical. Every listen is like a potentially life threatening joy ride but in the best way possible. There are new things to hear in every song, new ways to interpret and hear Sawayama’s extraordinary lyricism. The artistry of this album is something that will stick with any music lover for a very long time. That, I believe, is the sign of a masterpiece.
An icon living
Narrowing down why Rina Sawayama is a true-blue icon in just a few points is a feat I am willing to take on. The first point being that she is a bold new addition to the Asian representation that is unfortunately lacking in Western pop music. Sawayama wears her Japanese heritage on her sleeve and pushes her personal narrative to the forefront of her art in a way that is real, a way that can empower a young Asian audience.
Sawayama is also not shy when it comes to opening up about her queerness, specifically her pansexuality. A queer anthem and personal favorite of mine, “Cherry” describes the experience of newfound feelings for another woman as a woman. Sawayama took extra care to make sure the message of the song was clear and thoughtful, saying “I didn’t want to further stigmatize the bi or pan community, or queer people in general… but the messages I’ve gotten from fans, and from people saying they came out because of me, it’s all just very emotional. It’s incredible. It was a risk worth taking.”
At now 30 years-old, Sawayama has admitted to her internal struggles with ageism and how making a pop debut in the music industry in one’s late twenties is practically unheard of. But she has shown that success is possible for someone like her. And more importantly, she has shown that young people don’t have to feel like failures if they haven’t achieved all of their dreams by the age of 25. Sawayama has definitely inspired me to just live my life with passion and drive, without worrying about the timing of it all. I could have my big break later down the line, and I have her to credit for that newfound excitement for the future.
Beyond all of this, she’s sweet, funny and down-to-earth. Sawayama is the epitome of the cool older sister in an early 2000s movie who does you and your friends’ makeup and helps you sneak out of the house because she wants you to have the best night of your life. It’s quite literally impossible not to adore this woman.
It’s not too late to get on this ride. Rina Sawayama is coming in hot like a meteor and there’s no altering her course. I hope she is more patient than me because I absolutely cannot wait until she crashes into the mainstream and upends everything we knew about what a pop star could look like. That vision excites me, I can see it so clearly, sparkling just out of my reach. But until then, I will continue to play “Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys)” on full blast and try to duck walk through the streets of my suburb — with a mask on, of course.