February 4, 2021 | Arts and Culture
turn the page together
renewal, rina sawayama, and the new year
Down the subway, you looked my way
With your girl gaze, with your girl gaze
I was 17 when I heard the song “Cherry” for the first time. The high school cafeteria was deafening and washed-out and terrible, but I wasn’t listening. A playlist called “wlw pop” rolled through my cheap earbuds, the volume inadvisably high. The rubbery synth of one song faded out, and after a brief beat of silence, an ethereal voice said, “Hello?”
So begins Rina Sawayama’s coming out anthem, which I soon folded into the soundtrack of my 11th grade fall. I added it to my monthly playlist, bounced my fingers along to the beat in Calculus, blasted it through my speakers on long, aimless drives. It was one of the many songs that burned on repeat in my car, catchy and neon, stuck in my head.
With one look you take me back to everything I used to be
When everyone was seventeen with no ID, no ID
“Cherry” found me just when I needed it and matched me pace for pace. It was an act of self-expression that was proud but cautious, still a little shy. I let it bubble out of my windows at stoplights, but turned the music down when I pulled into the driveway.
I didn’t dive into Rina’s discography right away. In fact, it would be years before I listened to another song of hers. Maybe if I had, I would’ve recognized earlier how similar we were, how powerfully her music could speak to me. But her songs ended up reaching me again at the right moment, even when I didn’t go looking for them.
Shut the fuck up, shut the fuck up (You, I see you)
My 2020 began on college sidewalks littered with posters announcing the umpteenth Roaring ’20s themed party. 2019 had been a crucible, had melted and remade me. Now I was new, strange to myself, untested.
The first semester of freshman year had been wild and wonderful, but it had brutalized my sense of self. Who was I here? And who was I becoming? During the months I’d spent getting lost on College Hill, I’d bounced between social circles, abandoned club meetings before they began, lost myself to an unfamiliar anxiety. I was more desperate to please than I’d ever been.
With the new semester came the possibility of creating a better version of myself. I started with one New Year’s resolution: This year I will be a bitch again. As in: certain of myself. As in: unafraid, or at least faking it.
How come you don’t expect me
To get mad when I’m angry?
I was making the valiant trudge up Waterman Street when I listened to Rina Sawayama’s single “STFU!” for the first time. It was a revelation. “STFU!” was a shocking departure from the classic pop sound that had infused “Cherry.” The song draws on rock and metal inspirations, devolving into gruff screams. It’s unsubtle, simmering with irony, and it made me feel vicious.
Like before, I discovered Rina’s song at the perfect time. I was trying to teach myself to be angry again, to unlearn the strange muteness that had settled over me. And, just as I was intent on reinventing myself, Rina Sawayama was using this song to make a statement about her own musical reinvention. “STFU!” was released as the lead single for her debut album SAWAYAMA as an intentional upset for her fans. In a video about the creation of the album, she describes her desire to surprise people with a new sound. She wanted to catch them off guard without apologizing for it.
Dragging my heels through the late January street slush, I was caught off guard just as she intended. I couldn’t tell if I liked the song yet, brash as it was, but I knew that it unspooled something inside me. Something that had been held, quiet and tense, for far too long.
Fuck this world, it’s dying
‘Cause you people keep on lying
Power gets, power drips on down
By the time SAWAYAMA was released, only three months after I first listened to “STFU!” on a frigid Providence sidewalk, the world had been inescapably twisted by the coronavirus pandemic. All of my intentions for the semester had fallen to the wayside as I scrambled to say goodbye to friends I’d come to love, packed my newly-reinvented life into boxes, and drove the long 12 hours back to my hometown. 2020 buckled into itself, collapsing into a cramped new reality the size of my childhood bedroom.
SAWAYAMA, when I finally got around to listening to it (one month after its release and two months after the beginning of quarantine), was explosive, vivid, painful—a shifting landscape of genres and themes that crawled into my skull and played on repeat.
I could untangle a thousand tiny threads tying me to SAWAYAMA. It’s awash with lyrical turns of phrase that echo my own thoughts and careening guitar riffs that sweep me under. Watching interviews and reading song lyrics only made the album more meaningful as I replayed it for the fourth, fifth, tenth time.
I found an examination of myself in her songs. In the ritual of re-listening, I found a sense of recognition. A reflection that smiles back in the mirror.
I’m gonna take the throne this time
All the words all mine, all mine
SAWAYAMA spans topics from intergenerational trauma to forgotten friendships, mashing together genres from stadium rock to nu-metal to early-2000s pop. Some critics are quick to accuse the album of lacking cohesion, of pinballing too quickly from one sound or idea to another.
I can’t comment on the musical (in)consistencies; I can’t be bothered. I don’t need an album to sound the same throughout, I need it to make me feel something, which SAWAYAMA does without fail.
But I would argue with critics about thematic cohesion. I believe the incredibly varied themes of SAWAYAMA come together to form a single conclusion: personal identity is created with other people. Across thirteen tracks, Rina sings about the forces that inform her identity, from her family and culture to her anxieties and frustrations. The album is a self-portrait of Rina not just as an individual, but as a product of the places, people, and ideas that have influenced her.
It would be easy to say that I connect with this album because I am a gay, part-Japanese woman and Rina is a pansexual woman singing about her own Japanese background. But I think that SAWAYAMA speaks to me not because of these similarities, but because of its meditation on identity. In such an isolating time, it felt revolutionary to think of personal identity as something collaborative. Finding or solidifying your sense of self is done in collaboration with the people you love, at times in response to people you hate, in acts of creation, in acts of self-preservation—it is a constantly shifting amalgamation of all these things and more. But it is never, never done alone.
You’re changing my, changing my, changing my, changing my mind, yeah
I’m shedding, I’m shedding, I’m shedding, I’m shedding my snakeskin
I ended up abandoning my New Year’s resolution. 2020 didn’t end up being a year for bitchiness or relearning anger. Instead, it became a time for deep and unwavering investment in other people. In their safety, their health, their happiness. It was a time to become buoyant and determined, to reach out to the people I love and commit to staying afloat together.
Even if I was no longer trying, 2020 did teach me to embrace anger, the kind that mobilizes you, sets you on fire. It brought new disappointments, new despairs, new hopes, and new commitments. A year that made us all grapple with ourselves in unexpected ways. A year that made it clearer than ever that there’s nothing more sacred than our connections with other people, even as those connections are challenged, or translated into some alien medium, or pushed to their limits.
One day, when it’s safe to return to the vibrant and wild crush of togetherness, I will still have learned from my freshman year. I will not abandon myself in search of approval from others. But I won’t lead with anger, either. I won’t be a bitch. I will have made new resolutions. I will reckon with new fears, invent new selves. But for the first time, I will recognize that the act of reinventing myself is—and has always been—collaborative.
Or, as Rina Sawayama puts it:
Hand me a pen and I’ll rewrite the pain
When you’re ready, we’ll turn the page together