It seems inevitable that we might try teasing out autobiographical details from a Rina Sawayama record. The artist has continually fashioned narratives about familial strife, sexuality, race and identity into some of the best music categorised under the hyperpop banner, garnering collaborations with artists as diverse as Charli XCX and Elton John – but the run-up to the release of her second album, Hold The Girl, has found her being a little more elusive. “For me, it’s important that the listener is able to listen to it as a pop record first”, she told Rolling Stone, “and then, when I’m ready, I think I will be able to talk about what it’s actually about.”
To that effect, the album is certainly very easy on the ears. Hold The Girl is another unabashed pop record, created in the image of 2000-2010s chart music. While it should be said that Sawayama, as well as her co-producer Adam Crisp (aka Clarence Clarity, a hyperpop picaro in his own right), are highly competent songwriters, a more insipid read of the Sawayama project might call it an elaborate exercise in TRL-core – which is to say, empty nostalgia. Since her debut SAWAYAMA hit, countless reviews have noted fitting comparisons to artists as stylistically diverse as Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, Evanescence and Linkin Park. Though at the time, particularly if like Sawayama you are now between the ages of 28 and 32, the landscape of music could often be very weird, unrestricted by genre to the point where these acts could easily share the same prominent airtime on MTV without much complaint from a listening audience. As an artist, Sawayama either revels in the contrast of nu metal riffs and sugary-sweet hooks, or is simply unbothered by the distinction; it’s just what pop music is, and has been for decades. What’s more, it’s a fascinating proposition of what pop music could sound like going forward, if music streaming has indeed eliminated labels and borders altogether and replaced it with a voracious magpie approach to listening.
The first taste of Hold The Girl fits the bill in that regard. Its first single ‘This Hell’, a song which whole-heartedly embraces the queer club night aesthetic, draws on the deceptive nature of Sawayama’s most striking work, steeping itself in ironic reference until it breaks through into sincerity again. You could almost run down the song like a checklist of queer-coded pop: digital church bells inspired by Steps’ ‘Tragedy’ (if not perhaps directly sampled from the song itself); allusions to how the press played fast and loose with the lives Britney, Lady Di and Whitney; a down-the-barrel Paris Hilton quotation (“That’s hot”); and most barefaced of all, Shania Twain’s immortal “Let’s go girls”. What’s chintzy or cheesy about pop music is duly weaponised into a cornucopia of defiant joy, slyly winking at conservatism as if to say, if heaven is real and not meant for the likes of us, we never wanted admission anyway.
But ‘This Hell’ belies what the rest of Hold The Girl is really like – which, compared to SAWAYAMA, is a little more subdued on its face. Her debut was a touch more bombastic, more saturated, but surprisingly the more measured tone of Hold The Girl is not to its detriment. It feels more mature and introspective, a heady cocktail stilled, its flavour nonetheless just as outlandish and refreshing. The topic of religious persecution pops up time and time again, another animating force added to Sawayama’s vibrant pop memoir. ‘Holy’ channels Cascada-esque Eurodance with a thunderous percussive run and a rousing chorus (“I was innocent when you said I was evil / I took your stones and built a cathedral”). On the other end of the artist’s sonic spectrum we have ‘Send My Love To John’, a Swiftian bit of acoustic guitar-led storytelling – Taylor Swift’s Folklore seems to have been an inspiration – told from the perspective of a remorseful parent, belatedly trying to make amends with their queer child after disowning them for their sexuality. It’s an interesting switch-up of the paradigm, her past paeans to pastoral care among queer communities like ‘Chosen Family’ happening somewhere just off-screen from a very different narrative about coming to understand a loved one’s needs and desires when it may already be too late.
‘Forgiveness’ offers an ambiguous retort with an orchestral pop swing, and yet another massive chorus – “Sometimes I blame you, sometimes I don’t / Sometimes it flips so fast I don’t know”. The messy religious themes of guilt, self-loathing, soul-searching and acceptance all across Hold The Girl may resonate with anyone brought up feeling at odds with the culture surrounding them, whether in the shadow of the church or not. The album begins with ‘Minor Feelings’, a song which speaks to this kind of displacement with more universal language that, not unlike the SAWAYAMA opener ‘Dynasty’, neatly acts as an overture for what’s to follow: “All my life I’ve felt out of place / All my life I’ve been saving face / All these minor feelings are majorly breaking me down”. The music itself crashes around these revelatory statements, Sawayama’s vocal interwoven with an auto-tuned double. There’s a grand, pained, cathartic drama to it all; a transformative event that shunts your entire life into context.
If Sawayama’s work has always been a loving meta-commentary on the liberatory nature of pop music, Hold The Girl feels like her most genuine statement of that fact. The therapeutic unpacking that occurs across the album is a reminder that, for many of us – Rina Sawayama included, I suspect – pop music offers a stage on which you are permitted to imagine yourself as someone other than what society expects you to be. Hold The Girl is a phrase that feels especially instructive when placed in the context of the song of the same name: “Teach me the words I used to know / Yeah I forgot them long ago,” sings Sawayama over a rumbling organ drone, which eventually bursts into grooves of R&B acoustic guitar and spacey disco swells. Embrace the openness you lost, she seems to say, and never lose it again.
Even where conflicts of faith are not directly presented across the album, the desire to break away more broadly still features prominently, offering some of the album’s highlights. Unlike the debut, nu metal-inspired tracks make a brief but heightened appearance with the likes of ‘Your Age’, an industrial rock send up that sounds a little like ‘Closer’ by Nine Inch Nails, more concerned with the “parents suck” strain of ’90s metal culture than it is about animalistic sex. Its main takeaway is a sense of heretical fun. ‘Catch Me in the Air’ brushes against high school radio rock parody in the vein of Kelly Clarkson or something that could’ve been performed in The Bait Shop venue on The OC, which Sawayama absolutely sells as big dreamer anthem – “Hey there little girl, don’t you want to see the world”. ‘Hurricanes’ feels twinned with the song in tone and atmosphere, like a cut from a particularly fruitful writing session, wielding yet another stellar chorus played out against sideways rain guitars. It’s another example of the excellent production at Sawayama’s disposal, at once gut-wrenchingly nostalgic and yet somehow much more than that – it feels like a rare treat to hear something so unapologetically uplifting and so devoid of market cynicism.
Rina Sawayama may not be ready to speak on what Hold The Girl is “really about”, but in many ways it speaks for itself – and in big, bold language at that. It follows the ebb and flow of a productive therapy programme – a little storytelling, some role-play, revelations big and small – exploring less a single trauma than a neural network of nodes overlapping and responding to one another. For Sawayama, the sounds of pop’s past and present provide a handy tool for mining personal histories, their vocabularies of youthful angst and escape re-contextualised into profound statements of self-discovery. Pop can be about as ‘dangerous’ as conservative mindsets believe it is – at its very best, it can poke and prod at institutions and societal inventions taken as innate, and often, you don’t need to sit with it for very long to understand what it’s getting at.