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On 'Hold the Girl,' Rina Sawayama's stadium sound obscures her signature appeal

Each track on Rina Sawayama's <em>Hold The Girl</em> is extremely, outlandishly major, proceeding at an exhausting intensity.
Thurstan Redding
/
Courtesy of the artist
Each track on Rina Sawayama's Hold The Girl is extremely, outlandishly major, proceeding at an exhausting intensity.

Rina Sawayama's second album, Hold the Girl, is named after a term she learned in therapy. To help the British-Japanese popstar recover from the pains of assimilation, homophobia and sexual trauma that had cheated her out of being her true self since her youth, she would "re-parent" herself, reclaiming what had been lost. Restoration is also the strategy that underpins her genre-clashing pop. In a recent interview, Sawayama explained that by bringing together "out-of-fashion" styles that no other artists dared touch, she could escape sounding dated and surprise listeners. It's a funny idea given that music from every era is perpetually available and there's no knowing what arcane curio or yesteryear hit TikTok might funnel down the pipe next. That tactic worked strikingly on her 2020 debut, SAWAYAMA, filled with cheekily clever and often genuinely surprising hybrids that pilfered from Y2K pop and nu-metal, finessed by Sawayama's sharp focus and clear wit. Songs like "STFU!" and "Dynasty" sounded as if Sawayama had written the abrasive, flashy hit to broker a truce between TRL-era foes Christina Aguilera and Fred Durst — albeit with appealingly knowing lyrics about microaggressions and intergenerational trauma.

Released in April 2020, that audacious record was enough to keep Sawayama's fledgling star high even as the pandemic hampered her real-life progress. She was, as she's often said, a late-starter in pop terms — 29 before she signed a record deal with Dirty Hit, the artist-friendly pop label home to The 1975, Wolf Alice and Beabadoobee — and raring to catch up. In 2018, I witnessed an early headline set at a 300-capacity London basement where, just like at those apocryphal early Lady Gaga shows, Sawayama and two dancers performed flawless choreo to essentially a desk fan. She's always given stadium and is revered as a superstar among extremely online pop fans; she's collaborated with Elton John and she was a must-see act at this summer's festivals. It all points to an unstoppable upward trajectory, and Hold the Girl scales accordingly. Here she spreads herself even more widely across genre to hoover up musical theater, country, CCM, goth, schlager, two-step and quite whatever it was The Corrs were.

Sawayama's choices may be unusual but her catholic sensibility isn't really. Two of the year's best albums have a studious and loving collagist spirit: Both Rosalía's Motomami and Beyoncé's Renaissance are full of deep personal and historical references; they're thrillingly innovative, and most importantly, aggressive amounts of fun. Pop's experimental underbelly has long been about reveling in the grotesqueries of so-called bad taste. (Just this month, British duo Jockstrap's debut I Love You Jennifer B made a masterpiece of the form.) In this competitively inventive field, Hold the Girl defaults on the mutant glee of SAWAYAMA: It seldom exceeds the sum of its parts and meticulously finishes every seam. In that sense, it is surprisingly traditional for an artist with a huge online appeal, though parts of it also feel entirely of a piece with the call-and-response of shallow internet engagement: Hey, recognize this? The riotous "This Hell" is one of the album's more effective songs, about defying homophobes to readily swig Satan's Apple Sourz on the path to "eternal damnation." It has a great line dancing-worthy chorus you can't believe nobody's written before, but it doesn't stray beyond the brief "Shania meets Gaga," and Sawayama's sprinkling of namechecks — Paris Hilton, Britney, Whitney, Lady Di and The Devil Wears Prada — feel like empty pop-cultural gestures.

Where SAWAYAMA had a sleek integrity all of its own, Hold the Girl is rife with these ceaseless, attention-deflecting winks. "Forgiveness" is Frozen's "Let It Go" by way of ABBA and Sarah McLachlan. "Hurricanes" is theater-kid "Sk8er Boi." Many of these songs feel rigid with intention, as if they were envisaged as set pieces for a spectacular live show. The glitchy, towering "Hold the Girl" has a sentimental outro of gauzy atmospherics, pounding drums and a consecutive one-two of the album's many, many key changes that invites you to picture a gymnastics duo reducing cold-hearted judges to tears with a moving athletic spectacular. "Holy," a Eurobanger brazenly influenced by Depeche Mode, makes space for a showstopping drum breakdown. Despite the last 30 years of mainstream U.S. pop clearly being the biggest influence on the album, there are stiff Americanisms — "I ain't lo-o-o-ost," she warbles on "Forgiveness" — that feel like someone else's lines.

It's also aggressively overproduced. (Stuart Price and Paul Epworth join Sawayama and her regular collaborator Clarence Clarity here.) As with Lizzo's Cuz I Love You, the extra-ness is, presumably, the point. The album opens with "Minor Feelings," a song named after an essay collection by the Korean-American author Cathy Park Hong about how being Asian American taught Hong to suppress what she called "the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric and therefore untelegenic." As with the opener of Adele's 30, "Strangers By Nature," it's a gently satirical overture: a lavish, fluttering reverie that takes a turn for the sinister as Sawayama reveals the damage of a lifetime of diminishment: "All these minor feelings / Are majorly breaking me down," she sings, a cruel lick of distortion strafing her operatic delivery and almost turning her lament into a threat. The gag is that the 12 songs that follow are extremely, outlandishly major. Almost every song proceeds at an exhausting intensity and is pungent with the distinct whiff of dry ice — it's so much like sitting through Eurovision that you half expect the late U.K. commentator Terry Wogan to pop up between songs with a sly remark about Estonia.

Occasionally, Sawayama lands a sweet spot of intensity and innovation that puts her in the superstar leagues she's clearly aiming for. "Catch Me in the Air," an imagined anthem of healing sung between Sawayama's younger self and her mother, has a soaring, hyper-oxygenated Celtic pop-rock chorus that delivers an exhilarating natural high. And the tweaky "Your Age" transcends its Nine Inch Nails cosplay with a wrenching chorus about reckoning with an imbalance of power in a formative relationship: "Now that I'm your age / I just can't imagine / Why did you do it / What the hell were you thinking?" Sawayama seethes, her delivery bursting with defiance and anguish. In another recent interview, Pitchfork critic Vrinda Jagota said to Sawayama: "Growing up in Asian families, there can be a lot of pressure to do things exactly right, which makes it hard to have a growth mindset where you value the process of trying and failing at new things, especially in creative fields." Sawayama agreed: Undoing the "sense of obligation ... that can come from parental pressure" had "let the creative juices flow." You feel that sense of freedom in these songs, which makes the forced ones jar that much more.

The problem is less that Sawayama is drawing from so-called bad-taste sources than the fact that the disparate parts often feel like flavor profiles that don't mix. The final song, "To Be Alive," bridles fist-to-chest triumph to a racing breakbeat, dry, funky guitar, and Sawayama's processed voice affirming the Insta caption homily: "Flowers still look pretty when they're dying." It is often painfully cloying: "Phantom," the second explicit song about re-parenting herself after the title track, is swashbuckling, saccharine X Factor balladry. Plenty is awkward but nothing is off. There's no funk, no acid — the gut-busting earnestness of Hold the Girl sifts the grit from the oyster, too self-conscious for camp delight.

Perhaps the album's greatest shortfall is how Sawayama's dogged big-tent sensibility smothers what is obviously a personal record. The relentless scale of her major feelings grinds her nuanced story to a paste — in contrast, think of Charli XCX's Crash, a self-professed genre exercise in playing the part of major-label popstar in which you still acutely felt the British popstar's anxieties and pain come through her turbo-charged pop. At her most specific, Sawayama sings with her whole heart about her radical vision of love as a 32-year-old: her reconciliation with herself, her mother; imagining the same for friends estranged from their families on "Send My Love to John." It's admirably guileless, although fiercely mawkish: If you routinely skipped the SAWAYAMA ballad "Chosen Family," then bad luck. Otherwise, the lyrics are heavy with concepts from therapy that fit clunkily in pop songs, rote allusions to weather (rain rhymes with pain, skies with eyes) and start-from-the-title songwriting ("Frankenstein") that deny Sawayama the distinct language she flexed on SAWAYAMA. For an album that's about trying to reconnect with a stolen self, what's surprising is how often you're left searching for Sawayama in a noisy hall of mirrors that obscures her appeal instead of reflecting it.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Snapes