‘Hold the Girl’ dropped the ball

Rina Sawayama is ambitious. She’s a Cambridge graduate. She’s a musician. She wants to raise awareness about the struggles of being Asian American and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, all while embracing her inner child. She’s trying to out-do her critically-acclaimed debut album with her newest release “Hold the Girl.” 

Following up “SAWAYAMA” would be a daunting task for any artist. Sawayama’s hit single off the album, “XS” is a musical masterpiece. The song satirizes excessive modern-day consumerism at the expense of the climate, all while accomplishing one of the most interesting feats of production I’ve come across in the past couple of years. She marries modern day pop with trap beats and heavy metal riffs, completely blowing away listeners within the first 20 seconds. (Trust me, just listen to it.) Other fan favorites like “STFU!” and “Comme Des Garcons (Like the Boys)” have a similarly stunning production quality. Sawayama simultaneously carved out a niche for herself musically and garnered a loyal fanbase. Basically, she was a huge success.

Her new release, “Hold the Girl,” does a lot of things well, but it doesn’t meet the bar Sawayama set with “SAWAYAMA.” Generally, it’s been pretty successful with singles “This Hell” and “Hold the Girl” generating nearly 16 million streams on Spotify. The album’s songs address everything from anti-Asian hate, Sawayama’s complicated relationship with her mother, perfectionism, healing her inner child and accepting herself. In short, this album is all over the place. It lacks a lot of the cohesion and creativity that made “SAWAYAMA” stand out in 2020.

The most popular song of the album, “This Hell,” is a queer anthem that released just in time for Pride Month. It’s the song off “Hold the Girl” that sounds most like “SAWAYAMA.” With gnarly guitar riffs galore and Sawayama’s rockin’ vocals, she grapples with feeling unaccepted by the Church as a LGBTQ+ person. She sings a lot about this religious tension throughout the album, but it ultimately feels like a passing thought in the chaotic blur of themes Sawayama addresses. “This Hell” feels like it’s pandering to Sawayama’s loyal LGBTQ+ audience.

On the other hand, you have “Send My Love To John,” a heartfelt stripped-back guitar ballad that tells the story of an immigrant mother apologizing to her queer son for not accepting him. It’s not like “SAWAYAMA” at all. It isn’t angry and there’s no killer heavy metal riffs, but it’s sincere. It’s the only song on the album that made me feel anything. 

“This Hell” rightfully spits in the face of bigots, but “Send My Love To John” also shows that hateful people have the capacity to change. Sawayama’s introspectiveness isn’t apparent in her pop ballads, but her personal growth shines more when she isn’t focused on creating stadium anthems. She sings in “Phantom” about her tendency to people-please, crooning “Once upon a time / There was a girl pleasing the world / Dying to be liked.” Clearly, this problem still exists.

“Hold the Girl” reaches for inspiration in places other than Sawayama’s journal, though. “Minor Feelings” is named after a book by Korean-American poet Cathy Park Hong. “This Hell” tips its five-gallon hat with a classic Shania Twain “Let’s go girls!” ad-lib. She pays homage to the pop-punk ballads of Avril Lavinge in “Hurricane.” 

Sawayama spends so much time trying to please her audience and emulate other artists, she ultimately loses what makes her music so special — herself. As a queer, intelligent, Asian-American woman, Sawayama has a lot of valuable things to bring to the table. I was blown away by the creative production on “SAWAYAMA,” but that doesn’t mean that she needs to rely on gimmicks to be successful. I just want Rina Sawayama to “Gimme just a little bit (more!).”

Album: “Hold the Girl”

Artist: Rina Sawayama

Label: Dirty Hit

Favorite track: “Send My Love To John”

If you like: Charli XCX, Grimes, M.I.A.

Shamrocks: 3 out of 5

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Avril Lavigne’s ‘Let Go 20th Anniversary Edition’: Legacy and impact

On June 4, 2002, Canadian artist Avril Lavigne shocked the world with her debut album “Let Go.” Twenty years later, she returned to her roots with a 20th anniversary edition of the album. To commemorate this occasion, I am revisiting the album to reflect on what was so special about it and how it had such a profound impact in the music industry at large.

When “Let Go” was released, Avril Lavigne was framed as a pop-punky alternative to the mainstream, even so far as being referred to as an “Anti-Britney Spears.” She was taken as a truly authentic voice — more “real” than the likes of popular contemporaries such as Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. In essence, her music was salient with her audience because she was seen as ordinary. She wore baggy jeans, tank tops, and neckties, embraced the rising skater culture and generally held an attitude of forgoing glamor and “being fake.” In a world characterized by deceitful politicians and machine-like record labels, the Canadian artist was a breath of fresh air. In fact, “Let Go” remains to this day as the best-selling album by a Canadian artist in the 21st century, which is especially impressive considering her young age of only eighteen at the time of its release.

Avril Lavigne was also seen as pushing the limitations of traditional femininity. Armed only with a guitar in hand and a rebellious attitude, she embraced the genres of rock, emo and pop-punk, swimming against the then current trend of female artists producing pop music. Her tomboyish appearance reinforced this image and further added to her perception of being genuine and the same person on and off the stage.

The “Pop-Punk Princess” is often credited as a pioneer in the pop-punk movement, sometimes even considered the first artist to push the genre into the mainstream, and this is in no small part due to the massive success of her first album. In addition to her personna and her push of alternative rock further into the pop space, another component that contributes to the legacy of Lavigne and “Let Go” is her skillful balance between her angsty side (“Sk8ter Boi,” “Complicated”) with the drama and sensitivity of a conventional singer-songwriter (“Tomorrow,” “I’m With You”). Such a balance has been adopted by other mainstream artists such as Oliva Rodrigo and Billie Eilish, who in the footsteps of Lavigne (Rodrigo and Eilish have both credited her as a major influence) are leading a recent trend of rock and punk in the pop scene. Her triumph was not in the fact that she was a mess; it’s in that she had the confidence to admit it.

The 20th anniversary edition of the album features six bonus tracks that were written for the debut album but never made it to final production. Notably, one of these is “Breakaway,” which Lavigne sold to Kelly Clarkson because Lavigne found it to be unsuitable for “Let Go.” The song went on to huge commercial success under Kelly Clarkson.

Overall, Avril Lavigne had an instrumental role in shaping and defining the pop-punk and alternative scenes as we know them today. Her success can be attributed to not only the fact that she was different from the mainstream but that she had the guts to own it. She is a reminder that originality and authenticity are factors that allow a song to transcend from just being good to being memorable.

Maxwell Feldmann

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