When I was 12 years old, my friend and her mum kindly took me to see the boyband Blue at Wembley Stadium. Unfortunately, I thought it was the shittest thing I’d ever seen. There I sat – all in black, lowkey queer, perennially moody – while the girls around me lost their fucking shit to Lee Ryan (a man who looks like he laughs at armpit farts) doing choreographed dance moves in bootcut jeans and light brown pleather while singing “All rise! All rise!” and tilting his microphone upwards in that way people did in the 2000s. What the fuck is wrong with me? I remember thinking, while feeling dead and alien inside, as if I was attending a stranger’s wedding. What am I missing that all these people my age are getting?
The answer, I decided back then, was that I simply didn’t enjoy live pop music, period. My limited understanding of the multifaceted ways music could present itself meant that, from then on, I largely refused to go to pop gigs, instead spending my teen years in smoked-up basements screaming at people with guitars. As an adult, though, I appreciate that it wasn’t pop gigs that were shit – it was Blue specifically. Still, there was a tribalism back then that maybe doesn’t exist now. In my mind, pop music went hand-in-hand with arena tours, choreographed routines and watching someone in the very far distance lip syncing into a portable headset. Everything else – bands, MCs, ‘the fun stuff’ – was for intimate, sweat-drenched venues where you felt part of it. They were two entirely separate entities.
Years later, though, and times have changed. Because here I am, watching Rina Sawayama – an artist who personifies, celebrates and subverts pop music in its purest form – sing her smash “Alterlife” at her sold-out London show at The Borderline. All the hallmarks of a classic pop performance are there – tight choreography, an outfit change, the way she takes the mic and directs it to the audience who shout the lyrics back at her – and it is the most joyful thing I’ve witnessed in a very long time. Each song is punctuated by a dramatically raised fist, and occasionally while singing she will reach down and hold the hand of an audience member (who she calls her ‘pixels’), who will scream with excitement, a scene not dissimilar to all those years ago when I watched Blue – but in a much smaller venue, and clearly way better because of it and more.
The word ‘pop’ has become such a nebulous expression on so many levels, that even using it can feel redundant. In broad terms, I’d describe it as a way of referring to a sound that feels particularly melodic, or accessible, but also one that adheres to the cultural markers and traditions of ‘pop’ – a chorus in the right place, a key change here and there, something you can sing along to. Rina Sawayama follows these pop customs in such a precise way, both on stage and on record, that you almost couldn’t get more pop than her.
Something about the whole thing, the full package of her live setup, feels subversive, though. It's hard to pin down, but when watching her on stage I notice it even more strongly. Maybe it’s the fact that classic bubblegum pop like this feels nostalgic, but her vision is decidedly forward-facing. Maybe it’s the sheer, almost mathematical perfection of her output that feels unusual. Or maybe it’s just the fact that in a smaller venue like The Borderline, while she’s striding up and down the stage in a long leather jacket to a beat that shakes your insides and makes you sweat, you could almost be at a punk gig. Maybe genres are meaningless anyway. Maybe it’s the feeling that counts.
Towards the end of the show, Rina performs a ballad called “How We Were Then”, which hasn’t yet been released. It sounds like a mixture between Britney Spears’ “Everytime” and something Mariah Carey might have released in her mid 90s, Daydream-era. It’s fucking sick. I’ve still got it replaying in my head while writing this. As soon as she introduces the song by saying “this one means a lot to me…”, everyone in the audience gets out their phone torches and starts slowly swaying them in the air.
The song itself is about missing somebody, but being able to see their faces on the internet. And suddenly it strikes me as strange – Rina performing a ballad that in many ways is so, so classic, but instead of singing about seeing people in her dreams, she’s singing about seeing them on the screen, and instead of holding up lighters, the audience are holding up their phones. And this, really, is what going to a Rina show is about. She’s breathing new life into the pop gigs we all grew up with, but making them better, weirder, more relevant, completely fresh. And I’m so here for it.
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