Written by Angela
Graphic by Yiru Ouyang
Like many others, I discovered Rina Sawayama a bit over two years ago when the music video for “XS”, the third single off her debut album SAWAYAMA, was trending on YouTube. Hooked by her fusion of 2000s pop and rock, I began following her career and eventually listened to the rest of the album, impressed by the broad range of heavy topics she attacked – intergenerational trauma, queer solidarity, racist microaggressions.
Naturally, I looked forward to the release of her second album, Hold The Girl, which returns to many of the same themes as SAWAYAMA with a high-energy vengeance. The album opens with “Minor Feelings” (after the book of the same name), which features lyrics about saving face in reaction to microaggressions, sung over full harmonies. She goes more into her experiences with racism and hatred as a university student in “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)”, a track with a catchy electronic beat and plenty of religious metaphor to boot. She sings, “I was innocent when you said I was evil / I took your stones and I built a cathedral”, and she describes herself as a martyr who “found my peace when I lost my religion”. The reclamation of religious ideas to overcome religious trauma is a recurring theme throughout the album, such as in “This Hell”, Hold The Girl’s catchy anti-homophobia lead single, in which she celebrates her “invitation to eternal damnation” with the rest of the queer community.
Sawayama ties queer themes to diasporic parental relationships with “Send My Love To John”, a ballad written from the perspective of an immigrant mother reconciling with her estranged gay son. Similarly, Sawayama’s relationship with her mother is the focus of the album’s second single, “Catch Me In The Air”, which alternates between the perspective of a mother and a child. When the song was released, Sawayama wrote about how she struggled to connect with her mother as a child because of the cultural gap between them – mother-daughter relationships being an especially relevant theme in Asian diasporic media with the successes of Crying In H-Mart and Everything Everywhere All At Once. The end of “Catch Me In The Air” describes their relationship as they learn to understand and forgive each other, with Sawayama singing, “Look at us now, way past the clouds that haunted your dreams / I hope that you're proud”.
In the aptly-named track “Forgiveness”, Sawayama sings about the difficulties of the journey of forgiveness while acknowledging its importance. Forgiveness is but a part of the album's theme of reconciling trauma, as is anger, expressed in the heavily-produced hyperpop-adjacent track “Your Age”. She lashes out at an older figure in her life, asking them, “'Cause now that I'm your age, I just can't imagine / Why did you do it? What the hell were you thinking?”. She holds it over them that she “survived the social suicide”, while building herself up as “not a secret, not a problem” and telling them “I can see you clearly / Yeah, you better fear me”. She also discusses codependency as a coping mechanism for trauma in “Frankenstein”, asking her lover to “Put me together one more time / Love me forever, fix me right”.
However, the core, eponymous idea of Sawayama’s emotional journey in Hold The Girl is based not on her relationships with others, but herself. In “Hold The Girl”, she sings, “Reach inside and hold you close / I won’t leave you on your own”, and she reconciles her identity and desires with a younger version of herself (the titular girl). She sings of her past self, “I wanna remember / she is me and I am her”, and in the penultimate track, “Phantom”, she says, “I’ve been tryna find her since / She gave a little too much away”, and she compares her lost younger self to a ghost. She discusses her “dying to be liked” and people-pleasing tendencies, leading to her compromising her identity. The album’s finale, “To Be Alive”, has Sawayama come to terms with all of her trauma and reconnect with herself, singing brightly and confidently, “I finally know what it feels like to be alive.”