Music Critic Caitlin McGraw reviews Rina Sawayama’s show in Birmingham, highlighting the variation of the singer’s music and impressive performing skills
Japanese-British singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama brought her ‘Hold The Girl’ tour, a show I simply couldn’t miss, to Birmingham’s O2 Academy on a rainy Friday night in October. Rina burst onto the scene during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 when her debut studio album Sawayama was released, garnering critical acclaim and captivating listeners with her genre-bending style, political lyrics and deeply personal music. Her second studio album Hold The Girl was released last month and rose to number three in the UK album chart, making Rina the highest-charting Japanese solo artist in album chart history.
Hold The Girl blends country, garage, metal, rock and 2000s pop music amongst other sounds to certify Sawayama as a popstar with a unique twist. The title hails from her mental health struggles during the pandemic which saw her begin therapy, a process which she advocated throughout the show. Despite stating that this album ‘wasn’t a slay to write’, Sawayama credits the name to the process of re-parenting herself and healing her inner child, which makes sense when you consider the personal and intimate nature of her discography. Themes of family, heritage and identity central to her debut album are continued in Hold The Girl; these two albums and the multitude of genres within them comprised the 90 minute setlist for the show, much to the happiness of the ‘Pixels’, Rina’s devoted fanbase, in the crowd.
The audience inside the O2 Academy’s largest room embodied the diverse range of people for whom Rina’s music resonates, with a variety of ages, sexualities and genders packed onto the floor impatiently waiting for the singer-songwriter to hit the stage. Songs such as ‘Toxic’ and ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ by Sawayama’s musical influences Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue set the tone for the night ahead and were met by cheers by the crowd. This was superseded by the response to the star’s entrance onto the stage as chants of ‘Rina’ were met with a haunting backing track and purple lighting. Bright white lights then revealed the onstage band, and eventually Sawayama herself, wearing a denim ensemble topped off with a cowgirl hat and floor-length cape.
The show began with Hold The Girl’s opening track ‘Minor Feelings’, a short, string-dominated track encapsulating the struggle of the album’s writing process. The title track ‘Hold The Girl’ followed, and I knew the show would be fun, entertaining and a great time as Rina’s talent for writing catchy hooks shined. Pop tunes ‘Hurricanes’ and ‘Catch Me In The Air’ followed to close out the first act of the show, which was split into four sections by subgenre to highlight the versatility across Rina’s discography.
Sawayama described her second album as inspired by Kelly Clarkson, Sugababes and Paramore; the latter was evident in the effortless blend of pop and rock in tracks like ‘Your Age’, ‘STFU’, and ‘Frankenstein’ which signaled the second act. This was the climax of the show, with ‘STFU’ the first track from Sawayama to be performed, reminding many of Rina’s original nostalgic sound and unique genre-bending capabilities. ‘STFU’ mixes pop and metal sounds to match the song’s meaning as a defiant resistance to microaggressions about Asian women being passive, encapsulating the personal and political undertones of Rina’s lyrics. One observation I had throughout the night was that I wished more songs from Sawayama were on the setlist instead of the less memorable, filler tracks from Hold The Girl.
Nevertheless, ‘Frankenstein’ further showcased her ability to write fun but thought-provoking lyrics, connecting the classic story of Frankenstein’s monster with her own experience of ‘being put back together’ in therapy; it has become a sleeper hit off her latest album. ‘Frankenstein’ has proved popular with fans on streaming platforms and in the audience alike, and the live performance was unexpected highlight of the night due to the upbeat energy it created.
Between each act, Rina spoke to the crowd, providing honest insights into her mental health struggles, the creative process of her latest album, as well as funny comments and references to pop culture, showing how in touch with her audience she is. She also took time to thank her onstage band who flawlessly accompanied Rina’s tempo and energy all evening, as well as the talented backing dancers who performed intricate routines for almost every track alongside Sawayama whose capabilities as a natural-born performer were emphasised.
A strength of the show was the evident thought and effort put into every intricate detail, from production to visuals. The big production and maximalist sound synonymous with Sawayama’s sound was matched impeccably to the lighting effects throughout the night, such as intense green strobing during ‘Your Age’ and a pulsating red glow during ‘STFU’. Rina also embodied the diversity of her sound in her wardrobe changes, with the third act’s slower pace matched to the angelic white dress she wore to perform a collection of emotional ballads including ‘Bad Friend’, ‘Phantom’ and ‘To Be Alive’. By far, the most stunning showcase of the star’s vocals, ‘Send My Love To John’, was accompanied by acoustic guitar to create a stripped back rendition. This intimate moment exposed Sawayama at her most vulnerable and made the show feel much more intimate as the spotlight shone on her, in contrast to the colourful lighting and upbeat tempo moments before.
However, in true Sawayama style, this brief intermission soon transitioned into the closing act which included some of the hits that the crowd (including myself) had been waiting for. ‘Beg For You’, her collaboration with Charli XCX, ramped up the energy before a run of three tracks which made the night unforgettable. Firstly, ‘Comme Des Garcons’ from Sawayama, a dance-style pop track celebrating female empowerment and fluid sexuality, had the audience singing and dancing along wildly.
Next, arguably Rina’s most recognisable song, ‘XS’, a commentary on capitalist consumer culture, was performed in a silver sparkly bodysuit with a complicated dance routine to match. To close the show, Rina performed the leading single from Hold The Girl, ‘This Hell’, donning a cowgirl hat for this country-pop fusion track which saw the venue once again bathed in hellish red light. If there was a song which best encapsulates Rina’s message and style, it is this one. Fun lyrics referencing icons such as Britney, Whitney Houston and Princess Diana hold a deeper meaning, offering a critical commentary of the human rights withheld to minority groups such as the LGBTQ+ community who Sawayama empowers, celebrates and represents.
Anyone who attended the show who wasn’t a fan of Sawayama before, without a doubt left as an admirer of her musicality, song-writing skill, innovative fusion of genres and stage presence as a performer. One thing is for certain- much like Sawayama predicted when opening the show, I did ‘feel more slay than I did when I arrived’ as I left a gig that I didn’t want to end.
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