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Hold the Girl - Rina Sawayama

Updated: Dec 28, 2022


Rina Sawayama has been behind the scenes in pop music for almost a decade, but she broke through in lockdown 2020 with her debut studio album Sawayama, a pop album with heavy guitars and cutting lyrics about her life and identity as a a queer Japanese-British woman. Since then she has created a cult following of 'pixels' and campaigned to have the BRITs and Mercury Prize eligibility rules changed. So, what did three of our writers think about "pop's new alternative"'s latest record? Read on to find out...


A picture of Rina Sawayama, set into a swirled pink and green background. Rina is wearing a red lip, white shawl, heavy silver jewellery and has her hair in a high bun.


Lois

In the interest of preserving my own sanity, what free time I had in 2020 was spent away from current affairs. As such, I missed the breakthrough of Rina Sawayama. Being late to the party, I sought out some context before Hold The Girl’s release date.


Suffice it to say, the first two albums (Rina (2017) and Sawayama (2020) blew me away, chiefly owing to the tracks Take Me As I am and 10, 20, 40. They appear next to each other on Rina; both pitched in that C Minor that is now synonymous with nearly every Britney Spears / Max Martin / Denniz Pop collab. But where Spears would eschew (not necessarily by choice) a list of pre-determined, over sexualised cliches, Sawayama gives us an uncensored authentic pain and confusion, coming directly from her core. I recognised the sliding scale of antidepressant dosage. (“10, 20, 40, numb / sad, happy, crazy, dumb”). Sawyama – where STFU is a stand-out - feels like a progression, from re-living to addressing generational trauma. “The pain in my vein is hereditary” it declares as it navigates her adolescence caught between Japanese and British Pop Culture.


Speaking candidly to the BBC about this period, she said "It was the era of Britney and Christina and it was OK to talk about young women in a certain way, and so we internalised that as young girls… I think we just grew up too quickly. We were thinking about sex in a terrible way, a completely confused way.”


The early 2000’s influence that has been so regularly noted by critics in Sawayama’s work does more than simply borrow a sound. It claims it for itself and gives voice to sentiments that its previous owners didn’t – or couldn’t – express. As someone who came of age in that era Hold the Girl is preaching to the choir for me. She sings in This Hell “fuck what they did to Britney, to Lady Di and Whitney.” I have been finding ways to channel out that ingrained toxicity for years and along comes this pop phenomenon with a cheat sheet.


Therapists talk about re-parenting the inner child in adulthood – I feel that happening here with considerable effect. Minor Feelings brought me instantly to tears. The lyrics “writing my own fairytales, building forts between the sofa and the window sill” catapulted me back to early childhood. I took her instruction from the title track - grabbing my inner child and holding on tight! The recurring sound of church bells and rain seem to punctuate shifts in tone, splitting the experience into sections. By the time we got to Your Age, I became 17 again, hiding in my bedroom blasting nu metal, at a time when “toxic shame” as a concept wasn’t being discussed outside a therapist’s office. The fire of her previous releases, which hitherto had felt somewhat contained after Minor Feelings, is unleashed at this point in the album with full force. Sawayama portrays an image of the adult vindicating the child whose “decisions'' were superseded by people with more social currency. The implications are haunting.


For two more tracks the tone is one of “immortal” trauma until the next installment of church bells brings us into a reflective mood. The adult begs the “inner child” to “come back.” “But how do you hold a ghost?” the lyrics ask. I can’t answer that. I just hold on to myself and listen.


I cry a bit more until we reach a major key and she tells me “I know it’s just temporary pain.” It’s a happy ending, she tells us. “I finally know what it’s like to be alive.” The process of survival has been laid out before us in musical form. To endure that process is an achievement beyond measure; to turn it into this is surely a victory.

Rina Sawayama stands in front of a red smoky background in a large round dress that covers her head, revealing only her face.

I just wanna know who does her nails



Elena

‘Minor Feelings’ is a short ballad that introduces the album with familiar themes in Rina’s music of feeling out of place and desire for belonging. The song smoothly transitions into ‘Hold The Girl’, which fools us into thinking it’s a bigger realisation of the previous ballad, before surprising us with a dance rhythm, disco strings and a glitchy chorus, yet still with Rina’s powerful vocals. The track expands and resolves at the end with layered vocals, like a big, danceable ballad.

The record improves as it goes on. Some other dance moments are met throughout, such as in ‘Imagining’, an absolute standout in the record, and in ‘Holy (Til You Let Me Go)’. The latter feels like a breath of fresh air, a dance pop banger of the likes of Robyn, with synth heavy choruses and a bombastic closing to the track.

‘This Hell’ introduces Rina’s signature electric guitars in her pop format. But this time I wish they were more of a statement like in her debut SAWAYAMA, with outlandish heavy riffs that shouldn’t work in a pop song, but do. This record kept a watered-down version of that sound. In exchange, it introduced new layers in Rina’s songwriting and production.

‘Catch Me In The Air’ pays tribute to early 2000s tunes, an arena banger with a summery atmosphere brought by warm rhythm guitars and airy vocals. The record feels like a compilation of great sounding pop songs with monumental choruses and heartfelt and personal lyrics, such as in ‘Forgiveness’, but at times it lacks the edge that previous Rina projects came through with. ‘Frankenstein’ is not one of those moments. It features a fast-paced bass and percussion, with a really catchy melody when Rina croons “I don’t wanna be a monster anymore” on the post-chorus. The track ends with an incredibly high energy drum, leaving me wishing for more of those bold moments. It presents what Rina excels at: constructing catchy pop songs that play with bold, adventurous and risky elements.

In ‘Send My Love To John’ we hear some of Rina’s most personal lyrics, a love letter from her mother to her, confessing her mistakes. “We both had to leave our mothers to get the things we want” felt particularly meaningful considering the artist’s journey and career.


This record is full of unique songs exploring different sounds and styles that come together into a cohesive project thematically. Despite the record lacking some of the edge and bold moments her debut delivered, Rina has reached career highs with some of the tracks in this album, full of catchy hooks, powerful monumental moments, full of personal lyrics and themes. Rina clearly understands pop and is able to put her unique personal touch and emotion into her music. I can’t wait to see what her career brings us in the future.



A photo of Rina Sawayama, front and centre, surrounded by other queer folks. She is clapping her hands together and is wearing a silver dress and heavy silver eyeshadow, the other people are wearing cowboy hats and suits

Throuple goals...

Kit

As a certified, card-carrying Pop Girlie, Rina Sawayama’s latest contribution to the genre (with some wiggle room for rock-reminiscent guitar and PC music-style backings) was a calendar moment for me. Listening to the singles from Hold The Girl only added to that excitement, from the very first country-pop banger with stunning visuals This Hell, to the swirly, energetic and emotional latest single Hurricanes. Each one showing a different sonic or emotional dimension of Hold the Girl succinctly, while still generating a sense of unpredictability. Truly, I had no idea what I was in for with this album, especially in comparison with her clear and distinctive first studio album Sawayama, which laid out her sound so LUCID-ly.


Sophomore albums can be complicated, and in the wake of such a runaway hit as Sawayama, it feels as though Rina decided to throw out the musical rulebook and innovate. Not that Sawayama wasn’t innovative; but it had such a clear identity, where Hold The Girl feels much less staid, more complex and, in my opinion, far stronger for all the risks. The album swerves from nostalgic 2000s girl pop tracks like Imagining to emotional breaking points that feel reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s Joanne, like Minor Feelings. It’s a challenging album to summarise when it snakes lyrically and sonically through so many shifting moods, but this only adds to the fun of listening to it.


Thematically, the album focuses on Rina’s therapeutic journey with inner-child work, as well as her complex relationship with her mother (which she previously addressed in Dynasty and Paradisin’ on Sawayama) so it makes sense that the album shifts around eclectically as she grapples with complex emotions and relives the ups and downs of her adolescence. Despite its specific depiction of growing up in the 2000s - which is supported through clear musical influences from Britney and the Sugababes - I found glimpses of myself, and my own adolescence, scattered throughout this album (and yeah, maybe it helps that I’m a lifelong pop girlie with vivid memories of attending my first Sugababes concert at the age of 8).


Rina has always been exceptionally capable of holding the duality of the personal and the universal, but Hold the Girl sets a new precedent, especially in the tear-jerking emotional peak Send My Love to John, which displays a unique talent in creating intense musical intimacy between the listener, the performer, and an invisible third party who the song is about.

It feels important to stress that despite its themes, the album has some truly fun, danceable moments, and I can’t wait to hear Holy (Til You Let Me Go) in the gay club, even if I must request it myself (so painfully underrated is Miss Sawayama). It’s also - perhaps even more so than Sawayama with its penultimate track Chosen Family - an ostensibly queer album, in a way that feels fresh in an increasingly queer musical landscape due to its emotional depth and focus on healing rather than pain. This feels emblematic of the current moment in (queer) pop (because isn’t pop always a little bit queer?) which feels ever more important in this uncertain political landscape. Rina speaks as the voice of the community on Hold the Girl when she says: we are hurt, we are healing, we might be going to hell, but we are going to dance on the way down.


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