Arts quarantine theater

The rise of Rina Sawayama’s pop dynasty

‘SAWAYAMA’ spins past woes into pop gold

Rina Sawayama
Dirty Hit
April 17, 2020

Following her 2017 EP, RINA, Rina Sawayama continues to stun fans three years later with the release of her self-titled debut album SAWAYAMA. Lauded as one of the best pop albums of the year by music critics and dubbed “phenomenal” by Elton John, SAWAYAMA masterfully renders pop as a medium for both socio-political commentary and personal narrative. It is pop perfection: oozing with the cultish Y2K vibes reminiscent of Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears but also the modern eccentricity of Lady Gaga. SAWAYAMA, additionally, merges the happy-go-luckiness of pop with the aggressive angst of Korn metal and Evanescence goth. In its production, Sawayama drew inspiration from a variety of musical genres including nu metal, arena rock, and early 2000s iconic pop, innovatively working with different sounds and ultimately forging a voice uniquely hers to give the full-length album an edge that is simultaneously nostalgic and futuristic. 

Returning as an evolved artist, Sawayama attempts to use her new album to convey the overarching themes of identity and relationships, knitting her tracks into a cohesive story of her life narrated by strong vocals. Her theatrical opening track, “Dynasty,” speaks to the inheritance of intergenerational pain; a solemn organ note overlaid with a proclamation of suffering dramatically unwinds into a rock sensation in which soaring high notes are accompanied by a killer guitar solo. The Niigata-born but London-raised singer navigated a turbulent childhood defined by the struggles of assimilation and a dysfunctional family struck with problems of “money and infidelity.” Sawayama boldy sings that she will “take the throne this time,” reclaiming control of her life’s narrative from her mother and father. The song ends, parting from the listener with an invitation to the rest of the album: “won’t you break the chain with me?” The strong opening, with all of its grandeur, introduces themes prevalent throughout the rest of the album and commands the attention of the listener. 

SAWAYAMA illustrates the complexity of relationships through varying styles and perspectives. Sawayama fondly recounts tales of teenage mischief in “Paradisin’,” a glitchy, bubblegum pop track garbled with Japanese arcade effects to replicate the adventurous, video game-like experience of evading a disapproving mother like a player would avoid a final boss. Told from the point of view of a teenage Sawayama to her mother, the track drips with adolescent attitude and conveys the tense relationship between Sawayama and her mother. The “leave me alone, Mom!” sentiment of the lyrics and its upbeat spirit make for a perfect teenage anthem or 80s television show opening. In an equally nostalgic track, Sawayama’s electro-ballad “Bad Friend” captures the regrets of failed friendships as she recalls the details of an indelible, karaoke night out with her friends. Even so, SAWAYAMA validates the comfort and solidarity found in these relationships with the more acoustic “Chosen Family,” whose set of soothing vocals imagines a safe space within the album for the listener. 

Sawayama also stylishly explores her complicated relationship with cultural identity, lyrically embodying the alienating experience of being both Japanese and English but never belonging fully to either of her roots. In “Akasaka Sad,” she looks back on feeling unhappy and displaced despite staying at her favorite Tokyo hotel, drawing strong connections to “Dynasty” by alluding to the cursed nature of the Sawayama name in the intoxicating alliteration of its chorus “Akasaka sad / ’Cause I'm a sucker, sucker, so I suffer / Akasaka Sawayama / Just like my mother.” Sawayama also cites this lifelong struggle as a contributor to her mental illness, representing the irreconcilable rift between her two selves with the physical distance between London and Akasaka. 

Even still, Sawayama finds herself protective of Japanese culture, criticizing herself, among others, for exploiting it for artistic merit. Her love letter to Japanese culture, “Tokyo Love Hotel,” personifies Japanese culture as a victim of one night stands, that is of superficial appropriation: “They don't know you like I know you, no, they don’t / Use you for one night and then away they go.” The track, though also questioning the integrity of Sawayama herself, expresses her rekindled connection with her Japanese half following years of assimilation. Her love for Japan is serious; she doesn’t want to “check into the Tokyo Love Hotel,” instead asserting what others see as a fleeting fascination as her home and world.

SAWAYAMA’s most jarring track, “STFU!” is a big middle finger to casual racism. The black sheep of the album, dedicated to “any minority who has experienced microaggressions,” is a 2000s pop and nu metal fusion of a caustic, justified rage. The track opens with a ringing resembling that of the famous Kill Bill sirens, then furiously hurls the listener into an explosion of maniacal laughter. Throughout the song, twinkling instrumentals alternate with the threatening thunderings of a bass as Sawayama’s vocals switch between sweet but sinister whispering and vicious screaming. 

Sawayama’s criticisms of consumerism take on a less confrontational form in “XS,” whose bursts of metal guitar stabs flaring up between 2000s R&B beats reflect the chaos of a capitalist driven world. The hyper tempo, addictive repetition, and danceable rhythm is undeniably Britney-esque, but the biting lyrics criticize the immaterial industry of pop she represents. The track is as entertainingly meta and woke as it is infectious, mocking songs that glorify opulence and condemning those complacent in the acceleration of wealth inequality and climate change, an issue sung more about in “Fuck This World (Interlude).”

Female empowerment track and club fashion banger, “Comme des Garçons (Like the Boys),” is unapologetically confident. In a groovy power move, Sawayama lyrically channels her inner diva and struts through a list of luxury brands and big cities in which she holds influence. With a hypnotic chant, she claims herself to be confident “like the boys” as techno beats bounce away in the background. Likewise, Sawayama shows herself self-love and dismisses her haters in epic stadium rock track “Who’s Gonna Save U Now,” which samples an audience cheering her name and features impressive key changes. On the other hand, the more thematically and musically generic “Love Me 4 Me,” reflects on her difficult journey of self-love while referencing RuPaul’s Drag Race.

SAWAYAMA comes full circle with the grand finale track “Snakeskin,” whose vocals fall nothing short of haunting from beginning to end. What begins as a few piano notes in the first few seconds quickly picks up in tempo and at some point interpolates the Final Fantasy Victory Fanfare. Sawayama grapples with the reality in which she sheds her emotional trauma, like snakeskin, and commercializes it for consumption. The album concludes with a Beethoven sample and the faint cackling of a recorded conversation between Sawayama and her mother.

With the exception of a few lackluster tracks, SAWAYAMA is sublime. What others might perceive as derivative and dissonant is, in fact, deliberateness and intention. Each track feels curated with care, their intros and outros rightfully setting the tone of her story and leaving the listener hungry for more. Her lyricism is playfully serious and intensely vulnerable, its visions brought to life by a perfectly executing range of shining vocals. Ultimately, Sawayama’s genre-bending debut is artistically intelligent, doing her story justice with all its glitter and grit.