Rina Sawayama fuses difficult topics with rock pop in “Hold The Girl”


Justin Higuchi | Flickr

Raja Abdullah

Rina Sawayama released her second studio album, “Hold The Girl,” on Sept. 16, ensuring her the title of a “main pop girl” and creating a conceptually cohesive record while continuing to expand her sound.

It comes two years after her debut album, “SAWAYAMA,” was released in April 2020. Since then, the singer/songwriter has gained media traction and a loyal fanbase called the “pixels.”

The era started with the lead single, “This Hell,” a country-pop fusion track, released in May. It was exactly the perfect song to wrap up the previous two years and kick off the first summer with the COVID-19 pandemic mostly under control.

With its funky production fit for a country club, the song embraces the religious narrative of queer people being sinners to highlight the importance of unity. Sawayama sings about themes of “eternal damnation” to highlight why the queer community must stay together.

She released the album artwork early on: a picture of the artist wearing a dramatic dress, circular at the bottom to represent the baggage that stopped her from moving. It also resembles a teardrop in relation to feelings of grief.

The album follows her journey of befriending her inner child who she abandoned to repress her trauma. The opening track, “Minor Feelings,” paints the picture from a child’s perspective, with the starting lines questioning being told, “Your problems aren’t real,” at a young age.

“All these minor feelings / Are majorly bringing me down,” she sings.  The track has multiple meanings, a child’s feelings, small or sad feelings in general, as the minor key in music is often used for more somber music.

The haunting opener transitions into one of the best songs this year and the album’s second single, “Hold The Girl,” in which the narrator is directly telling her current self to embrace her inner child. She reminisces on broken promises to her younger self and now vows to never leave her behind again.

Sawayama makes the image clearer through metaphors like “I left you spinning on the carousel,” and “She’s been hide-and-seeking waiting all along,” over an orchestral rock-pop track complete with a breakdown chorus.

“Catch Me In The Air” rewinds to the narrator’s childhood, describing the up-and-down relationship between the artist and her mother, whom the artist refers to as Mama Sawayama. The first verse is from Mama Sawayama’s perspective, being a single mother spiraling down sometimes but being caught in the air by her daughter.

The second verse is Sawayama’s side, with hints to possible turmoil at the hands of her mother, but in the end realizing that the choices made were not done intentionally to harm her. This time around, the artist was caught by Mama Sawayama, through her childhood and career, while learning to fly. The composition of this song stands out with a feeling of grandeur through vocal organization, yet it maintains the emotions the artist felt.

The next song, “Forgiveness,” mutes the hopefulness of the previous track as Sawayama questions why she can not forgive the ones who caused her trauma. This marks a turning point for the album, as she dives into what haunts her on the next five songs, exemplifying those emotions through her vocal cadence and acoustic instrumentations.

Your Age and “Frankenstein,” despite being beautifully composed, fail to stand out when compared to the powerful compositions and lyrics of the rest of the album. They both discuss issues valid to the album concept, the former shows disappointment in adults making questionable decisions while the latter discusses how trauma plays out in relationships.

Imagining,” a song about gaslighting, has the simplest concept lyrically, yet is the most sonically interesting. Sawayama’s vocals are mixed to sound classically pop during the verses but the chorus reminds listeners of her distinctiveness.

The album’s third single “Hurricanes fails to grasp one’s attention as much as the first two but is lyrically the best song on the album, using weather as metaphors for periods in the narrator’s life as she self-sabotages to lands herself in a hurricane.

Sawayama returns to the child’s perspective in “Holy (Til You Let Me Go) as she sings about a religious mother who pushes their faith onto the child. Sawayama sings, “You saw a light… /Wanted it only for your eyes,” which hints towards the possibility of an oppressed identity. “Send My Love to John is a mother talking to her son, who she feels she has failed by not accepting in the name of “the Bible’s rules.”

It is likely that these songs are parts of the same story at different points in time.

Before the release of the album, Sawayama revealed that she was inspired by Taylor Swift’s “folklore” in connecting songs through storytelling.

“Phantom” and “To Be Alive perfectly close off the album with hopeful uncertainty. “Phantom” continues the angsty sound heard throughout the project, as Sawayama reaches out to her inner child one last time, and in “To Be Alive,” she seems to have gotten a hold of her.

“Hold The Girl” is more than enough to earn the artist the position of a mainstream pop star. The listener can experience the journey of reaching out to the child inside with the singer. An array of genres are combined to create the perfect rock-pop harmony unique to Sawayama’s sound.