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Rina Sawayama: Pop’s Newest Iconoclast

Ethereally luscious avant-pop, infused with a touch of metal and a sliver of classic pure pop goodness – that is how I would describe my encounter with Rina Sawayama’s ingeniously crafted discography. An encouter just over two years young, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many, like me, chanced upon the icon. Ever since that first listen of her debut album, the emerging pop sensation has been on the radar of many, including myself. She’s become a distinct force in pop music, being at the vanguard of a new generation and kind of artists.

Rina Sawayama

Sawayama, a Japanese-British singer, songwriter, actress, and model, began her solo music career in February 2013 with a dyad of singles. Sleeping in Waking, and Who? were her pioneering songs, released to little fanfare in April of the same year. After a brief hiatus from music, Sawayama returned in 2016 with new, sonically reinvigorating singles in the form of Where U Are, This Time Last Year, Cyber Stockholm Syndrome, Afterlife and Tunnel Vision. Their subsequent celebrated reception eventually culminated in the release of her debut extended play, Rina, as an independent, yet unsigned artist.

With Rina, the artist gained breakthrough notoriety from those within her musical circles. She experienced a rush of positive reviews from major publications like The Guardian, which referred to it as "bracing and modern" and Pitchfork, who placed it in its list of the best pop and R&B albums of that year.

The project became the foundational monolith upon which Rina built her sonic style. It also marked the artist's first multi-track body of work, produced in collaboration with frequent collaborator and singer-songwriter, Clarence Clarity. Sawayama proceeded to work further with Clarity on all of her future projects as his trademark style of eclectic pop became the hallmark of the artist’s work for years to come.

Rina thus marked the singer-songwriter’s introduction to elements of avant-pop. The genre is an experimental yet accessible variant of pop music that takes its cues from various stylings and combines the same with an artist’s own vision. While the production here is not nearly as busy as on her other records, the Extended Play (EP) does foreground some key themes and motifs the singer tackles throughout her discography.

Rina Sawayama

Broadly dealing with Sawayama’s struggles with her mental health alongside the distorted realities of life in the age of screens and texts, Rina tackles themes of personal trauma and relationships in a digital world while also being the musician’s first project exploring her journey with self-identity. In highlights like 10-20-40, Sawayama attempts to cope with her usage of SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) to numb her agony. She expresses the experience through vivid metaphors of driving cars which in her words harken to “teetering on the edge, but also the romance of driving… and the romance of taking Citalopram”.

Another highlight from the EP, Take Me As I Am, speaks to the nature of Asian representation, or lack thereof, in the Western music industry. Other great moments in the record include the aforementioned tracks Afterlife and Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.

Following the success of the EP along with another staggered release of singles in the late 2010s, the singer signed with Dirty Hit Records, a British independent record label. Thereafter, she began working on and gradually releasing singles for what eventually would be her eponymous debut album, Sawayama. The album and the four singles that preceded it, came from the singer and collaborator, Clarity, with her amalgamation of differing genre styles including heavy metal, dance-pop, avant-pop, and R&B.

Owing to such an innovative and multi-layered sound along with Sawayama’s cathartic approach toward songwriting, the album earned widespread critical acclaim and was included in several lists of the best albums from that year. Concurrently, the thematic depth and complexity of the album were also lauded. Critics cited its fearlessness in showing vulnerability whilst touching on fundamental subject matters such as identity, generational trauma, and the queer experience amongst many others.

If I was drawn to her music for its standout production and versatility, I remained a keen admirer of it owing to the depth and significance of her lyricism. Sawayama’s discography serves as a poignant collection of her own memories, experiences and learnings. It also weaves in her complex relationships and trauma with her joys and beliefs. Such is the composition of her debut album, Sawayama.

Rina Sawayama

Sawayama became the artist's magnum opus, as the sheer artistic merit, diversity and richness of its subject matter could seldom be replicated. With an opener as riveting as Dynasty the artist manages to deliver one of the best album openers I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening to. Musing on the trauma and conflict passed on through generations by the recollections of her own parents, the track delivers a powerful message of not letting such traumas be passed on further.

XS is yet another standout–a keen commentary on the overwhelming excesses of consumerism and capitalism prevalent in society today. Adopting a counternarrative perspective, Rina sings as someone who craves an excess of material belongings like Cartier jewellery, Tesla Xs and homes in Calabasas.

The song thus attempts to “mock capitalism in a sinking world” simultaneously touching on the unfathomable costs of such a pursuit of wealth. Sawayama also touches on the futility of such aggressive pursuit of wealth, musing “when all the time, heaven was in our eyes”, comparing heaven to earth. The song ultimately is also laced with a tragic tone, since according to Rina, “We’re all hypocrites because we are all capitalists, and it’s a trap that I don’t see us getting out of.”

Chosen Family, a touching, slower-paced track, sees the singer explore and affirm indeed,the idea of a chosen family. The song portrays a concept prevalent among the queer community and calls upon LGBTQIA+ people to form ”chosen” families of like-minded people as a response to being abandoned by their birth families. Similarly, for Sawayama, her chosen family is her community of queer fans, listeners and supporters, speaking of which she said, “It’s really about my queer family, just appreciating the journeys they’ve been on.”

Finally, Snakeskin, the album closer, is an evocative song discussing an artist's choice of pouring their personal pain into commercial pop songs. It is essentiallly a meta-commentary on the hyper-commercial nature of her industry. The track serves as the crescendo to her journey of acceptance of one's own identity as a form of strength.

Sawyama also continues to hone in on Rina’s ability to elevate her lyricism through the use of her musical versatility. Her ingenious pairings of the two make for a listening experience that feels as cohesive and immersive as possible. On XS, to further add an air of opulence, Rina adds in sounds of a cash register coupled with nu-metal and avant-pop elements to complement her critique of capitalism. Similarly, on Snakeskin, the singer makes use of luscious strings and choir vocals to heighten the operatic nature of the track. On the same, Sawayama strips back all the production, leaving just a piano solo as the closer alludes to the track's tragic nature.

Despite its massive critical and commercial success, the project was surprisingly snubbed by a majority of British and international award ceremonies including the Mercury Prize and the BRIT Awards due to her not possessing British citizenship. Sawayama took to Twitter to voice her displeasure regarding the same, leading to an eventual reworking of the criteria for the same.

Sawayama began work on her second album in 2021 while embarking on the primary leg of her Dynasty Tour, performing songs from her EP and debut record. At the Glasgow show of the same, she performed Catch Me In The Air, a track from the upcoming album. Following that, the singer announced her second album, Hold The Girl, would be released in September of that year with its lead single, This Hell, being released subsequently.

Hold The Girl was received with critical acclaim with critics lauding Rina’s sonic stylings again, along with the cohesion and profundity of her lyricism in the song. Sawayama’s primary narrative and thematic focus this time laid in her emotional journey of healing from unresolved trauma from her adolescence along with her familial relationships and queer identity. Sawayama also said that the album came about through insights she gained during therapy. The album saw a subtle shift in the artist's influences, this time taking cues from progressive rock, through ‘90s rave music to country.

Rina Sawayama

The lead single, This Hell, sees Rina’s take on the current polarised political discourse that has seen increasing anti-LGBTQIA+ rhetoric. The song, with its tongue-in-cheek lyrics, is her response to the same as an emphatic declaration of love and empowerment toward the LGBTQIA+ community. “When the world tells us we don’t deserve love and protection, we have no choice but to give love and protection to each other. This Hell is better with you” Sawayama said of the track.

Catch Me In The Air is a track wherein Sawayama writes about her relationship with her own single mother and their reliance on one another during difficult times. With verses written from both the parent’s and child’s perspective, the track in Sawayama’s words reflected upon “the pressures that parents go through when raising a child”.

The artist’s relationship with her mother, a frequent presence in her songs, has been considerably formative for Sawayama. Throughout her life, their relationship has experienced its ups and downs, as do many such relationships. Sawayama said she wanted to be “British” in her teens, while her mother “represented Japan” in her mind. Of the same, Sawayama said “I was so embarrassed by her all the time. If she pronounced something wrong, it would embarrass me”. The stark dichotomy between the same and Sawayama’s eventual view on the matter is a theme, concurrently explored in her music. Such context also places Sawayama’s artistry as one chronicling the immigrant experience.

Perhaps the thematic lynchpin of the record is seen in the track Holy (Till You Let Me Go). The dark pop-inspired track finds the artist reckoning with traumatic experiences during her time at Cambridge University. Sawayama described the experiences as those of bullying, racism and hatred. The track also describes instances of religious shaming and criticism borne by the singer as her queer identity was viewed as “sinful” by some. The song’s lyrics thus centre around religious trauma and attempts at praying away one's sexuality and the pain arising from a lack of acceptance.

The artist’s time at Cambridge has served as an inspiration for the thematic composition of her music. Rina cites the case of her friend circle as those who helped her through the harsh experiences there. Her time in Cambridge also included watching drag performances, which came to shape her artistic course. She also mentions the performance art of drag as part of her artistry and the nature of performance. “Drag is turning trauma into humour and entertainment and that’s what I’m trying to do”, Rina states.

Following the rollout of the project, Sawayama embarked on the Hold the Girl and Hold the Girl: Reloaded tours respectively, and made her acting debut for the widely appreciated and critically acclaimed John Wick 4 for which she also contributed a song.

Rina Sawayama

The tenets of her artistry, and Sawayama herself have been lauded as the foundational blueprint of a new wave of contemporary artists – those seeking to define themselves by their authenticity and unique connection to their audiences. This trademark authenticity is seen repeatedly in the singer’s work as she has continually discussed her own triumphs, pitfalls and traumas through her music. Furthermore, the subject matter covered in music also adds to her image as an artist who’s faithful and honest to her identity.

Sawayama’s continual blurring of artistic boundaries and unique sonic quality has thus made her a noteworthy artist representative of this generation’s musicians. In doing so, Rina has managed to embody the manners in which contemporary artists evolve in the erratic context of the music industry, an industry presently characterised by the advent of ever-fluctuating trends and prevalent mainstream industry juggernauts.

The artist’s authenticity also stretches to the sphere of socio-political discourse. The singer is a vocal proponent of increased and accurate Asian and LGBTQIA+ representation in broader media. Her activism surrounding LGBTQIA+ rights is well documented in her music as she continues to fight stereotypes and for inclusivity through her songs. This is exemplified in her music video for STFU. The video sees her subvert and makes an underlying commentary on the fetishisation of Asian women and confining them to a single social identity. Additionally, it is also important to her to partner with the right people to amplify her stories—especially since they also reflect and represent the stories of many around the world.

Rina’s activism here also helped strengthen the artist’s connection with her audience and fans as those with similar stories and experiences come to relate to and find solace in her music. The artist’s fearlessness in expressing her opinions on prevalent political issues is a key hallmark of what makes her a stalwart of the new generation of pop superstars. Another key facet of the same comes in the form of her focus and astute usage of the visual arts to communicate her message and intended themes as seen in her music videos and promotional material.

Her music videos not only tell the stories of her songs but also add layers of depth and meaning. For instance, her music videos for Bad Friend and This Hell embody various visual aesthetics and use subtle metaphors to tell their stories. The former plays out as a silent black-and-white Japanese film that mirrors the breakdown of a friendship through a series of events at a small bar. The latter is a joyful celebration of queer identity amidst the toil of hateful rhetoric where love prevails.

The singer also practises inclusivity in her use of fashion and photography to further the cohesion of her persona, carefully crafting aesthetics and looks to reflect a particular project or event. The singer can also be spotted in looks from lesser-known queer designers or designers of colour, illustrating her active support for queer and PoC representation.

Much like her contemporaries, Sawayama is also an artist known for her collaborations, which are a necessity to succeed in the contemporary music industry. Her collaborations with the likes of industry icon and legend Lady Gaga, hyper pop foregrounder Charli XCX, queer, Latin drag queen Palo Vittar and queer icon Elton John, have garnered acclaim.

Rina Sawayama and Elton John

Rina’s musical stylings have also been a subject of great discourse. Subjectively, Sawayama’s avant-pop mixed with references from the music of her youth makes for quite an ingenious blend, especially in today’s ‘y2k’ soundscape. From Shania Twain and Abba to Gwen Stefani to Madonna, the artist reflects on the works of a wide array of icons of the past to chart her own sonic course. As written by the New York Times, “combining nostalgic sounds with the latest technology allows Sawayama to experience the best of both sonic worlds”. Her most widely made comparison, however, is to Lady Gaga, who in her time made revolutionary and groundbreaking strides in music, emphasising her queer identity. Sawayama’s sound can thus be described as one that has true “postmodern thinking” to it.

Unlike Lady Gaga, however, the persona of Rina Sawayama is inexorably tied to the person that is Rina Sawayama. Her exploration of themes like identity, queerness, family and trauma stems from her upbringing and thematic cornerstones of the same. Sawayama’s gleefully camp and the hyper-realistic world have its roots in the occasionally uncomfortable realities of her experiences as a queer immigrant.

Thus, the iconoclast and her work have been characterised by a unique sonic and artistic style that has come to be emblematic of an array of emerging musicians. It is Sawayama's ability to mould that style though that has brought her to the threshold of mainstream pop music stardom while continuing to retain her distinctly captivating persona and managing to put out a series of consistently layered and rich work that is steadily unique.

“I’m not going to waste that by writing whatever is already out there,” she says, a tenet perceptible in her music. Recognizing the position of privilege she now finds herself in, Sawayama said, “I’m so fortunate I get to write songs for a living” With such an acute awareness of herself and the world, and as reflected in her songs like XS, it is unsurprising that success for Sawayama isn't success commercially, forever giving more importance to the more meaningful, fulfilling aspect of her career.

“Some people think doing better is earning more money and reaching more career highs, and I think that can become pretty futile.”

Rina Sawayama on tour

For Rina Sawayama, it’s always been - and will be - about something much simpler, “Making people feel seen.” In line with the same, Sawamaya continues to be an icon and iconoclast, the first of her kind. The artist and musical chameleon is rightly described as “the future of queer pop” and remains one to watch as the industry undergoes another polarised transformation. She redefines what it means to be a modern-day pop star and in the process bestows upon us some truly memorable music.

This hell’ is certainly better with her.

Edited by Thenthamizh SS, Nandini Sarin and Adi Roy

All photos are from Rina Sawayama's personal Instagram / @rinasonline



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