Rina Sawayama has been making waves across the globe for the past three years with ethereal synth pop records, and this new era shows her willingness to experiment with different sounds. Her brand new full-length project, “SAWAYAMA,” is a genre-defying mashup of breezy dancepop production on pulsing queer club anthems like “Comme Des Garçons (Like the Boys)” and heavy nu-metal guitar riffs on songs like “STFU!” and “XS.”
This massive shift in sound is a huge departure from Sawayama’s previous work, but it wasn’t her intention to lean more experimental when she began the recording process. In an interview with PAPER Magazine the singer revealed “it started off like, 90s, Max Martin vibes. Then I’d watched that Queen movie [Bohemian Rhapsody] and A Star Is Born and I was like, it just needs to be stadium rock.”
Sawayama’s music has always been intrinsically connected to her identity as a queer Asian woman. Her most-streamed single, “Cherry,” celebrates pansexuality and romantic relationships between women, while songs on this album like “Dynasty,” “Tokyo Love Hotel,” and “STFU!” express her connection to her heritage as well as her frustration with racist microaggressions and the fetishization of Asian women and Japanese culture (“How come you don’t respect me?/Expecting fantasies to be my reality”).
Themes of identity and self-acceptance continue on tracks like “Love Me 4 Me,” which includes a nod to Rupaul (“If you can’t love yourself/how are you gonna love somebody else?”), and “Chosen Family,” which celebrates the connections formed in LGBTQ+ circles when biological families aren’t equipped to love their queer family members unconditionally.
But “Akasaka Sad” is truly in a league of its own. The song contains so many peaks and valleys that listeners might think the producer spazzed out on the soundboard. The song has drum beats, synth bubbles, distorted background screams, and a string ensemble. It is utter sonic chaos that signals a shift in tone, steering the album in a more sinister direction with serious tracks that tackle themes like betrayal and the climate crisis (“Fuck This World,” “Bad Friend,” “Who’s Gonna Save You Now”).
On the closing track “Snakeskin,” Sawayama uses the commercialization and commodification of snakeskin on handbags and couture as a metaphor for her peeling back her layers and expressing her pain. The opening piano is a sample of Beethoven’s Sonata No. 8 “Pathétique,” and the song comes to a close with the voice of her mother fading into the background, her words purposely jumbled and distorted.
We are in one of the most exciting eras for pop music with artists like Charli XCX, Kim Petras, Caroline Polachek, Grimes, Carly Rae Jepsen, MARINA, and FKA Twigs actively making listeners question their expectations of what the genre can be. Rina Sawayama is the latest to follow in a lineage of legends to revolutionize and push pop forward like Madonna, Lady Gaga, Christina Aguilera, and Kylie Minogue, and this record is only the beginning of her world domination.
I will never forget the first time I heard Fiona Apple’s soul-crushing voice ringing through the speakers in my childhood bedroom. I had just finished my freshman year of college and was beginning to undergo the growing pains of transitioning into adulthood, and the only escape I found was through music. One night I was lounging on my bed, and combing through Spotify after I had completely worn out Tori Amos’s entire collection of songs. The first song to pop up on the app’s radio algorithm was Fiona Apple’s “Shadowboxer,” and I was utterly awestruck. I couldn’t believe that a seventeen-year-old was singing like that.
The minute I returned to New York for school I downloaded her entire catalogue (“Tidal,” “When the Pawn,” “Extroardinary Machine,” and “The Idler Wheel…”) and binge-watched all of her live performances, including that iconic MTV Unplugged session from 1997. For four months straight she was all I listened to. I played her on a loop as I walked from Cooper Square up to 2nd Avenue, on my subway commutes, sang along to “Daredevil” while I was in the shower and even as I fried up plastic bags of frozen potstickers from Trader Joe’s in my old dorm room.
But what drew me to her even more was the fact that she’s always been more reserved and withdrawn than most artists. She isn’t on any social media platforms and she rarely tours, aside from an occasional pop-up show or festival. She doesn’t do press or interviews unless the journalist has earned her trust and is willing to go about it the right way, as can be seen in Emily Nussbaum’s recent profile of the singer in The New York Times. What Fiona Apple has to offer is incredibly rare in today’s media landscape where all that seems to matter is attention and clicks. She doesn’t care about album sales, rollouts, or cranking out new music as fast as possible. Instead she allows her talent to speak for itself.
The record is an amalgamation of ballads, spoken word patterns, rapping, and vocal contortions and incantations that have garnered comparisons to Yoko Ono. The only ingredients to Apple’s minimalist approach to the album were a piano, her powerhouse vocals, and percussion that came from tapping on a box of the bones of her dead dog, Janet. It is an incredibly multi-faceted body of work and nothing else sounds quite like it.
On the track “Relay,” Apple addresses the toxicity of online culture and the constant need for attention. On the track she sings “I resent you for presenting your life like a fucking propaganda brochure,” a line she claims is directed at influencers. “The reason I don’t get into [social media] is because I can see what’s happening: Everybody’s comparing themselves to everybody else. It’s really a terrible way to live,” the singer told Vulture.
The album’s title track finds Apple addressing many of the hardships that come second-nature to being a woman in the entertainment industry where women are often boxed in and treated as disposable objects, complete with a nod to Kate Bush (“I grew up in the shoes they told me I could fill/Shoes that were not made for running up that hill”). The song also finds Apple taking the trapped-in-a-box metaphor literally, painting a picture of herself between walls she wants to carve her way out of (“Fetch the bolt cutters/I’ve been in here too long”).
“Ladies” is an emotionally-wrought refusal to allow men to pit women against one another and the power of communal support between women who bond over past relationship trauma (“When he leaves me, please be my guest/To whatever I might’ve left in his kitchen cupboards/In the back of his bathroom cabinets”). Apple explained to Vulture that a point she wanted to get across is that infidelity is never an excuse to hate the other party involved. “Later on in life, I’m with a guy,” she explains. “I found out he’s seeing some other woman. I meet that other woman — I’m nice to that other woman. She didn’t do it. She didn’t cheat on me.”
“Heavy Balloon” touches on her coming back into her body and eventually retrieving her spirit that keeps leaving her whenever she is caught in the throes of depression, using plants as a metaphor for her return to earth (“I spread like strawberries/I climb like peas and beans/I’ve been sucking it in so long/That I’m bursting at the seams”). “[Those lyrics about plants] reminded me of the Three Sisters [Gardens], and how we need to be in kinship and sisterhood with one another in order to build the communities that we want to see,” Indigenous activist and leader of Seeding Sovereignty, Eryn Wise, stated in conversation with Apple and Democracy Now.
On “For Her” Apple tackles machismo, sexual assault, and toxic masculinity (“Well good morning/You raped me in the same bed your daughter was born in”), which she claims was inspired by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in the fall of 2018. On “Under the Table,” she defiantly chants, “Kick me under the table all you want, I won’t shut up, I won’t shut up.” It is a rallying cry for any young girl who refuses to be silenced, willing to face the consequences of speaking up and disregarding authority.
This is Fiona Apple at her most vulnerable, liberated and triumphant. “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” is the public manifesto of a woman who freed herself from the shackles of public scrutiny a long time ago and refuses to let anybody else dictate her path forward other than herself.
Queer people are often forced to grow up in isolation and watch people who look like us get pathologized and cast as outsiders because they are different. So when we see somebody who looks like us cross over into the mainstream, it can feel like a victory.
This was how I felt when I discovered My Chemical Romance. I certainly wasn’t old enough to be deconstructing queer theory and gender roles at thirteen, but I definitely see the band as an early indicator of my queerness, even though none of the members identified as queer.
Gerard Way was a rebellious, non-conforming individual whose entire career was a deliberate act of social transgression, from the the way he acted and dressed to the way he treated his fans. As a student of rock icons like David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, Nick Cave and Brian Eno, he was able to emulate what they did so well by constantly reinventing his image. Each album cycle was accompanied by new eras of storytelling and elaborate character-building that he was able to pull from his previous career as a comic book writer.
In the same vein as Bowie adopting a myriad of personas throughout his career like Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke and Major Tom, Way created his own characters like The Patient and Party Poison. Picture Ziggy Stardust getting massacred and revived as a zombie. That was Way in the era of “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.” For “The Black Parade,” he cut his hair and bleached it and covered his face in white powder, becoming The Patient; a person dying of cancer who crossed over to death in the form of a parade.
When MCR fans started referring to the Danger Days character Party Poison as non-binary, Way welcomed that interpretation with open arms. It made total sense that Party Poison was a superhero in a post-apocalyptic future, because Way has been that person for so many queer, trans, and gender nonconforming kids who feel like we are living in a world that doesn’t want us to exist.
A perfect example of Way queering the music scene is the song “You Know What They Do to Guys Like Us In Prison” off of “Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge.” The title and the lyrics are unmistakably homoerotic (“We’re just two men as God had made us/Well I can’t/Well I can”), and he had a ritual at every show where he would get all the men in the audience to undress, taking control of a situation in a scene that normally objectified young women and flipping it on its head, making a spectacle out of it.
Way has always been an open book. He’s opened up in interviews about his lower-middle class upbringing in New Jersey, and he’s always been drawn to unconventional beauty and those who embraced the unsavory aspects of life. He was an art student who regularly went to school in drag, and when MCR started to take off in the early 2000s he used his platform on a regular basis to speak out against misogyny and homophobia in the music scene, going out of his way to portray women and girls in his music videos and comic books as human beings without exploiting or sexualizing them. He would later open up in a reddit AMA about how he “always identified a fair amount with the female gender,” albeit not on the same scale as somebody who identifies as trans or non binary.
When My Chemical Romance announced their reunion in 2019, I fell into a tunnel of nostalgia. I combed through their entire discography, re-watched their earliest gigs on Youtube playing in New Jersey basements with less than fifty people, and returned to those thirty-second clips of Gerard Way and Frank Iero making out on stage, which provided those breadcrumbs of representation I was craving as a closeted teen in a small town.
I will never forget the first time I ever saw Way writhing and wailing incoherently to the point of having a nervous breakdown. My cousin and I used to binge watch music videos on AOL, and that was how I first saw the “Helena” video. His long wavy hair that flowed down to his shoulders and red smokey eye had me completely awestruck. I would have walked to the nearest Sephora or Hot Topic just to get my hands on that Urban Decay Gash eyeshadow he used to wear. He was the first person I ever saw present as gender fluid, and it resonated with me for reasons I didn’t have the language to unpack yet.
When people would ask me what I wanted to be when I grew up as a kid and I would tell them I wanted to be the lead singer of My Chemical Romance, they would get visibly uncomfortable or laugh nervously like it was a joke, almost like they thought I should feel shame for relating more to Gerard than any of the hyper-feminine icons I saw growing up.
But their revulsion only made me latch onto Way more, because it genuinely felt like he was the only person who understood me. He was unapologetically flawed and being a “freak” was his superpower. Songs like “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)” taught me that it was okay to be angry and vulnerable when the rest of the world advised against it, and joining the MCR fandom showed me that there were a million other kids out there who felt exactly the same as I did.
When MCR disbanded and Way started working on solo material he made his debut album’s mascot, Lola, non-binary, and would always correct reporters who used the wrong pronouns on them. Not everybody took it seriously because Lola was a fictional character. But the fact that the genesis of Lola coincided with Way touring all around the globe and taking time out of every show to let his trans and non-binary fans know that he was in their corner, was no happy accident.
A love for the transgressive and going against social norms are inherently queer acts, and Way’s entire career was defined by these qualities. His song lyrics, the stories he crafted through concept albums, illustrations and comics, and his outspoken nature made him a mouthpiece for the outcasts, the disaffected youth, and anybody in the middle who felt “different” or “other.”
My Chemical Romance attained longevity even after disappearing for seven years because their message remained–if you are uncool then be uncool; embrace every part of who you are to the fullest and live your life unapologetically and without shame, because trying to be somebody you’re not is a waste of a life.
Attempting to bridge the past and the future with an 80s-influenced pop album is a noble and ambitious goal that has rarely, if ever, been successfully pulled off. But if Dua Lipa has proven anything throughout her burgeoning career, it’s that she’s an unstoppable force in the music industry, and questioning her rarely ends well. After winning the title of “Best New Artist” at the 2018 Grammys, she was put under a microscope, and a high standard was set for her sophomore release. “Future Nostalgia” is a dreamy fusion of disco and pop that exceeded high expectations and is guaranteed to solidify a spot for Dua Lipa in the canon of today’s most innovative pop artists.
The title track is a cheeky ode to women who intimidate their male counterparts. Throughout the song she makes it clear that she is in control of her own narrative and refuses to take responsibility for anybody who feels threatened by her presence (“I know you’re dying trying to figure me out/My name’s on the tip of your tongue, keep running your mouth/You want the recipe but can’t handle my sound”). “Physical” is a fast-paced mashup of 80s dance pop, future pop, and pop rock that incorporates lyrics from the 1981 Olivia Newton-John single of the same name, and the 148-BPM production coupled with Dua’s powerhouse vocals embodies a sonic orgasm that will leave listeners reeling for a while.
“Hallucinate” is a prolific blend of synth pop, dance pop, and house in the styles of Madonna and Kylie Minogue. It sounds like a modern reinvention of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” and it’s guaranteed to be playing all over gay clubs across the globe. As the album progresses we get the stripped back slow-burners like “Pretty Please” and “Good in Bed.” “Pretty Please” is a track with a thick, seductive bassline and amplified sexual tension in lyrics in which she finds herself pining after an ex-lover, begging for reconciliation and some make up sex (‘Cause I miss ya and I need your love/When my mind is running wild/Could you help me slow it down?).
The album comes to a screeching halt on the closer, “Boys Will Be Boys,” a scathing condemnation of a culture that excuses childish and violent behavior from boys while grooming girls to mature faster than they are supposed to (“Boys will be boys/But girls will be women”). Most of the reviews I’ve seen from blogs considered this track not to suit the album because it “ruins the party.” However, while the song may not fit the album’s overall sound, I found its inclusion to be an excellent marketing strategy. Getting on a soap-box is never fun or easy, but putting a song like this at the end of a list of irresistible of pop bangers is a great way to draw listeners into the conversation surrounding toxic masculinity and sexual violence.
Reinvention is essential for any artist who wants to attain longevity in their career, and Dua Lipa is a perfect example of reinvention with a flawless execution. She was able to cultivate a new and fresh sound that allowed her to draw inspiration from the past while remaining loyal to her pop roots, and “Future Nostalgia” is the product of a musician driven by her own creative vision who chooses to set her own trends instead of following them.
Conan Gray dropped his long-awaited debut LP “Kid Krow” on March 20th, and the result is an incredibly nuanced body of work that tackles numerous topics engulfing Gen Z – topics such as growing up on the internet, coping with mental illness through excessive drinking, online dating, and feeling robbed of any chance at pursuing a semi-normal life because of the current social and political climate.
The beginning of the album consists of infectious bops with undeniably catchy hooks and sad lyrical undertones. “Wish You Were Sober,” tackles unrequited love as Gray laments over a double-edged romance where his feelings for someone are only reciprocated when that person is intoxicated (“Kiss me in the seat of your rover/Real sweet but I wish you were sober”).
The album’s biggest highlight is the emotionally-charged “The Cut That Always Bleeds,” with lyrics that go, “Oh, I can’t be the kiss that you don’t need/The lie between your teeth/The cut that always bleeds.” It perfectly encapsulates the cycle of a toxic relationship that works like a broken clock, and each stage of grieving; the sigh of relief when you finally begin to move on, the short-lived excitement when they pop back into your life, and the final twist of the knife when they inevitably betray you again.
The album reaches its emotional peak on “Heather,” with Gray grappling with the fact that he’ll never be good enough for the person he’s in love with and has decided to direct his jealousy and resentment at “Heather,” the person’s significant other (“Why would you ever kiss me?/ I’m not even half as pretty”). The song climaxes with Gray wailing in anguish “I wish I were Heather!” and it feels like such a cathartic release that will hit the listener over the head and leave a lasting impact.
Gray cites Lorde and Taylor Swift as his biggest inspirations, and their influence is all over the album. “Wish You Were Sober” would fit perfectly in the “1989” catalogue and the song “Affluenza” touches on similar subject matter as “Royals” by calling out the lack of substance in the culture of wealth and excess, while also touching on the ways growing up privileged can have an effect on mental health.
When we look at the at the current state of the world, our generation is passing into an adulthood that provides little to no opportunities for advancement like it did for previous generations. The recent stock market crash is leading to another recession, and we are in the middle of a global pandemic that feels like yet another reminder that the earth probably won’t be inhabitable in twenty years. Conan Gray has taken the widespread angst and existential panic of the disaffected youth and beautifully packaged it into a twelve-track masterpiece. “Kid Krow” is the product of a 21 year-old who has experienced the ills of growing up in Gen Z first-hand, and has claimed his rightful place in the pop music canon.