Rina Sawayama’s 2020 debut reckoned sincerely with friendship falling-outs and familial wounds, but on her best song, the pop singer pretended to be a rich girl dripping in Cartier and cruising in Teslas. “XS” was intended as arch anti-capitalist critique in an age of climate crisis, but its luxury vision was a better sell for being the rich, not eating them; Sawayama whispered “excess” as if it were the name of a designer perfume, the scent of “more” intoxicating. Intention aside, a fabulous pop persona goes a long way. Even if Sawayama became the type of star who stinks up the Earth with her private jet, as long as she delivers fun hooks, high looks, and damn good live performances, she’ll have people obsessing: Bestie, what’s the skincare routine?
Lately, though, the 32-year-old artist has been reading self-help books and having revelations in therapy—so her second album, Hold the Girl, is decidedly more earnest and weighty. Sawayama has framed the album as part of a process of “reparenting” herself, and the emphasis on one’s “inner child” may explain why the record’s imagery leans elementary: Blue skies and storms, villains and heroes, the feeling of being imprisoned inside one’s bedroom. She knows other queer people have also had complicated upbringings, so she nobly strives to create belonging: “If I can heal someone around me or someone that I don’t know with the songs I write … why wouldn’t I take it?” she reasons. The spiritual predecessor to hold the girl is not the blithe, stylish “XS” but the kindly, saccharine “Chosen Family.”
Another way to think about hold the girl is that it’s an attempt to merge the full-throated spectacle of Born This Way with the surviving-through-trauma emotionality of Chromatica. But there are plenty of other touchstones beyond Gaga, and Sawayama wears them on her sleeve: the dreamy contralto of Karen Carpenter, the puckered pop-rock of Avril Lavigne, the rousing, motivational tenor of Katy Perry. Sawayama’s tagline for single “Catch Me in the Air” is essentially “the Corrs if pitched to Gwen Stefani,” which doesn’t even get at the half of it. She opens the heartfelt tribute to her single mother with moony new age woodwinds straight from Celine Dion, then switches to Kelly Clarkson guitar strums: “Catch me in the air-eee air-eee air-eee airrr,” she sings in the chorus, as if yodeling while strapped into a rollercoaster.