Post-therapy revelations: Hold the Girl (2022) is Rina Sawayama’s love letter to healing

October 16, 2022

Courtesy of Thurstan Redding

An album that could be considered “rave chic” has an usual muse: therapy. 

After using the isolation of the pandemic for introspection and going to a new form of therapy, Rina Sawayama’s latest album Hold the Girl (2022) showcases a different kind of emotional vulnerability than her debut album SAWAYAMA (2020). Hold the Girl reflects Sawayama’s growth; her lyricism is emblematic of someone who has had time to look back at their past traumas with an emotional self-awareness. The album is not characterized by immediate emotional reactions, but rather Sawayama’s ability to lead the listener through all the specificities of her emotional states. Coupled with electropop instrumentals, Hold the Girl humanizes Sawayama; on her 14-track album, Sawayama holds a light to her past pain and current healing. 

The album’s first track, “Minor Feelings,” details Sawayama’s tendency to hold in her emotions. The faint conversations overlapping the serene melodic phrases make listeners feel physically, but not emotionally, present, creating a sense of disillusionment within the song’s world. With this, we are thrown into Sawayama’s reality of being able to listen but never to express. Coupled with lyrics like, “When you throw your words and hide between a plastic shield / I just sit and smile,” this track perfectly captures how all of Sawayama’s minor feelings have built up under the surface. 

The high-pitched vibrato of violins in the final chorus leaves the listener anxious for the song’s climax. Closing with dissonant plucked guitar strings that reverberate in the air and slowly fade into oblivion, “Minor Feelings” leaves the listener without a satisfying ending. The tension from the song still hangs in the air, which leaves you in suspense, itching to hear more from Sawayama.

This theme of suppressed emotions from “Minor Feelings” is not simply a throwaway idea, but rather a testament to the entire thesis of the album. The notion of being emotionally absent follows to the near end of the album in “Phantom.” Mimicking the introduction of “Minor Feelings,” the instrumental introduction of “Phantom” is muffled, making the listener feel like there’s something missing. Only when Sawayama opens up about her experience losing herself, saying, “Once upon a time / There was a girl pleasing the world / dying to be liked,” do we fully get to hear the instrumentals. 

The title of “Phantom,” in and of itself, is Sawayama recognizing that she has lost a part of herself. Only through acknowledging where she has lost herself in the past, as we see in the other songs making up Hold the Girl, are we finally allowed to start healing, like Sawayama alludes to in “Forgiveness” and “To Be Alive.” 

Part of the loss that Sawayama reckons with is her lack of an emotional connection with her mother, especially in childhood. Throughout the album, Sawayama points to her complicated relationship with her mother as a point that needs healing. Tracks “Hold the Girl” and “Catch Me When I Fall” reflect the experience of a child with a troubled relationship with their parents. Sawayama discusses how she would have “screaming arguments from 7am in the morning” with her mother. However, despite divorce and intergenerational trauma complicating her relationship with her mother, she still actively vyed for her mother’s love. 

Within “Hold the Girl,” Sawayama is begging for both physical and vocal confirmation of her mother’s love because of their emotional isolation from one another. By saying, “Reach inside and hold you close // I won’t leave you on your own,” Sawayama presents a double entendre. One meaning consists of Sawayama actively pleading for someone to physically hold her and stay with her, as a mother does for her child. The other meaning represents her emotional turmoil as a child. Grappling with the isolation that comes with parental issues, Sawayama is begging for someone to love her and stand beside her. The physicality of the lyrics invokes an emotional connotation to her words, which allows the listener to better comprehend how her feelings manifested. By engaging with two themes, the emotional and physical distance from her mother’s love, Sawayama becomes a puppeteer of the English language, bending words to her will. While the instrumentals of both songs tend to get murky and overshadow the lyrics, Sawayama’s lyricism is something to be lauded. 

The use of lyrics with childish connotations make “Hold the Girl” an ode to Sawayama’s younger self. Describing Sawayama’s lost connection with her younger self, by using phrases emblematic of childhood, such as “hide-and-seeking” or “teach me the words,” showcases how Sawayama is still emotionally underdeveloped, as she had to grow up quickly. 

However, Sawayama doesn’t dwell on feeling emotionally stunted. Although she still recalls feeling hurt by the absence of a childhood—having to grow up fast due to the emotional and physical absence of her mother post-divorce—she centers the title track around the recognition of what she now needs. Sawayama verbalizes what she needs to heal, saying someone just needs to “hold the girl.” By asking to be held, Sawayama acknowledges how the physical and emotional distance from her mother continues to hurt her inner child. Not only does Sawayama want to be held in the literal sense, but she also recognizes that asking for help is necessary to heal her past traumas. “Hold the Girl” signifies Sawayama’s understanding of her mother’s absence and the impact it has on her 30-year-old self. 

Sawayama furthers the evidence of her growth by humanizing the actions of her mother, instead of making her out to be the villain. “Send My Love to John,” an acoustic song with a country twang, purposefully contrasts the instrumentals of previous tracks. Through the instrumentals alone, Sawayama conveys that this song is not like others on her track, in the way that it’s not about her hardships, but ones that resemble her mother’s. 

“Send My Love to John” describes the experience of immigrant parents,their need to assimilate, and the want for their children to assimilate. By adopting a country tone in this track, Sawyama implicitly makes the protagonist of the song—an immigrant mother—assimilate to a westernized culture. In her lyricism, Sawayama makes it clear that this mother had to assimilate to create a better life for her and her son, saying, “Ooh, threw away my name / Ooh, it’s easier when it sounds the same.” 

By stripping the embellishments, such as riffs and belts, and showcasing her pure tone, Sawayama makes it evident that this song is a true apology from an immigrant mother. Based on Sawayama’s close friend’s experience with coming out, the title, “Send My Love to John,” comes from his mother’s subtle acceptance of her son’s queerness. After years of rejection, she finally recognizes her son’s partner, John, and says, “Well, send my love to John.”

Instead of making the song about performance, Sawayama focuses on lyricism. The most impactful piece is the explicit apology from a mother to her son. Sawayama writes, “I’m sorry for the things I’ve done / I misguided love to my only son.” Instead of trying to dance around the subject and shirk her responsibilities, the mother admits full fault. The sincereness of the apology cuts through because the song lacks ornamentation; instead, we focus on the lyrics and the heart-to-heart connection from a mother to her son. Creating a sense of empathy for mothers like her own, Sawayama showcases her growth of her emotions through acceptance of others. 

While Sawayama has characterized this album through growth and acceptance, she does not shy away from depicting her mental states in the heat of an emotional break. Ironically, it is her growth which makes the manifestation of emotional breaks so accurate; she’s able to look backwards, pinpoint the exact feelings the situation brought forth, and then translate that into music. 

“Frankenstein” describes the near-manic state that pure desperation for love can create. The heart of the song relies on the electric guitar and drums; with drums lying on the off-beat while rapid strums on the guitar on the downbeat put you in motion, there’s a sense of urgency to the song. 

Sawayama needs someone to validify her external beauty, so much so that she’d become an object of their creation, saying “Love me forever, hold me tight / I can be your Frankenstein.” However, the chorus exemplifies the self-awareness that codependency is not a permanent solution by repeating, “I don’t want to be a monster anymore.” The urgency of the instrumentals and the conflicting messages of the song perfectly reflect the distress that comes with being wanted on someone else’s terms, but needing to be wanted for your own qualities. 

This reckoning with beauty and the need to be wanted comes from a much older Sawayama. During the writing process for “Hold the Girl,” Sawayama was 30-years old. Much older than most up-and-coming pop stars, Sawayama’s maturity shines through in “Frankenstein,” bringing forth a refreshing take on love and beauty. While ‘Frankenstein” surely addresses the notion of wanting a source of external validation, Sawayama brings forth a sense of agency in the upbeat, repetitive chorus, which parallels the crashing snare drums. Sawayama desperately rejects the idea of being the object of someone else’s creation, a “Frankenstein.” Her age provides a different perspective of what it means to exist. At her age, she cannot afford to be unhappy any longer and hide behind other notions of what she should be. Instead, Sawayama uses the start of her healing to birth a new Rina Sawayama, one who doesn’t subscribe to the status quo.

Sawayama plays with the notion of healing by learning to accept herself in the face of others’ outright rejection. “This Hell” flips the traditional idea of hell on its head as a “screw you” to those who use religion to justify homophobia. With punchy guitar riffs and Sawayama’s energetic upper range, the song satirizes hell. In the lines, “walk a mile on these coals, busy cleansing my soul,” Sawayama criticizes the very notion of a Christian hell by transforming the arduous trek to hell into making it into something purifying. However, the Sawayama’s trek to hell doesn’t mean purification by suppressing homosexuality. Instead, Sawayama presents the “cleansing” of one’s soul through acceptance, connecting this track to the album’s greater theme of healing. 

In the “This Hell” music video, Sawayama further satirizes hell by depicting it as a nightclub with beaming strobe lights and a campy “wild-west”-esque dress code. Sawayama’s version of hell is the biggest queer party of the century. Rather than dwelling on the idea that Sawayama’s queerness makes her the target of discrimination, she reponds: “God hates us? All right then,” and creates her own sanctuary in spite of damnation. 

Sawayama ends the album with a testament to her current feelings after describing her troubles in the earlier tracks. “To Be Alive” eases in with a steady drum that acts as the heartbeat of the song. Seeing that this song is about finally being alive, this heartbeat symbolizes Sawayama’s heartbeat being real and recognizable for the first time at 30-years-old. Sawayama’s twinkling vocals ornament the drums of the song, keeping the focus on symbolism of being alive.

Through introspection and maturity, Sawayama has finally come to feel alive. This sense of life invigorates the entire album. Rather than the album being a testament to pain, it emerges as a light in the darkness; Sawayama creates a new sense of life after pain and sends a message that pain does not characterize our life purpose. Simply put, Hold the Girl fosters a sense of hope within listeners. While it can be comforting to listen to artists that perfectly depict our emotional distresses, it is even more comforting to hear that there will be a time where we will finally feel alive.

The end of the final track “To Be Alive” is not triumphant. However, as Sawayama’s resonant mixed voice reiterates that she has, “Opened my eyes / Feels like the first time,” this song is not meant to end victoriously. Sawayama has not fully defeated her mental demons; instead of leaving her demons slain on the ground, Sawayama has learned to live with them, on her own volition.  “To Be Alive” describes truly living life on one’s own accord. This final track ends in soaring vocalizations that slowly phase out. Much like “Minor Feelings,” Sawayama has created a point of tension amongst the listener and the music. However, this sense of tension lies in anticipation. The end of “Hold the Girl” perfectly resembles the beginning of Sawayama’s new life. By not ending the “To Be Alive” on a strong finishing note, Sawayama details her thesis of the album through her astute musicality; there is always more life to come.

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