In my eyes, ever since she first released her debut EP RINA, Rina Sawayama has been shaping the future of pop music. Bold statement, I know. Chock full of bangers like “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” “10-20-40” and “Take Me As I Am,” it was a groovy homage to early 2000s production, growing up on the internet, R&B and icons like Britney Spears.
And, she’s back with her debut album Sawayama. In Sawayama, the Japanese-British artist turns to exploring her experience “being in two different places,” drawing on electronic house pop, grunge and garage rock and sampling and dissecting the experience of being a tourist in Japan.
Honestly, since it was released last Friday, it’s all I’ve been listening to. Ever since I first listened to it fully, I’ve had about 17 wild fan thoughts that are keeping me up at night.
The album is an aural expression of her experience “being in two different places”
Sawayama was born in Niigata, Japan but grew up in London. Her album fuses Japanese sounds and aesthetics with pop rock, stadium rock R&B and experimental House elements reminiscent of Kylie Minogue’s Fever album, which she lists as an inspiration when making the album.
Sawayama has been in the works for a while and it shows
In 2019, a clip surfaced of Rina Sawayama dancing to “Akasaka Sad,” implying that rough cuts of the track and perhaps others were made shortly after RINA was released.
And, not only has that made it long awaited, but, listening to the incredibly polished album made up of 13 absolute certified bangers, it shows.
“Dynasty” is about her troubled childhood and how she broke free
In an interview with them, the chunky-highlights-loving artist explained that growing up was quite tough for her. She experienced her parents’ “messy” divorce, was raised by her single mother (mood) and has a very distant relationship to her father and that side of the family.
Once they divorced, her father moved to Japan and she never really saw him again. She describes this period of her life as “intense,” and says she had to reconnect with a lot of it and old wounds from her trauma for the album.
The album’s opening track, “Dynasty,” is all about that experience. The chorus, as cited by Genius, links her pain as “hereditary, running in [her] bloodstream.”
Then, there’s this part of the bridge.
Mother and father, I know you were raised differently.
Fighting about money and his infidelity.
(Now it’s my time to make things right).
And if I fail, then I am my dynasty.
In “XS,” Rina Sawayama Truly Says Fuck Capitalism
“XS” is undeniably the campest song on the album and a social commentary on capitalism and its aggressive exploitation of labour, natural resources and human life. I mean, the XS in “XS” stands for excess.
As the chorus rings,
Gimme just a little bit more, little bit of excess.
Oh, me, oh, my.
I don’t wanna hear, “no, no.”
Only want a “yes, yes.”
Oh, me, oh, my.
The backing vocals singing “little bit of excess,” “no, no,” and “yes, yes,” instead of Sawayama herself even further echo that this is all part of the capitalist machine, and that none of this is even her own desire. Basically, “when all that’s left is immaterial, and the price we paid is unbelievable, and I’m takin’ in as much as I can hold, here are the things you’ll never know.”
And the music video is no different
In the “XS” music video, Sawayama plays a camp infomercial human-like robot advertising a new drink called the Rina Monster on a morning show.
Cutting to her promoting the product, an iconic choreography and the hosts’ overwhelming “oh my, oh my” response, she then begins to short circuit, before the video cuts back and forth to scientists draining the fluid of a monster, also played by Rina.
As YouTuber Red Rooster suggests, “the draining of the Rina Monster of their fluid represents the extraction of natural resources at any cost. Robot Rina represents how the working class is viewed as expendable in a capitalist society and are expected to perform and comply.”
“When these workers “short out,” they are quickly “thrown away” and replaced. The people walking by are consumers who don’t care where the product comes from or how the materials for its production are obtained.”
Truly, her mind… it amazes me. No other pop artist is making this kind of social commentary right now, imo.
Aaaand I’m going to need to learn the choreography to “XS” before we all come out of self-isolation
For real, not only does the song slap and is it a social commentary on capitalism and its aggressive exploitation of labour, but the dance is so fun and expressive.
“STFU” Is About The White Men Who Fetishise Asian Women
As Sawayama told Paper Magazine, Asian people are pretty invisible in England, so she’s been susceptible to a plethora of micro-aggressions.
On dates, Sawayama has been met with white men on dates who tell her they’re “surprised she sang, y’know… in English,” if she knew about a specific Japanese restaurant in London that’s allegedly authentic because “they hire more asians,” or that she reminds them of Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh (or any other Asian actress), all while stabbing their meals with chopsticks.
In “STFU,” Rina calls out these micro-aggressions with a simple and effective punk rock chorus:
Shut the fuck up
“Akasaka Sad” Is About People Who Come To Tokyo, Say They Love It But Don’t Actually Spend The Time To Learn About Its Culture… And, Oh God, Is That Me???
“Akasaka Sad” is about Akasaka, Japan, a part of her life that’s synonymous with trauma. The song is based on her parents and how Sawayama feels like they’re both equally depressed, but also questions the people who come to Tokyo, say they love it and found themselves but don’t actually spend the time to learn about its culture.
In this way, it follows on from “STFU” quite nicely, calling out the men who fetishise her and her culture.
Interestingly, this is the only song on the album in Japanese. Having a verse in Japanese is her way of connecting with her Japanese heritage, before questioning whether she is even right to criticise these people. She’s not distinctly Japanese as much as she is distinctly British, so, maybe she’s part of the very problem she’s singing about.
The elevator sound at the beginning of “Akasaka Sad” comes from an actual lift in Akasaka, Japan
When Sawayama was in Japan during the time she was making the album, she sampled a series of sounds from the hotel she was staying in in Akasaka in Tokyo. The elevator sound at the beginning of the song, signifying that the door is closing in Japanese, comes from an actual elevator she sampled.
“Paradisin’” Is About The Cultural Differences Between Us And Our Parents, Especially If You Come From A Migrant Family
When you take into account Sawayama admits she had a distant relationship with her Mum, who grew up in rural Japan while Rina was surrounded by the bustling and multicultural ecosystem of London, “Paradisin’” is a reminder of the struggle managing the cultural differences between us and our parents.
In the song, she samples sounds of her mum speaking in Japanese over the phone and sings, “Livin’ my best life thrivin’, you say I’m misbehavin’, but I’m just a kid, so save it, let me have an unforgettable time of my life~.”
In “Bad Friend,” All Those Times We’ve Not Been A Great Friend Are Valid Bcuz Rina’s Done It Too
Listening to “Bad Friend,” I’m reminded of all the times I’ve left a group chat, disappeared from a group of friends or avoided responding to someone in fear of confrontation or being vulnerable.
For Sawayama, the song was, as she told Paper, “about a real, actual friend who I fell out of touch with, and in the morning of writing a song, I checked on her Facebook and saw she had a baby. I was not part of that process whatsoever, and I felt like a terrible friend.”
We’ve all done shitty things in the past and felt guilty for failing to be there for our friends during their time of need (even when sometimes our reasons are quite valid). But, “Bad Friend” kinda makes our experience valid and lets us learn to not feel so guilty bcuz, hell, Rina’s done it too.
“Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” Is A Glorious Song To Bang Ur Head To
For real, I’ve caught myself bopping and banging my head to this almost instinctively.
It’s a total grunge stadium rock banger.
The Chants in “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?” Are Actually Sampled From Her Fans Chanting Her Name At Concerts
Listening to “Chosen Family” reminds me that, during all this Covid-19 mess, I miss my Chosen Family
Chosen family is a term referring to a queer person’s chosen circle of friends, an inner circle of people they rely on and love as if they were own blood family.
“Chosen Family” is an homage to that and, when I’m struggling to cope with living at home and being away from all my friends and support networks, makes me realise just how much I miss my own.
There’s a Final Fantasy easter egg in “Snakeskin”
In Sawayama’s closing song, “Snakeskin,” you can hear the tune of Final Fantasy VII’s “Victory Fanfare” leading into the chorus.
Specifically, around the 1:08 mark.
Side note: “Snakeskin” would be a great lip sync song on RuPaul’s Drag Race
Listening to “Snakeskin” and the imagery within the song of shedding your snakeskin, I can totally imagine it being a really fun number to lip sync to.
I mean, imagine if Shangela, the queen of props in RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 3, came out on stage wrapped in a snakeskin and slowly teared it away to reveal an avant-garde Sawayama-inspired look? I’d die.