The Japanese-British dynamo is tapping into pop stans’ progressive ideals with rebellious nostalgia.
“Well, the crowd was a lot of gay people,” says Harini, an Indian-American college student from Illinois.
“I’ve never been around that many queer people before,” she says of a Rina Sawayama concert she attended at the Riviera Theater on April 30th. Delayed for two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sawayama embarked on her Dynasty tour in 2022. “I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but there was something comforting and magical about being in that space where everyone was like me.”
Rina Sawayama’s tour came off the heels of her self-titled 2020 album that gilded her name among poptimist critics and a generation of open-minded, online fans seeking new realms of artistic expression within the world’s most accessible music form. But what is pop, anyway? The term was coined as shorthand for “popular music” in the 40s and 50s to denote a change in music culture, one which came hand-in-hand with the developments of the living room record player and the television in the West. The former allowed for music to be recorded and accessed by any willing listener, thus incentivizing its producers to release it in consumable, marketable forms; the latter introduced it as a domestic audiovisual spectacle.
Our pop stars historically have been by-and-large safe and simple; the brightest among them, from Prince to Britney, found ways to inject experimentation and humanist energy into forms which so easily could feel plastic and mass-produced (and all but were).
But it’s that pervasive sense of commercial essentialism, the pop-star-as-product pipeline endemic to the industry, that has made the form feel obsolete in 2022. The authenticist energies of hip-hop and the unkempt virality of Internet music sensations leave the pop industry a desperate ancien régime, using whatever it can to reassert its relevance despite the odds.
From there, “pop” feels more a philosophical question than a well-defined music category; artists like Rina Sawayama are at once leaders of a nostalgic pop music renaissance and a rebuke of a cynical pop industry. Born in Niigata and raised in London, the singer-songwriter rocks intricate outfits, dances with emphatic sensuality, and sings like an angel. Her records shift between nostalgic genres and production choices, often carried by sticky hooks and belty bridges. A pop star, no?
"In a time period wherein misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic sentiment and lawmaking have gained steam, the world seems to need Sawayama more than ever."
A new age pop star, absolutely; her artistic bona fides feel detached from typical pop star fare. For one, she is Asian, and she sings about it with depth and nuance– a duality that would be all but unheard of in Western pop prior to the late 2010s, through no fault of Asian acts themselves. “The pain in my vein is hereditary,” Sawayama proclaims in her album and tour’s broody opener, “Dynasty.”
It’s that pain that Sawayama is unafraid to bare for her audience that also reads remarkably. She is an openly bisexual woman from a marginalized background, describing her experiences with depression and loneliness. She explores themes of consumerism and systemic racism in singles like “XS” and “STFU.” At once, Rina Sawayama pleases the average listener with radio-friendly musicality and simultaneously challenges them with flairs of rage, sorrow, and systemic critique.
The result is a fanbase of underrepresented, marginalized, young people, coming together to embrace a rising star and the stigmas she stands against. In a time period wherein misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic sentiment and lawmaking have gained steam, the world seems to need Sawayama more than ever.
For many, the Japanese-British pop star and her acclaimed oeuvre has been foundational for developing their own identity. “I just love her for being unapologetically Asian and queer and being so confident,” says Harini. “Her song ‘Cherry’ was my number one song last year on Spotify… it’s about realizing you’re queer and trying to figure out what that means, and that really resonated with me.”
"When artists with massive platforms use the vital energy of art to question social norms and speak for political causes, it allows for the marginalized to feel energized, connected, and hopeful."
This is the type of empowerment made possible when progressive ideals gain visibility in pop cultural spaces. For one, Sawayama can be pointed to as a stark example of progressive representation in media, given that Asian artists and LGBTQ+ artists have long struggled to be seen on television, film, and the stage without being forced into dehumanizing roles.
But it’s more than straightforward representation that demonstrates an artist’s progressive bona fides. As Dr. Kevin Leo Yabut Nadal writes in Why Representation Matters and Why It’s Still Not Enough, representation on its own is “not enough—especially when it is one-dimensional, superficial, or not actually representative.”
It is Rina Sawayama’s ideology that makes her work so empowering. Once a begrudging political science major at Cambridge University, the singer’s work tackles not only emotional experiences, but the sociopolitical realities that influence them. The music video for “STFU” captures Sawayama on a date with a nightmarishly orientalist white man, one who gleefully rants on “little Japanese women” and “authentic” Japanese foods. As the pop-metal-fusion record enters, it semiotically becomes a commentary on the suppressed rage of Asian women fetishized and diminished in global culture.
In this work alone, we bare witness to Sawayama’s mastery of the nostalgic yet lost art of pop music; the combination of fashion, film, dance, and song within a compelling gesamtkunstwerk that can be appreciated by mass audiences and latched onto by passionate fandoms. Rather than simply use these elements to communicate ideas of beauty or romance uncritically, Rina Sawayama tinges her appreciation of mass culture ideas with sharp critiques of its inextricable oppressions.
Perhaps pop music can never be a political revolution, but it can at least feed a cultural one. When artists with massive platforms use the vital energy of art to question social norms and speak for political causes, it allows for the marginalized to feel energized, connected, and hopeful. They can not only come together for performances and social media interactions, they can come together with dialogue, developing their own identities, and questioning the oppressive ideas that have stifled their engagement with the rest of the world.
In the meantime, Sawayama’s star continues to rise; but she’s still not quite got the seat at the table an industry-backed star may find themselves in. She’s not going platinum or winning Grammys in the way a traditional pop star may do habitually; she’s still working from an underprivileged place not only as a person of multiple marginalized identities, but as an indie artist.
But conventional ideas of popularity and success are not worthy of defining our most singular artists. “At the very least I think she'll occupy a position similar to Charli XCX; critically beloved and very well known and loved among certain demographics,” says Harini. And at the most? “I think she’s destined to be a star.”