2020 was by all accounts a big year for London-based singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama. It marked the release of her critically acclaimed debut LP, a frothy and eclectic Y2K-inspired pop record that was equal parts Britney-era idealism and emphatic 21st-century dread. In many ways, it’s also the perfect album to play live, with its sweeping dramatics and infectious hooks. But due to its release in April 2020 at the beginning of the pandemic, it would be a while before Sawayama was given its live audience due.
Commanding both the stage and screen in her global livestream concert Dec. 19, Sawayama handed down a searing, dynamic performance, rife with spurts of energy and the occasional moment of wistful melancholy. She opened with “Dynasty,” her LP’s first track as well as her U.K. tour’s namesake, setting the evening’s energy level at an astronomical height. The era she writes about may have belonged to MTV and low-rise miniskirts, but this dynasty is Rina’s.
Scarcely leaving a second to catch her breath, Sawayama jumped into performing “STFU!”, a brash heavy hitter that dealt out a near lethal dose of confidence and an utterly brutal bassline before culminating in a cathartic scream. Dusting herself off, Sawayama launched into “Commes Des Garçons” — glossy, danceable and studded with the sumptuous cha-chings of slot machines and thrumming house beat.
Despite its gilded exterior, the track — like so many of Sawayama’s best — kindles a symbiotic style and substance. Speaking about the meaning behind “Commes Des Garçons,” she expresses how she “wanted, on one hand, to lyrically explore the idea of people having to adopt negative male tropes to appear confident, whilst on the other sonically paying homage to the early 2000s dance tracks that made (her) feel confident.”
Sawayama packs in an astonishing amount of eclecticism in 13 tracks, seamlessly transitioning between recounting 2003 MSN messenger antics to reflecting on the immigrant experience. It’s also in many ways a meta album: With musicians such as Charli XCX increasingly taking aim at the corruption and pilfering nature of the music industry, the role of pop stars seems to have radically shifted. In line with this new era of artists contemplating the profit-oriented dimension of their art, Sawayama attempts to shed her own commercialized persona on the track “Snakeskin,” which fittingly opened with a sound bite from the “Succession” theme song.
“Cyber Stockholm Syndrome,” one of the few tracks off of her 2017 EP to make its way onto the setlist, continues the darker, more self-referential subject matter “Snakeskin” primed audiences for. “I am the girl you want to watch,” Sawayama asserts — a declaration that forms just one of the many diverging perspectives on the Internet that she expresses on the track.
Sawayama’s early 2000s nostalgia tinge is most overt on “Paradisin’,” a bubbly coming-of-age anthem. Later, the concert’s tone shifted, this time adopting a more moralising, activist slant, as Sawayama interrupted her performance of “F— This World” with a message from a member of Parliament about the need for youth action regarding climate change. This well-intentioned shift, despite clearly resonating with many live audience members, ultimately felt disorienting and didactic.
However, the concert soon resumed course with Sawayama showcasing some of her most heartfelt material. Opting for an acoustic performance of “Chosen Family” lent the already vulnerable song even more emotional weight; at moments, Sawayama started to tear up. Another moment of pure warmth was the performance of unreleased “Catch Me In the Air,” a glowing tribute to her mother.
Rounding out the evening with an absolutely stacked encore, Sawayama again dialed up starpower with fan favorite “XS” — a certified banger that makes a much more resonant political statement about the culture of excess bred by late capitalism.
“We’re gonna dedicate this song to Britney Spears,” Sawayama declared before erupting into her remix of Lady Gaga’s “Free Woman.” After performing a series of thrilling but anxiety-filled anthems, the last song of the night ended things on not only an energetic note, but also an optimistic one.