Rina Sawayama: Not-So-Ordinary Pop Star

Morgan Ciocca | The PhoenixJapanese-British singer Rina Sawayama performed at Subterranean Sept. 14.

Rising synth-pop star Rina Sawayama blew the crowd away at the Subterranean in Wicker Park Sept. 14. The 28-year-old Japanese-British singer and lyricist is currently residing in south London. She released her remarkable debut album, “RINA,” in 2017 and has since put out several well-received singles. 

Sawayama’s music explores the pop genre and personal themes, such as social media absorption, coming out as pansexual – someone attracted to others regardless of gender identity — and being a queer woman of color in the music industry. Her style is reminiscent of late ‘90s and early-2000s pop music, when ethereal pop anthems seemed the be some of the most influential musical trends on the radio.

Together with her ensemble, Sawayama embarked on her “Ordinary Superstar Tour” in September, a seven-show tour.

Sawayama‘s set was preceded by opener Dorian Electra, a queer artist drawing influences from electronic pop beats. Electra’s lyrics touch on social commentary in terms of sexuality, gender and societal values. 

Their colorful set, in addition to extravagant costumes and drawn-on mustaches, was filled with jokes, exaggerated dancing and a brief historical account of various aspects of sexuality.

Effortlessly cool underneath blue lights and a motorcycle helmet, Sawayama emerged onto a smoky stage amid deafening screams. In an instant, the venue was transformed from a small black box with curtains and a DJ to a sparkling world of pink eyeshadow and synth-pop rhythms. 

Her performance incorporated sensationalism and theatrics in the best possible ways, consisting of multiple extravagant costume changes followed by dramatic re-entrances.

Sawayama’s voice and performance were equally powerful and polished. The artist performed with the confidence and capabilities of world-renowned popstars. Her professional cool-girl aura was interlaced with wide grins and sheer amazement at all of the people belting her lyrics back and chanting, “RINA! RINA! RINA!”

In response to the audience’s cheers, Sawayama laughed and said, “Chicago, I didn’t know what to expect … but you guys are so fucking loud!” This prompted the audience to scream louder. The crowd’s energy was reciprocated onstage; the audience and artist played off each other until all were left starry-eyed and breathless.

Sawayama closed her set with “Ordinary Superstar” and urged every audience member to take part in singing the song, regardless of tone deafness or knowledge of the lyrics. “Ordinary Superstar,” the opening track to “RINA,” is the kind of song that makes listeners want to have a movie makeover montage comparable to that of “Clueless” or “Josie and the Pussycats.”

“Ordinary Superstar” brings out the superstar in everyone, and Sawayama made every concert-goer feel as one while holding the microphone out to different people throughout the entire song.

After concluding her performance, Sawayama thanked the crowd and ran off stage, but concert-goers would not leave without an encore. The entire audience began once more to chant the singer’s name until she returned and closed the night with a bang, performing the introspective, multi-dimensional bop, “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.”

Modern pop is a genre not often done right, as cookie-cutter rhythms and synthetic lyrics have seemed to become the radio-pop norm. Sawayama, however, creates pop music that’s so much more; she has brought masterful production back to the genre with her lyrical depth and stunning talent. This is only the beginning; Rina Sawayama truly is a superstar and performed as such, although she’s closer to being extraordinary rather than “ordinary.”

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