We've talked a great deal about Rina Sawayama on this blog. And yes, we'll admit: it's because we're downright obsessed with her. Sawayama is one of the most unique pop acts to come out of the 2010s and 2020s. After years of struggling to be noticed in the music biz, she's finally getting the recognition she deserves. You may have heard her through collaborations with Elton John, Lady Gaga, or Charli XCX. Perhaps you've seen her in the trailer for the latest John Wick movie. Wherever you've discovered her, you've got to admit she has the talent and cadence of a super star.
Rina Sawayama is a Japanese–British singer-songwriter who was born in Niigata, Japan. She emigrated to London with her parents at age five. For years, she has been known for her musical versatility and has been labeled a "musical chameleon". In 2017, she self-released her debut extended play, Rina. After finally signing to a record label in 2020 (Dirty Hit), she released her debut studio album, SAWAYAMA, to widespread critical acclaim. Her second studio album Hold the Girl was released this year in September, and it's been taking the world by storm.
Even more, Rina's music is welcoming to members of the LGBTQ+ community and people with immigrant families. Her music can be rough and sinister, or it can be gentle and heartfelt. Either way, everything she puts out is pop perfection. Today, we're finally giving you a Top 10 list of Rina Sawayama's best songs. To all the Pixels out there, we hope you find it enjoyable!
10. "Send My Love to John"
First up is an underrated slow song from Rina's latest album, Hold the Girl. "Send My Love to John" is an acoustic tune that shows off Sawayama's talent as a balladeer. We love those pronounced minor notes during the chorus, and the "country rustic" aspect to the song that Rina proves she can handle just as well as her traditional pop hits.
"Send My Love to John" is an emotional tale told from the perspective of an immigrant mother apologising to her queer son for not accepting his homosexuality. “John” is referring to the son's partner. In real life, "John" is Rina’s friend’s boyfriend. After many years of his mom not accepting his queerness, she ended a phone call with “Send my love to John.”
On the song, Rina told The Fader, "[Send My Love To John] comes from a very empathetic viewpoint of a parent, because I really think — having had a lot of people around me become parents during lockdown — that they go into this filled with love. They want the best for their child, but things happen: People are busy. [They have] financial stresses. They’re tired, and they can’t make the right decisions to support the child, and they’re scared for them when they’re a bit different. It’s a really special song for me because the whole record has themes of re-parenting — parenting yourself, parenting other people. I hope it makes people who need to hear that “sorry” from their loved ones feel a little bit more cared for."
The first sung lines of "Cherry" are, "Down the subway, you looked my way / With your girl gaze, with your girl gaze", and they immediately hook you in. In this romantic bop, Rina refers to her lover as "my cherry", which could be a play on the French phrase “ma cherie” (which translates to "my darling"). Ultimately, "Cherry" is Rina Sawayama’s proud proclaimation of her identity as pansexual. She talks about her day-to-day experience as a pansexual person, as well as some struggles that come with it.
Sawayama told Billboard, "I think this was the first time that I’ve written so obviously about it that I just couldn’t hide it. [...] I consulted a lot of people about making sure that the message was right. I didn’t want to further stigmatize the bi or pan community, or queer people in general...but the messages I’ve gotten from fans, and from people saying they came out because of me, it’s all just very emotional. It’s incredible. It was a risk worth taking." With its bubbly melody and sugar sweet lyrics, "Cherry" encourages listeners to be expressive about who they love and is a commentary on the lack of representation for pansexual people in music.
8. "Hold the Girl"
The title power ballad of Sawayama's sophomore studio album, "Hold the Girl" is all about being there for your inner child. Written after an intense therapy session Sawayama attended in 2020, the song takes a deep dive into Rina’s confidence, telling a story of her becoming a better version of herself. It's a touching song for anyone who feels like they've lost a part of themselves due to the hardships of life.
“Hold The Girl” is produced by Barney Lister, who created the remarkable rhythm for the song. It transitions back and forth from a calming ballad track to a dance-pop R&B indie beat. Perhaps the most earwormy thing about "Hold the Girl" is that it has a magnificent key change after the bridge. It adds even more flair to an already dramatic and heartwarming song.
This is a song you need to watch live at a Rina Sawayama concert if possible. (Seriously, Rina and her dancers' choreography to this track is KILLER.) What makes "Frankenstein" so exciting is its quick, thumping beat and explosive chorus. While it's an electric dance track for the ages, the message of the tune is actually far deeper than just being about a green monster written by Mary Shelley.
On this track, the character of Frankenstein's monster is actually a metaphor for "coming back to life" after therapy. During "Frankenstein", Rina begs someone to heal her. “Put me together, make me better," she sings. All she wants is to feel beautiful inside and out, and she doesn't "want to be the monster anymore." Pretty intense story for a song that works as a club rager. Yup - that's why we love Rina.
6. "Bad Friend"
A fan favorite off Rina's debut studio album, SAWAYAMA. We think "Bad Friend" appeals to so many listeners because it touches on a fear we're all too scared to admit we have: the fear of not being good enough for your friends.
This song premiered as BBC Radio 1’s Hottest Record in the World on April 15, 2020. According to a Pitchfork article, Rina wrote the heart-tugging “Bad Friend” after checking Facebook for the first time in a while and seeing a formerly close friend had a new baby. The track details a trip they took to Tokyo in 2012, when they got drunk and danced naked to Carly Rae Jepsen in a karaoke booth. It was produced by Kyle Shearer, whose resume - ironically - includes work with Carly Rae Jepsen.
Rina has said "Bad Friend" is her favorite track on SAWAYAMA, and explained to Apple Music, "I think everyone’s been a bad friend at some point, and I wanted to write a very pure song about it. [...] The vocoder in the chorus sort of reflects just the emptiness you feel, almost like you’ve been let go off a rollercoaster. I do have a tendency to fall head-first into new relationships, romantic relationships, and leave my friends a little bit." On her old friend who had a baby, Rina said, "She’s been through three of my relationships like a rock. Now I realize that she just felt completely left behind. I’m going to send [the song] to her before [the album] comes out. We’re now in touch, so it’s good."
“Lucid” is the first single taken from the deluxe version of Rina Sawayama’s 2020 self-titled album SAWAYAMA. Rina discussed the lyrics of the song with Apple Music, saying: "Lucid is about living a different life through dreaming, whether it’s to be with the dream girl or to be the dream girl." There's also a theory that this song could be about, well...pleasuring oneself. and Rina confirmed on Twitter that theory may be true.
Anyways, "LUCID" has a club-style sound and was produced by BloodPop. His signature style lead some to compare this track to the recent Lady Gaga album also produced by BloodPop, Chromatica. Given that Rina has often been compared to the likes of the indomitable Gaga, we see that as an absolute win. "LUCID" is dreamy, dancy, and very romance-y, and we love hearing it blasted on people's speakers during the summer as a Pride anthem.
This is a pop song that even hardcore metalheads can vibe with. "STFU!" is from SAWAYAMA and notably features a mix of nu-metal and rock influences, and some bubblegum-y pop elements. The track acts as a release of pent up anger for Sawayama from many microaggressions and racial anti-Japanese comments she has endured throughout her life. Although specifically about her own experiences, this is a universal theme that can be shared amongst many people of colour; Sawayama dedicated “STFU!” to “any minority who has experienced microaggresions." If you're one of those people, trust us when we say this song is hella cathartic.
When talking about "STFU!" to DAZED magazine, Rina said, "There was a lot of anger I needed to get out in that moment, and it just flowed out completely. Clarence Clarity had already written these two contrasting sections: heavy metal, and kind of JoJo. The last line of the metal bit was like, “Why don’t you just sit down?”, and then it just kind of rolled off: “Shut the f--- up. Shut the f--- up!” In nu-metal they scream it, but I was like, “Why don’t I just say it really sweet, so it sounds even more sinister?” I think I was able to write [“STFU!”] because I’m at a point where I’ve found my community of people and I can laugh about these things. I hope that people see this song as being quite funny."
3. "This Hell"
Only Rina Sawayama could satirize the homophobic views of the ultra-conservative "Bible Belt" with a rockin' rodeo pop song. Then again, that's just one interpretation of this song. “This Hell” is the lead single from Hold The Girl, and it's a tongue-in-cheek pop bop that “celebrates community and love in a time where the world seems hellish”, as Rina wrote on Twitter.
On the song, Rina said, "I had so much fun writing 'This Hell.' The past couple of years I’ve been listening to lots of female country singers and wanted to write a euphoric and tongue-in-cheek country-pop song. Country music at its core to me represents comfort, brilliant storytelling and authentic expression of the writer’s reality. I’ve been dreaming of working with Paul Epworth my entire career so I knew it was meant to be when we finished this song in a day. I put in as many iconic pop culture moments as I can, but the song is more than that."
Those "iconic pop culture moments" Rina is referring to include tributes to The Devil Wears Prada, Princess Diana, and Britney Spears. We love Rina's special cowgirl hat every time she performs this track live, the choreography, the blasting guitar bits, and how comfortable "This Hell" makes us feel in the midst of troubling times. Oh, and we can't forget about that iconic bridge. "Got my invitation to eternal damnation / Get in line, pass the wine, b---h / We're going straight to Hell!"
2. "Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)"
Need a boost of confidence? "Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)" is a power-up song that includes both masculine and feminine energy in the mix. Apart from literally meaning “like the boys” in French, Comme des Garçons is also the name of the Japanese fashion label founded by Rei Kawakubo in 1969. In this track, Rina lists off a bunch of other high-fashion brands (Miu Miu and Prada) as well as revolutionary fashion designers.
On the one hand, the "Comme Des Garçons (Like The Boys)" is all about having to adopt negative male tropes to feel confident. But on the other, it's about pursuing what you want with absolutely no fear. "Oh, girl, it's okay / You should never be ashamed to have it all," Rina sings over sparkling keys and perhaps one of the thickest, meatiest basslines ever produced in pop music. That fantastic bassline in particular was created with LA producers Bram Inscore and Nicole Morier, who have worked often with Britney Spears. "Comme Des Garçons" would not be "Comme Des Garçons" without THAT bassline!"
In a press statement, Rina said about the song, "I wanted, on one hand, to lyrically explore the idea of people having to adopt negative male tropes to appear confident, whilst on the other sonically paying homage to the early 2000s dance tracks that made me feel confident. The idea that the socially acceptable version of confidence is in acting ‘like the boys’, otherwise as a woman you get called a b---h — but in the club, we reclaim the word ‘bitch’ as a sign of ultimate confidence (‘yes b---h’, ‘work b---h’). I wanted to sit these two together and make a club fashion banger that makes you feeling like THAT b---h whoever you are."
Last but not least, this is the song that catapulted Rina Sawayama into the mainstream. And we think longtime fans and newer fans can both agree when we say we're so glad that song was "XS". Why? Because it's equal parts catchy, sinister, genius, edgy, and impactful. "XS" (like the actual word "excess") is all about the doom of consumption and capitalism told from the perspective of someone who participates in them.
In a Pitchfork article, Rina said, "'XS' is a song that mocks capitalism in a sinking world. Given that we all know global climate change is accelerating and human extinction is a very real possibility within our lifetime it seemed hilarious to me that brands were still coming out with new makeup palettes every month and public figures were doing a gigantic house tour of their gated property in Calabasas in the same week as doing a ‘sad about Australian wild fires’ Instagram post. I mean I’m guilty of turning a blind eye too, because otherwise it makes me depressed. We’re all hypocrites because we are all capitalists, and it’s a trap that I don’t see us getting out of."
The crazy thing about "XS" is that while listeners know the overly-ambitious and material-hungry narrator of the song is the problem...we're still kind of obsessed with her. Add in those short bursts of rock guitars, the “Like I Love You”-esque acoustic riffs, Rina's insane choreography and that memorable music video, and "XS" is a bonafide hit that you can't stop replaying. But that's what proves Rina's point: "XS" is meant to freak you out, but you can't look away...kind of like capitalism and wealth culture. Rina Sawayama is an artist whose strength lies in showing instead of telling, and we feel "XS", our #1 song on this list, is the pinnacle of her superpower.
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