There is no other way to describe certain days, but as halcyon. It is the summer of 2012, and Rina Sawayama is partaking of a universal human experience under the holy glow of Tokyo lights. "High, crazy and drunk, five in a room / Singing our hearts out to Carly, sweat in our eyes," Rina sings in "Bad Friend," of a night branded mercilessly into the brain, the cost of any precious moment that happens only once and never again. She was in the middle of her becoming. And the soundtrack of her becoming—as it was for many of us—was pop.
It bears mentioning that 2012 was when Carly Rae Jepsen released Kiss, the (criminally underrated as a whole) album that deployed "Call Me Maybe" as its lead single. "Call Me Maybe" was the infectious pop song we danced in front of potato-quality webcams for, to a hook so saccharine we smacked on it repeatedly with spunky lip syncing. We became people to that, too. And not long before that, the aughties gave us songs and sounds burnt now into the minds of Gen Y: Britney Spears, Papa Roach, disco stabs, teen idol mania for the boy bands who did it first, American Idol's golden age, the works. Anything can trigger a memory, but there are nerves only the millennium sound can touch.
You may also like:
- Music review: This year’s tender anthem for pained lovers is here
- Making a case for the renaissance of indie pop is rising star ena mori
- Big statements, small impact: Childish Gambino gets lofty with ‘3.15.20’
- Unique Salonga reconfirms his status as pop wizard—on his own terms
- Armi Millare's solo career makes an enchanting entrance
Critics were entirely correct to call SAWAYAMA a masterful pastiche of the genres that vied for glory in the Y2K soundscape. The 2000s were a chaotic time where myriad flavors of pop, R&B, and nu metal all had MTV timeslots, and British-Japanese pop goddess Rina Sawayama invokes the spirit of that era with an album where everything blends. The record bursts forth with "Dynasty," a stadium rocker with a face-melter of a solo that sets off the album's genre-shuffling pyrotechnics. "XS'' is the album's quintessential pop ode to material decadence, whose salsa-esque rhythms slither as slickly as the yellow Burmese python slung over Britney's shoulders in the 2001 VMA's. Nothing prepares you for the feral nu metal number "STFU!," an indictment of yellow fever douchebags, 'roided by the feral crunch of Limp Bizkit-esque guitars. Then "Comme des Garcon (Like The Boys)" comes in, and it's so ridiculously house that it calls to mind the tabloid rags that tailed Lindsay Lohan. Ask any fucking millennial and they know these sounds. SAWAYAMA is impossible to engage without being intertextual about it, because it so consciously flaunts the sounds of that era. Listening to SAWAYAMA feels like kinship, when you know that Rina grew up with the sounds we grew up with. But this record is more than just memory repackaged.
As we've seen with Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia, all good pop stands on the shoulders of giants. Retro sells, and it'll always be in the genre's wheelhouse to take artistic cues from those who came before. We've heard similar invocations of the past in Charli XCX's "1999," and the way Frank Ocean sampled the PlayStation 1 startup sound in Channel Orange. Reference is a powerful weapon if you can wield it well, and in this digital age where nothing is forgotten, all markers of the past are up for grabs.
But what makes SAWAYAMA so different as a record, as a project of nostalgia, is that it's not just a throwback. Rina Sawayama canonizes the sounds of Y2K. With the help of main producer Clarence Clarity, whose solo work betrays a third-eye understanding of pop akin to his PC Music peers, Rina compels us to comprehend the millennium sound for the things it could do that no other movement in music history could.
Pop culture took a long journey on a bumpy road to get to a point where it stopped treating Y2K's quirks as mere jokes. It seems only yesterday when Evanescence's "Bring Me To Life"—for sure a sonic ancestor to "Dynasty"—was snobbily classified a metonym for edgelord affectation. Nu metal was dismissed by the rock community. Teen idol pop was distanced from high art status through constant infantilization of its fans. But look at Rina's audience now—a generation wiser with the fullness of memory, cognizant now that Britney Spears' shaved head wasn't a thing to be jeered at, but a sacred symbol of defiance.
In this way as well, SAWAYAMA honors different shades of pain as valid experiences. So much of the record tackles the wounds inherited from family and Rina's struggles of growing up Asian in the overwhelmingly white west. "Akasaka Sad" uses industrial textures to trace the contours of feeling displaced in a strange city one tries to call home. The unruly "Paradisin'," which wouldn't feel out of place in a Disney sitcom movie, unpacks the bittersweetness of juvenile delinquency. And "Tokyo Love Hotel" (which is dead smack perfect when played over an old Bratz commercial) delivers a profound message of how we perpetuate cultural othering, in the Trojan horse of a disco jam. There is a magic to the way Rina takes these battles with guilt, and cleanses them under pop's transfigurative powers. Only Rina's sense of pop literacy and treatment of memory could make "Love Me 4 Me," whose verse kicks off with swaggering guitars trading blows with a New Jack Swing beat. And you could say that she did with "Chosen Family"—an ode to the thicker-than-blood love often found in the LGBTQ+ community—what Miley Cyrus did with "The Climb," jubilant in how it embraces its schmaltz.
I get what Rina meant when she stated in a feature with NME, "I kind of like making really uncool things cool." SAWAYAMA impels us to admit that all the shit about Y2K that made us who we are today—the joys, the sorrows, the things we were quick to abandon in trying to leave childish things behind—are actually dope as hell. Cheesy synths, MTV trash, frosted tips and elephant pants, fucking everything. By beatifying the millennium sound, we are able to see those days of our lives for what they are, under the glow of the lights of whatever city we live in: sublime.
It would be more accurate, therefore, to call SAWAYAMA not a pastiche, but a love letter to the sounds responsible for our becoming. If the styles of Y2K were excavated relics, SAWAYAMA gloriously restores them to the monuments they are. So throw drinks at each other, make fun of your lovers, sing your hearts out to Carly and Britney and Rina and the whole damn pop pantheon, and put your hands up.
You can listen to 'SAWAYAMA' on Spotify