Hajin Cho / Gavel Media

Rina Sawayama Reconnects with Youth on 'Hold the Girl'

Sophomore albums hold a divine significance in pop music. After finally breaking through into the mainstream, artists must face the true test of longevity: the sophomore slump. This threat often leads musicians to explore new sounds in order to establish themselves as more than a one-hit-wonder. However, for an artist like Rina Sawayama, who built her first album, SAWAYAMA, off of genre-bending metal and EDM, finding a “new sound” wasn’t so simple.

Given this challenge, it may seem intuitive to ditch the genre-jumping and commit to a single sound, but this wasn’t an option for Rina. On Hold the Girl, she proves that her sonic diversity isn’t an era; it's her thesis. Songs like “This Hell” and “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” see Rina bouncing between country and club with the same fluidity as her debut. As usual, this experimentation perfectly guides her ideas of identity and internal conflict.

Though the sounds of Hold the Girl take each song to its own universe, its themes keep the album cohesive. Just like on her first album, Rina ties the songs on the project together through her writing. Whereas SAWAYAMA presented a rageful display of trauma, Hold the Girl follows Rina's healing. On the title track, she yearns to reconnect with her younger self “Cause the girl in your soul's seen it all, and you owe her the world.” After forcing herself to grow up quickly, she has found the importance of embracing youth.

For Rina, healing is a process of reconnecting with the past. Over the sweeping harmonies of “Phantom,” she reflects on her childhood desire for approval–she feels she gave too much away for the sake of pleasing the world and lost herself in doing so. Her power-ballad style acts as a perfect venue for her to navigate this insecurity and reclaim what she’s lost. On “Forgiveness,” she sings of her tendency to suppress negative experiences and admits her inability to keep them down. When she least expects it, her past invades her thoughts, and she begins running in circles without end. The stadium-level acoustic flourishes of the song follow Rina’s realization that acceptance is the only option. 

Despite the healing themes present on Hold the Girl, Rina continues to explore the oppressive forces that affected her as she grew up. On the album’s opening track “Minor Feelings,” she addresses the microaggressions she faces and people’s efforts to minimize her feelings. Switching between minor and major keys, Rina attempts to validate the emotions the world has denied her. This emotional suppression left Rina with feelings of ugliness and manipulation, which she grapples with over the metallic production of “Frankenstein” and “Imagining.”

Hold the Girl also explores themes of LGBTQ+ acceptance in a political landscape riddled with hatred. On the project’s lead single, “This Hell,” Rina tackles country music for an ironic take on the afterlife. Given the prospect of eternal damnation, she glamorizes a life in the underworld with her best friends. If “the Devil’s wearing Prada and loves a little drama,” Rina sees nothing wrong with hellfire. On a less ironic note, “Send my Love to John” details an immigrant mother’s experience with accepting her gay child. Taking a more stripped-down approach, the song details the painful beauty of family and self-acceptance.

Family has been a recurring theme throughout Rina’s entire discography, and Hold the Girl is no different. Keeping with themes of youth, she explores the roles of her parents and the other adults who raised her. The power-ballad sound on “Catch me in the Air,” provides a foundation for Rina to ponder her relationship with her single mother. Despite their close relationship, she questions whether things would be better off if her mother didn’t have to work so hard. No matter the difference, she celebrates how far they’ve come and hopes she’s made her proud. On “Your Age,” however, Rina recounts the behavior of other adults in her life and their damaging results. The Southeast Asian sounds and heavy digital production help express her rage at the mistreatment she received from those meant to protect her. After growing up herself, she’s determined to avoid the mistakes of the older generation.

Throughout every theme present on Hold the Girl, Rina allows pain and beauty to coexist. Though the traumas of our past haunt us, healing through them is what allows life to flourish. SAWAYAMA explored how we can reconnect with our ideas of family. Hold the Girl explores how we can reconnect with our ideas of ourselves. Feelings of failure, sin, and invalidation don’t have to define us. Even if they do, and we all end up burning in the fires of Hell, at least we’ll be doing it together.

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