Have you ever started following a music act that has that once-in-a-generation mix of exceptional style, looks, lyrical wit, melodical skills, and production, the kind of act that you listen to just a few tracks and say, “damn, this one is bound to become a superstar!” You start rooting for them as if it were your football team, you see them grow a loyal audience, and then they simply never manage to cross over into mainstream, stadium-filling success. They have the respect and patronage of their peers, they have a comfortable cult following, they probably have top fashion designers fighting over them. But they also have bops, songs that are much better than most of the Spotify Top 50 yet still accessible, but still, the public ignores them, even though they deserve to be stars. Has that happened to you?
What is that you say? That the answer is yes, you’re huge fans of Janelle Monaé?, and had Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” on repeat the moment it came out? And that I should stop worrying, time will prove them right? OK. I’ll say no more.
This article is about one specific artist that can comfortably be called iconic, once-in-a-generation talent and all those modifiers, and one that I hope does become a crossover success. Perhaps she doesn’t need that, but I’m in campaign manager mode right now so, please, meet Rina Sawayama.
Rina was born in Niigata, Japan, but moved at age of five to London, where she has resided ever since. Cut to her Uni years, where she attended Magdalene College, Cambridge, because of excellence, studying politics, psychology and sociology. It is there where she came into her own as an artist and decided to pursue a career in music. Look, I will not delve further into her biography and career milestones, because her cover profile for Billboard magazine (for the Pride Special) already did that much better than I could.
The other thing you need to know is that she will make her film debut in John Wick 4, which might be her definitive breakout. There are no details on her role, but considering she was one of the first new cast announcements, my prediction is that she will be the main “hunter” villain, like Common and Mark Dacascos in the previous installments. Though in that Deadline announcement, a commenter predicted she would play John Wick’s long-lost daughter, which is a huge bag of Yes and Give Me Keanu Reeves Finding Redemption in Fatherhood.
Now let’s dive into her music. The first thing you need to know is that Rina is a huge, unrepentant fan of late 90s, early 2000s music. I’m not saying unrepentant lightly; she is keen to admit how, for example, she got into learning guitar through Avril Lavigne, not to mention an earnest love of all things Britney, Christina, and others in the Great Max Martin Family. But I also say unrepentant because many of us, Millennials and older, regard the music of that era not unlike the establishment of the first McDonalds: Delicious but also The Moment Everything Started to Go Wrong. Let’s be honest before the cycle of nostalgia kicks in: The 2000s was not exactly a glorious age in mainstream music. Like with most things that went wrong that decade, I blame this on the Bush administration and its post-9/11 dumbing down of popular culture, but there’s something to be said about how TRL-era pop put restraints on every progress made during the ’90s. It was as if the Fashion Club and jock crowd had won a cultural war over the Darias and Janes. However, nobody can resist that Max Martin sound; there is an infectious, communicative effectiveness to the pop of that era. It doesn’t have the virtuosity of Brian Wilson, the meeting of cheerfulness and melancholy in ABBA or Michael Jackson rock-by-way-of-pop inventions; instead, it has a quality where it falls into your ear as dramatic and complex as ’70s prog-rock, but being as fun and accessible as ’50s novelty songs. I’ve always thought that if you combined the sound of the Backstreet Boys/NSYNC with lyrics that actually had a brain, you could conquer the world.
This is exactly where Rina Sawayama excels. She has managed to extract and maximize the best parts of that era’s sound into something uniquely her own (shoutout to her producer/collaborator Clarence Clarity). When you listen to her first EP, Rina, what you hear is a fully formed artist. None of the tracks are affected by that season one awkwardness nor is she finding her footing. That would be a challenge for a Punk or Folk artist, for a Pop artist, it’s what earns her the title of once-in-a-generation. In particular, Rina traces its lineage to a sound that has not aged a day and mothered 2000s pop: ’90s and early ’00s R&B. You can hear Mariah, you can hear Dupri, you can hear TLC, but inflected with more contemporaneous arrangements. In that respect, Rina can claim two major accomplishments. First, you can hear the influences, but it does not sound like she’s treading on nostalgia (something The 1975, also represented by indie label Dirty Hit, are also brilliant at. Fight Me). Second, it’s her lyrical talent.
Here is the Sawayama the Cambridge student. It’s a hard job to be a good lyricist in pop. There is the temptation of just relying on the music and production, but for someone with her academic background, there is also the temptation of either going full pseudo-intellectual or, worse yet, contenting herself with witticism and leave it at that. Sawayama, in her earnest love of 2000s pop, is fluent in that language and found a way to make it say something more than middle-class, first-worlder problems, and infuses it with Millennial and immigrant concerns: Alienation, anxiety, the weight of aspirationalism, code-switching, generational trauma, oh! and of course, a proud queer identity.
Rina is proudly and openly pansexual, with all of her love songs being about girls, her artistic journey was forged within queer communities of color. And that, I think, is why she has made the musical style and language of the 2000s her own: She is reappropriating, for her community, a musical style that got many, many, many Millennial LGTBI+ kids through the sh*tstorm that is school. It was queer kids that saw Britney during 2007 and stood by her, way before she was allowed to embrace their fandom (f**king Bush era). That’s a checkmate if there’s ever any to us, cishet and mostly straight music snobs. Cue “Chosen Family,” written as an anthem for queer people, but should also be heard by the huge amount of people in the US whose families are part of the Vanilla ISIS spectrum.
But there’s another side to that era, as Todd In The Sadows reminds us. TRL as a show and MTV at the time featured a wider range of musical styles than what we remember, all blended and hyperdecanted into a sonic landscape that, somehow, worked: Eminem, then Britney, then Linkin Park, then Santana, then Usher, then Dirty South Rap, then Green Day. Her first LP, Sawayama, is such a coherent and effective trip through different musical genres that she should be named an honorary Latina. The funniest one is “STFU!”, a nü-metal rant aimed at the diet racist that still try to get in your pants. Racism that marked her life, starting with industry f**kwads mocking her last name to her album, regarded as one of the best of 2020, being deemed ineligible at the Mercury and Brit Awards because she’s technically not British, but a resident. The outrage was such that they eventually changed that sh*t.
I wish she made a 10-hour loop of the chorus for us to post in the replies of Tories and GOPers.
Hopefully, this will convince you to become an active member in her party (the Pixels) and spread Her Good Word. Below is a playlist with all her songs. Mind you, this should not count as part of a Pajiba 10 campaign. Yet. I’m planning to go all in next year, with the release of John Wick 4.
Header Image Source: "Getty Images"