In recent years, pop music’s had a moment or two. A genre generally looked down upon by critics and hipsters, in the past few years artists making pop have done so on terms essentially their own.
If you look back at the last couple years of music, you can see the changes. Grimes’ Art Angels was a Technicolor splash, making her spare electro beats into a bombastic, glossy crossover success. Artists as diverse as The Darcys to PC Music to Carly Rae Jepsen have gone a similar route, winning over critics and fans alike. And it’s where some of the more interesting, young voices are coming from.
Rina Sawayama’s one such voice.
A London-based, Japanese model and singer, Sawayama’s been kicking at the fringes for a couple of years now – she released the single “Where U Are” nearly two years ago – but only recently released a debut EP. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s been worth the wait.
In eight songs on RINA, Sawayama’s music twists and turns from slick electro-pop to guitar-driven dance floor bangers. Her voice is reedy and thin, but fits well into the aesthetic here: a sort of forward facing, retro-tinged pop. There’s lots of keyboards and layers of haze, but the drum patterns sound like they’re straight out of 1999.
It’s an interesting mix.
RINA opens with “Ordinary Superstar,” where with a distinctly British lilt, Sawayama sings about how she’s just like us and twists a pop cliché into a new line: “Don’t you want to be / ordinary with me?” Meanwhile, on “Take Me As I Am,” the groove has a distinct 90s R&B vibe (you can practically see the background dancers), which could easily come off as ironic or a Britney Spears pastiche, but to Sawayama’s credit, she plays it straight.
She’s not entirely free from camp, however. On “10-20-40,” she works against a keyboard-driven beat, singing melodramatic lyrics about not fitting in: she goes from speeding down the highway to implying she’ll overdose on pills. It’s basically from the same playbook Phil Spector used way back when, except now there’s an undertone of social media at work.
And that social media vibe is all over the album’s closing track, “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.”
Against a slick, R&B backing, Sawayama sings about images and social media addiction: “Find me in my palm so bright / cyber Stockholm syndrome.” She’s the woman in the corner of the party, only occasionally looking up from her phone. As the song climaxes with clicking drum machines and a guitar surge, she sings about how she’d rather be on her phone, but doesn’t seem too happy about it.
It’s a theme she’s been working at since nearly the beginning. Her 2016 single “Where U Are,” touches on many of the same ideas: image versus reality, a curated social projection versus what someone’s really like. But now she’s more lonesome and perhaps depressed: back then, she couldn’t get out of her room; now she has, but she’d rather go back. As Sawayama mentioned in a recent interview, a primary inspiration for her songwriting is the constant anxiety of social media.
In recent months, underground pop icons like Charli XCX or Tove Lo have released new records to critical acclaim, if not crossover success. But Sawayama’s EP came and went without too much more than a few articles and interviews. It took me a while to get around to it, too. But if either of those two artists do anything for you, Sawayama’s debut likely will, too.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.