Rina Sawayama’s second album, Hold the Girl, is named after a term she learned in therapy. To help the British-Japanese popstar recover from the pains of assimilation, homophobia and sexual trauma that had cheated her out of being her true self since her youth, she would “re-parent” herself, reclaiming what had been lost.
Restoration is also the strategy that underpins her genre-clashing pop. In a recent interview, Sawayama explained that by bringing together “out-of-fashion” styles that no other artists dared touch, she could escape sounding dated and surprise listeners. It’s a funny idea given that music from every era is perpetually available and there’s no knowing what arcane curio or yesteryear hit TikTok might funnel down the pipe next. That tactic worked strikingly on her 2020 debut, SAWAYAMA, filled with cheekily clever and often genuinely surprising hybrids that pilfered from Y2K pop and nu-metal, finessed by Sawayama’s sharp focus and clear wit. Songs like “STFU!” and “Dynasty” sounded as if Sawayama had written the abrasive, flashy hit to broker a truce between TRL-era foes Christina Aguilera and Fred Durst — albeit with appealingly knowing lyrics about microaggressions and intergenerational trauma.
Released in April 2020, that audacious record was enough to keep Sawayama’s fledgling star high even as the pandemic hampered her real-life progress. She was, as she’s often said, a late-starter in pop terms — 29 before she signed a record deal with Dirty Hit, the artist-friendly pop label home to The 1975, Wolf Alice and Beabadoobee — and raring to catch up. In 2018, I witnessed an early headline set at a 300-capacity London basement where, just like at those apocryphal early Lady Gaga shows, Sawayama and two dancers performed flawless choreo to essentially a desk fan. She’s always given stadium and is revered as a superstar among extremely online pop fans; she’s collaborated with Elton John and she was a must-see act at this summer’s festivals. It all points to an unstoppable upward trajectory, and Hold the Girl scales accordingly. Here she spreads herself even more widely across genre to hoover up musical theater, country, CCM, goth, schlager, two-step and quite whatever it was The Corrs were.
Sawayama’s choices may be unusual but her catholic sensibility isn’t really. Two of the year’s best albums have a studious and loving collagist spirit: Both Rosalía’s Motomami and Beyoncé’s Renaissance are full of deep personal and historical references; they’re thrillingly innovative, and most importantly, aggressive amounts of fun. Pop’s experimental underbelly has long been about reveling in the grotesqueries of so-called bad taste. (Just this month, British duo Jockstrap’s debut I Love You Jennifer B made a masterpiece of the form.) In this competitively inventive field, Hold the Girl defaults on the mutant glee of SAWAYAMA: It seldom exceeds the sum of its parts and meticulously finishes every seam. In that sense, it is surprisingly traditional for an artist with a huge online appeal, though parts of it also feel entirely of a piece with the call-and-response of shallow internet engagement: Hey, recognize this? The riotous “This Hell” is one of the album’s more effective songs, about defying homophobes to readily swig Satan’s Apple Sourz on the path to “eternal damnation.” It has a great line dancing-worthy chorus you can’t believe nobody’s written before, but it doesn’t stray beyond the brief “Shania meets Gaga,” and Sawayama’s sprinkling of namechecks — Paris Hilton, Britney, Whitney, Lady Di and The Devil Wears Prada — feel like empty pop-cultural gestures.