By Marvin Villanueva, Sept. 27, 2022
After the release of her genre-bending, breakout album, “SAWAYAMA,” pop star Rina Sawayama returns with her most vulnerable and artfully evocative album yet, “Hold the Girl.”
Released on Sept. 16 through her label, Dirty Hit, “Hold the Girl” is a brilliant ode to pop music’s lengthy past with its intricate blend of dance, electropop and arena rock. Throughout the album, Sawayama expertly wears her influences on her sleeve to create a sonically cathartic response against society’s oppressive forces.
The record’s first song “Minor Feelings,” exemplifies this idea as it lyrically shows the personal eroding effects of marginalization.
Gaining its title from Cathy Park Hong’s collection of essays, Sawayama told Apple Music that Hong uses this title to describe “this collective feeling that a lot of Asian Americans have about racial microaggressions,” and how these minor feelings build into major emotional shutdowns. In the song’s composition, Sawayama cleverly maneuvers listeners through both minor and major chords to present these emotions openly.
On the title track, “Hold the Girl” vibrant synths push the song between being both a dance-pop anthem and a sentimental power ballad that describes the idea of embracing your inner child to move forward. Sawayama expertly meets both soundscapes by holding long notes within the slower tempo aspects of the song and coordinating her vocals to the faster repetitive rhythm of the song’s refrain. The track is auditory bliss.
The album’s lead single, “This Hell,” is a masterwork in celebrating the sounds of past pop innovators. The song is steeped in Shania Twain influenced country pop, shouting out Twain by kicking off the song with “Let’s go girls!” the iconic intro from her 1999 hit “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” Sawayama also skillfully interpolates the guitar riff from ABBA’s “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and samples the opening synth to Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” throughout to create an electrifying club track that recognizes the importance of community.
The track is a cheeky embrace of queerness and chosen families in the face of religious homophobia, as Sawayama defiantly sings, “God hates us? Alright then! / Buckle up, at dawn we’re riding.”
These themes embolden the album as Sawayama told Elle “my chosen family and I are queer, and they are not hearing the songs that represent them,” pushing her to want to make more meaningful work. “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” is a testament to this mission statement.
A momentum-building rave song about growing up LGBTQ within a religion that shamed and condemned her, Sawayama laments her past singing, “Found my peace when I lost my religion / All these years I wished I was different / But oh, oh / Now I know.” Showing that despite her wounds, Sawayama embraces her identity.
Similarly, “Send My Love to John,” a heartfelt acoustic guitar number, sensitively tells the story of Sawayama’s friend and how his mother apologized for not accepting him because of his sexuality. The track is the best example of Sawayama’s storytelling ability as she gracefully weaves the generational pain of immigrant parents and their LGBTQ children into an earnest ballad about regret and unconditional love.
“Catch Me in the Air” presents a similar complicated relationship between an immigrant mother and her child but from the perspective of Sawayama.
Told from both perspectives, the song describes how both parties after years of disagreements finally understand each other and can cement the love they share. Within a track that sounds like an early-2000s Aly & AJ soft pop song, Sawayama’s vocals soar under layers of lush synths that crescendo within the chorus.
“Hurricanes” however, is the roughest patch on this album as the weather imagery describing Sawayama’s shifting emotions falls flat. Sonically the song is not interesting until the bridge, where it picks up with a needed electric guitar riff, desperately providing the song with the energy it needs.
The final two tracks, “Phantom” and “To Be Alive” elegantly close the album’s main themes.
“Phantom” is a sensitive rock track that lyrically shows Sawayama embracing the inner child she’s been singing about since the title track. Repeatedly singing, “I don’t want to do this without you,” the song shows Sawayama’s self-acceptance of the person she used to be. “To Be Alive” is sheer ecstasy, with an earworm dance production, the closer is a pop rebirth that moves past the album’s agony into a hopeful finish.
Glimmeringly effervescent and musically varied, “Hold the Girl,” secures Sawayama’s place as one of pop music’s most innovative, emerging voices.
Feature image courtesy of Lauren Wong