“SAWAYAMA”: Pop’s Lush Love Letter to Family, Identity, and Belonging   


Abigail Lee, Copy Editor

Released on April 17 2020, “SAWAYAMA” is the debut album of  the Japanese-British artist Rina Sawayama. The last album Sawayama had released was nearly three years ago with her mini-debut album “RINA,” with tracks that brought her to acclaim like “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.” In the last few years however, it appears that Sawayama’s sound has only grown and flourished, as her newest album is brimming with mesmerizing digital melodies and Sawayama’s own siren-like voice. 

In my own opinion, one of Sawayama’s biggest strengths and weaknesses in her previous work was how reminiscent her music was to pop music of the early 2000s. For example, the song “Take Me As I Am” evokes an era of “Oops!… I Did It Again” Britney Spears, with similar instrumentals, beats, and that same atmosphere of an intense youthful energy that edges on a more sensual sound. Growing up with an older sister who was a teenager in the peak of the 2000s, I ended up listening to a lot of the same music as her purely through exposure; when I listen to much of Sawayama’s older work, I am immediately transported back to Lip Smackers and my sister’s plastic choker necklaces. It is nostalgic. It is Juicy tracksuits, Ugg boots, and elementary school. But similarly to that decade itself, it can be too much sometimes, and I crave for a more earnest and mature experience among the decadently plush and synthetic. This is where “SAWAYAMA” comes in. There is something about this album that shows a significant growth in Sawayama’s sound; intention is seemingly weaved through every musical choice. “Love Me 4 Me” is about the realization that in order for her to be loved she needs to have self love. It is a conversation to herself, and the song plays like one. Sawayama uses her own vocals in the backing, supporting and echoing her words as she sings while the song plays out like a pep-talk in the mirror as she comes to a valuable realization. Another sign of her musical maturity is the production on this album. Everything is seamlessly blended together, Sawayama’s voice is never lost in the instrumentals unless intentional, in moments where her singing and the backing music becomes one in a harmonious fusion. The instances of digital altering of vocals never feel jarring; instead, they feel like a perfect match for the songs themselves. Overall, Sawayama has still remained in the realm of digital pop, and many of her songs still have that 2000s energy, but now rather than sounding like time travel, “SAWAYAMA” is a rebirth of the old with the new, a distinct sound that feels 100 percent her own.

In an interview for Paper Magazine, Sawayama commented on her newest album saying,  “I genuinely think it’s just growing up between [my parents’] narratives. One parent would say something about one; the other would say something about another. These are all very adult conversations you don’t understand as a kid — I couldn’t say if either of my parents were good people or bad people. And that ties into not knowing what’s true. What is my truth? One of the guiding principles around this album was trying to find that truth.” This journey that Sawayama refers to can easily be mapped out within this album. “Paradisin’” follows the fun adventures of Sawayama’s youth in a similarly upbeat tempo, but it also carries commentary on the conflicting relationship with her mother during the time. Ideas of family are continued with “Dynasty,” which discusses generational trauma, and “Chosen Family,” exploring the familial bonds and connections that many LGBTQ people create with one another when rejected from their own. Identity is something that can be seen in every song, whether it is reflecting on the gendered ideas of her confidence like in “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” or an acceptance of one’s self as a whole, like the final song of the album, “Snakeskin.” Despite stereotypes of pop music being shallow and overly commercialized, Sawayama seeked and successfully executed an album that spins this idea on its head. 

“SAWAYAMA” is ultimately an album that is brimming with history, joy, love, and grief. It is a journey that you can explore along with. You can easily make infinite meaning out of this album but just as easily dance to it while enjoying the songs purely on a surface level. I have thoroughly enjoyed this album both ways, and I highly recommend that you do the same.