Review: Rina Sawayama

Rina Sawayama is a talented pop artist who has been blending genres and experimenting with boundaries since her solo career began in 2013 with the release of her single “Sleeping in Waking.” For the next few years, she continued releasing singles until the 2017 debut of her mini independent album, Rina. This album, which she had to work to save money for three years to release, received critical acclaim and garnered enough popular attention in the electropop scene to allow her to tour with Charli XCX as a support act in 2019.

After receiving so much attention for her independent work, Sawayama finally signed to Dirty Hit Records in early 2020 and released several singles from her then upcoming debut full-length album. The full work, another self-titled piece entitled SAWAYAMA, was released in April of 2020. It skillfully blends a variety of different genres, influences and sounds into a genuinely unique and cohesive record.

The record synthesizes elements of nu metal with electropop/avant-pop while also paying homage to 2000’s dance music. Some of the most interesting blends of these sounds are most strongly juxtaposed in the singles “STFU!” and “XS.” Both have a distinctly poppy 2000’s inspired vocal sound but also bend the genre by incorporating heavy guitar riffs and other experimental elements.

The first few tracks, which include these two singles, have some of the most prominent rock influences, which begin to transition back towards pop with the song “Comme des Garçons” and continues with “Alasaka Sad” and “Paradisin’.” These and “Tokyo Love Motel” are some of the purest pop pieces on the album, but that should not be conflated with unoriginality. Sawayama maintains a unique and distinctive sound that threads the tracks together and smoothly balances transitions between genres and moods.

Despite Sawayama’s critical acclaim and innovative contributions to the pop genre, she and many other Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) artists aren’t given the recognition they deserve in the field. Similar to the dismissal of disco in the ‘70s, pop as a whole is often trivialized because of misogyny and homophobia, but artists of color are often underrecognized even within the genre. Pop tends to be viewed as overwhelmingly white despite foundations laid by Black artists, and all too many festivals and awards reflect that.

For example, this summer there was controversy surrounding Sawayama’s ineligibility for British music awards which was based on the fact that she did not have British citizenship. Born in Niigata, Japan, she had moved to London at age five and lived there ever since. Celebrities and fans, including Elton John, got the hashtag #SawayamaIsBritish trending on Twitter, but even this support contests and polices her identity.

Sawayama was emerging on the pop scene at around the same time as Grimes. Both did similar electronic genre-bending with pop music; yet, Grimes is now recognized as a pioneer in that field in a way Sawayama is not. They certainly have very different sounds despite drawing on similar influences, but we have to ask why the overwhelming majority of widely recognized electronic pop artists are white. Why was SAWAYAMA not considered more of a turning point in pop or at the very least recognized for its innovation? Pop, especially electronic and hyperpop, is largely dominated by women and LGBT people. Because of this and the subsequent trivialization of the genre, it is sometimes considered to be more inclusive, but the continuous exclusion of BIPOC artists shows that this ostensible inclusion is incredibly selective.

SAWAYAMA has been rightfully praised by critics and certainly has expanded Sawayama’s popularity as an artist. The work is far from obscure or a flop but also hasn’t necessarily gotten the recognition it deserves especially compared to other recent pop releases, such as Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now or Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia. As a genre, pop has certainly provided spaces for gay and trans artists to have platforms and test boundaries, but it is also critical that we acknowledge its limits and avoid conflating them with liberation.