Semi-new Song Sundays: Rina Sawayama

Have you been to that Japanese place, Wagamamas? The one in Heathrow is amazing.

(Warning in case you’ve got profanity-sensitive kids around: the video for “STFU” doesn’t actually say “STFU.” But honestly the f-bomb isn’t anywhere near as offensive as the stuff the boorish guy keeps saying in the first couple of minutes of this video).

Anyway, Rina Sawayama is awesome AF. I heard about her from a “Records in My Life” interview with, unsurprisingly, a few members of Dirty Projectors, in which Felicia Douglas picked Sawayama as an artist she’d recently gotten into via social media. I’m grateful for the reference, because I admit I probably would’ve skipped over Sawayama’s music, because I didn’t understand what she was doing with it.

In short, she’s treating genre as irrelevant, and glamour as irrelevant, combining hooks from pop, dance music, and R&B with heavy metal and whatever the hell else she wants. The result is that it feels like she’s tearing down preconceptions from the inside. She knows that people are going to make assumptions and “read” her as Japanese even though she grew up in England, and dismiss her as “just” a beautiful model instead of as an artist.

Even though I think the song itself is nice but kind of unremarkable, the video for “Bad Friend” is brilliant. It mimics a Japanese TV broadcast of a drama from the late 50s or 60s, with Sawayama in drag as a middle-aged man who’s his own worst enemy. From the sound of the song, you’d never expect it to be a beginning-to-end faithful homage to Tokyo Story-style dramas, much less that the singer would portray herself as a man getting in a bar fight until his hands are bloodied.

But I get the feeling that Sawayama is treating all of it as drag. The video for “XS” first comes across as an R&B-inspired dance pop song, but it’s immediately apparent that that’s just the hook that skims along the surface, in between a metal riff and what sounds like taiko drums and a little bit of flute that seems to mock the idea (or at least lean into the idea) that Japanese culture is alien and exotic. Sawayama’s in drag for this one, too: in the double role of a hyper-excited QVC host and the hyper-sexualized alien creature whose essential juices are being harvested for the product she’s selling.

So again: Rina Sawayama is fantastic, doing pop music with a sensibility that’s somewhere between glam and punk. I think the thing I like best about her work is that she probably doesn’t give a damn what I think of it.

Semi-new Song Sundays: Dirty Projectors

Even before I found myself aged out of the most desirable demographics, I was never somebody who was up to date with new music. That’s partly why I’m so excited to have discovered and fallen in love with a song that was actually released this year! It’s “Overlord” by Dirty Projectors.

On the surface, it just seems like a really pretty, perfectly produced, but straightforward song. And the video (filmed in New York at the beginning of the year, pre-COVID) seems like a combination of New York City as dystopian sci-fi futurescape, and the hazy late 70s-early 80s Childrens Television Workshop film style that The Go! Team gets so right in their videos.

But the more I listen and watch and pay attention to the lyrics, the more sinister and meaningful it becomes. I read it as an indictment of all of us who lose our obligation to the rest of humanity, and see other people as abstracts, while we work towards our own comfort. The only time anyone makes eye contact with the audience is when the singer (Maia Friedman) faces us to say “Help me.”

I first heard the song last night via an NPR Tiny Desk Concert the band performed remotely. As much as like the studio version — from Windows Open, one of the EPs that Dirty Projectors is releasing this year — the version for Tiny Desk is my favorite. I realized after the fact that the format reminds me of Thru-You by Kutiman: although it’s an actual band separated by the pandemic, it has the feeling of a bunch of talented musicians being brought together to make something new.

Unsurprisingly, I’m in love with Dirty Projectors now, especially in its current lineup. My entry point was just last night “discovering” this song from 2018, “Break-Thru”:

It seems like it shouldn’t work, like it’s just on the verge of falling apart, with nothing but a hook, some odd synth sounds, and a falsetto chorus the only thing holding it all together. But it feels not just catchy but absolutely joyful. The effect of the video reminds me of a surreal version Snow White or Aurora from Sleeping Beauty, singing about falling in love to the friendly birds flying in through the window.1I’m only just now catching that I’d typed “birds flying into the window,” which is a much different image than “birds flying in through the window.” We regret the error.

Speaking of falling in love, I’m enjoying being able to discover a brand new band and having 15 years’ worth of their music available to explore. So much that I’m going to try to make it a weekly thing. Giving myself the goal of a weekly blog post will encourage me to look for new music even if I’m not in an exploring mood. I can almost guarantee that most of it won’t be “current,” just that it’s new to me, and I think it’s worth everyone else checking out.

Finally, here’s the embedded version of that wonderful Tiny Desk (Home) concert with Dirty Projectors: