Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
Digital music platforms like to categorize the music of Rina Sawayama under “alternative,” since one specific genre appears too difficult to pin down. She’s definitely pop, surely dance, with a bit of pop punk and nu-metal sprinkled on top. Her diverse range is showcased masterfully on her sophomore LP, Hold the Girl. On the surface, the record showed early signs of being the latest dance-pop thrill. Underneath, Hold the Girl is a raw and compelling depiction of a queer woman coming to terms with herself and the world around her.
“Turns out I’m going to hell / If I keep on being myself,” Sawayama boldly declares on “This Hell,” the lead single rife with glitzy hooks and a call to action for all non-conformists to unionize. But unlike Sawayama, her eponymous debut studio effort, Hold the Girl possesses a much more refined palette of influences and less sonic diarrhea than its predecessor. Indeed, while her first LP introduced us to one of the most commanding new voices in 2020s pop, it left little to the imagination where practicality was concerned. Hold the Girl, however, is in fact a coming-of-age narrative branded in the form of an alt-pop album, which may have been the smartest move for steering clear of a sophomore slump.
The singer has described her journey in creating her second album as “reparenting” herself, a process of unlearning all the ways we tend to be taught how to fit in growing up. But once we reach a certain age, the last thing a queer person wants to do is blend in. It doesn’t have to be loud, but in Sawayama’s case, she likes broadcasting it that way. On the stadium rock-meets-punk track “Hurricane,” she laments: “Always wanted to be best at everything / Even when it felt the worst at myself / So I create a storm and bury it deep, hiding the key / In plain sight just in case I need help.” On “Catch Me in the Air,” the album’s second single, she speaks to her tortured relationship with her mother and how far she has come: “Mama, look at me now, I’m flying.” But it’s on the title track where her journey of healing who she used to be culminates: “I wanna remember, she is me, and I am her.”
Combining an affinity for the Y2K pop she grew up consuming with a refusal to water herself down for anybody, Sawayama also exposes the hypocrisies she faced growing up during her process of self-reclamation. “I was innocent when you said I was evil,” she proclaims. “I took your stones and I built a cathedral.” There’s a sense of fury and anguish that runs through the album, but in a way that sounds prophetic for the listener and cathartic for their artist. The production is often imperfect, favoring moments of glitchy EDM to convey the disconnect the singer often felt with the world surrounding her. “I ain’t a number you can ever divide,” Sawayama speaks to a figure from her past. “You crossed the line by multiplying the lies.” But the singer makes her tale of growth complete by wrapping it all in a bow of forgiveness, exemplified best by “Send My Love to John,” told from the perspective of an immigrant parent who wronged a gay son.
In an era of pop singers healing their younger selves, Hold the Girl stands out as a queer person making music that is cathartic for both themselves and their listeners. And in an age where it’s simpler to create pop that will satisfy social media algorithms and generate the highest number of streams, Sawayama maintains that there is value in setting the recovery of our traumas to the perfect banger.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Hold the Girl: “Hold the Girl,” “This Hell,” “Catch Me in the Air,” “Your Age,” “Hurricanes,” “Send My Love to John,” “Phantom,” and “To Be Alive”