Though we live in a supposedly secular era, at least one spiritual tradition appears to be thriving: pop musicians flouting the devout. In the past few years, Lil Nas X has given Satan a lap dance, Demi Lovato has posed in S&M-ish restraints on a crucifix bed, and Beyoncé has commanded churchgoers to gyrate in a manner that led one pastor to level accusations of soul-selling. When supposedly shocking messages and images are so common, cynicism can beckon. Perhaps Katy Perry was right when she tweeted, back in 2010, “Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke.”
But Rina Sawayama’s Hold the Girl, the second album from one of pop’s buzziest new figures, shows how sacrilege can be its own expression of soulfulness: a passionate quest to rewrite the rules you were raised with and find meaning within yourself. That quest has, of course, inspired great art over centuries. Yet as Sawayama’s album touches on queerness, abuse, and conservative protest while using the logic of psychotherapy, it also suggests why iconoclasm may have particular appeal in this moment.
Until now, the 32-year-old British Japanese singer Sawayama has been known for provocations of the aesthetic variety. Her art blends the polish of a major-market diva with the rule-smashing experimentation of the queer underground scenes where she is beloved. On her wonderful 2020 debut, Sawayama, echoes of Britney Spears and rap rock clashed amusingly while Sawayama’s ribbon of a voice fluttered through operatic runs, trembling confessions, and jock-jam yowls. Her go-to producer, Clarence Clarity, engineered a Mad Max: Fury Road kind of din: energetic yet balletic, overloaded yet coherent.
The album earned her critical favor, a duet with Elton John, and a spot on a remix album by one of her idols, Lady Gaga. But thanks to a release date of April 2020, Sawayama couldn’t fully enjoy her acclaim. In COVID-19’s early days, dark feelings sent her deep into self-analysis. Sawayama has now emerged with Hold the Girl, a surprisingly somber, wildly earnest, and sometimes breathtaking album about repression, exploitation, and healing. Y2K-era pop remains an influence, but partly as a reminder of what the late 1990s and early 2000s meant for many Millennials: purity pledges, church camps, and dancing alone in the bedroom to escape judgment.
The lead single, “This Hell,” announces her intentions with a danceable sermon. Spiking Shania Twain–style country pop with ABBA’s sugar and sparkle, the song imagines Satan’s kingdom as the site of a disco hoedown for Earth’s most fabulous denizens. The track is very Sawayama in that its conceptual mishmash isn’t seamless—an overworked lyrical phrase here, a jarring transition there strike the ear from time to time. But those elements also prop up Sawayama’s message that being oneself is a prerogative, even if it gets you damned for eternity. In the music video, Westboro Baptist Church–style fundamentalists end up joining the party at a nightclub replete with sequins, cowboy boots, and pansexual grinding.
The rest of the album peels back the dancing-with-the-devil cliché to show the sadness beneath it. Hold the Girl, Sawayama has said, is an album about “reparenting” oneself after a tortured adolescence. This story is not entirely about religion: Sawayama and her mom clashed for cultural and personal reasons after their family moved from Japan to London when Sawayama was young. But the album, with motifs of tolling bells and country rock, is clearly the testament of an alleged sinner who has been scarred by soul-saving efforts. The title track’s melody echoes Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” as Sawayama—in a bereft, musical-theater keen—addresses her earlier self: “I wanna remember / She is me and I am her.”
Righteous anger seethes on the album as well. “Holy (Til You Let Me Go)” and “Your Age” reference the predation of a young person by an older, God-invoking figure; Sawayama hasn’t filled in the backstory, but she attended a Christian high school, and the sort of tale she’s telling is unfortunately typical. On these songs and a few other tracks, Sawayama conveys anxiety and rage in fast, careening choruses; stomping beats; and glitchy production. She has clearly been listening to turn-of-the-millennium pop metal—Nine Inch Nails, Linkin Park—that thrashed against bullying disguised as piety. Yet she updates that style with glimmers of recovery. “I was innocent when you said I was evil,” she wails on “Holy.” “I took your stones and I built a cathedral.”
In fact, the album’s true breakthrough may be that Sawayama taps into an idea with its own Christian overtones: forgiveness. On the acoustic ballad “Send My Love to John,” she sings from the point of view of an immigrant parent who mistreated a gay son, and the song seems as interested in the parent’s healing as the kid’s. Cross-generational empathy also acts as jet fuel for the album’s strongest song, “Catch Me in the Air,” a surging anthem about reconciliation between Sawayama and her mother. Like much of Hold the Girl, it channels middlebrow ’90s bands such as The Cardigans and Goo Goo Dolls. But the production, laden with daring key changes and feathery textures, treats both words in the term soft rock as invitations to extremity.
Much of this moment’s religion-questioning pop shares the sense of grace and searching that Sawayama’s album radiates. The pining, emo edge to Lil Nas X’s irreverent rapping is one example. Beyoncé’s “Church Girl” doesn’t so much defy doctrine as seek space within it: Twerking women, as she sings, “ain’t tryna hurt nobody.” The impulse toward faith—the desire to have something to believe in—clearly persists in these artists. You can certainly hear it pulsating through Sawayama’s ambitious songs, which feel tapped into a power that is greater than any one person.