Rina Sawayama Continues to Defy Pop Conventions

by Elisabeth Cook
Rina Sawayama at Bardot-Hollywood in Los Angeles, 2018. Photo: Justin Higuchi (CC BY 2.0)

I heard a lot about Rina Sawayama and her 2018 single “Cherry” before I ever listened to it myself. It was, I learned through swooningly enthusiastic social media posts, written from a bi/pansexual perspective by an Asian artist—how amazing was that? But on first listen, its shiny mainstream pop feel didn’t resonate with me. Maybe, prepared for disappointment, I dismissed it too quickly. Months later, I heard the piano version and found it devastatingly beautiful. After that, I returned to the single and was blown away. While it had tricked me into thinking that it was overproduced and vapid, in reality I realized the song was actually consciously lush and sculpted.

Where U Are,” a 2016 release I discovered after “Cherry,” also had me fooled. This one, I thought, was going to be a straightforward, if slowed-down, cover of Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are.” But “cover” isn’t quite the word for a complete reimagining that, along with the video, constitutes an angsty and profound statement about connections in our extremely online era. Again, I was floored.

Now, Rina has announced that her first full-length album, Sawayama, will be out in April, and the two singles released ahead of it are just what I’ve come to expect from her—that is, unexpected.

The first, “STFU!,” comes paired with a video focusing on microaggressions, which starts with a scene of dialogue between Rina and a white guy who’s being casually racist to her. One of the many delightful things about this video is that it references Lucy Liu in Kill Bill Vol. 1 before implementing a shot that recalls the scenes where Beatrix Kiddo (Uma Thurman) enters vengeful murder mode. (Credit to ATi Produces for spotting this.) In the film, Liu’s Asian character O-Ren Ishii is the second of the Deadly Viper assassins who Beatrix offs in her revenge rampage, after the Black character Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox). Except here, of course, it’s Rina who may kill this man.

The song kicks off with a nu-metalish rock riff uncharacteristic of Rina’s music thus far. It’s an angry song, but the chorus is soft and sweet, which is appealing both musically and in terms of the situation portrayed. After all, leaning into one’s anger usually only has a positive outcome for leads in Tarantino movies. Rina Sawayama has said that she wanted to show “the inner battle that goes on every time there’s a microaggression thrown at you.”

Her most recent single, “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys),” acknowledges another common social dilemma—how people, regardless of gender, are often expected to only express confidence in conventionally masculine ways. Unlike “STFU!,” though, “Comme Des Garçons” is less a reaction to societal restraints and more a chill celebration of true confidence, or as Rina puts it, “a club fashion banger that makes you feeling like THAT bitch whoever you are.”

That Rina may appear to be reinventing herself before her first LP even hits may indicate that she isn’t actually reinventing herself at all. Maybe she’s just tuned in to a different pulse than the obvious one. The way she deconstructs popular music forms and uses them as vehicles to address deeper issues reminds me a bit of Stromae and what he did with songs like “Alors On Danse,” a single constructed to sound like a simple dance track that reflects on the emptiness of modern life.

Regardless of what direction she takes next, it’s exciting to see Rina Sawayama carving out big, beautiful spaces for marginalized people in the pop culture arena, making our struggles and celebrations visible.


Photo credit to Justin Higuchi(CC BY 2.0).

Related Posts

%d bloggers like this: