Welcome to #NerdMusicMonday, where we feature some of the greatest geek-inspired music to start your week on the right note. We also review geek-inspired music things that we see floating around the Internet, for better or worse.
Rina Sawayama: First Impressions
I grew up in that salient age of the internet of the late 90s and early 2000s, so to me technology and music have always been intertwined. I was a pro at Napster, Kazaa and WinNY to get the 128kbps mp3s I wanted, playing them on my anime-skinned Winamp (it really whips the llama’s ass). This was after spending a few hours on my PlayStation 1, playing the vastly underrated and Avex-sponsored dance game extravaganza Bust a Groove. Gone were the trappings of having to listen to the radio or CDs that were set by someone else. Through the internet, I was able to shape by my own hands what I wanted to listen to. It’s something that I take for granted now, but back then it was a real journey to get what I wanted.
Rina Sawayama came to my attention through the i-D meets Rina Sawayama video where she details her experience as an East Asian trying to break through the English music scene. The title sequence has Rina in the London arcade Las Vegas in her intensely dyed orange hair and red and white striped high-waisted number. She had a presence that made her as vibrant as the latest and greatest in Japanese arcade technology behind her. The scene changes and now Rina sits cross legged in front of a giant TV humming the Final Fantasy victory theme with Final Fantasy IX reflected in her giant glasses. Rina is both fashionista and a giant nerd. Got it.
Rina Sawayama: RINA EP
RINA feels like it could be at home on the original iPod as it does on an iPhone X. It’s a real banger of an EP with smooth R&B-esque vocals over a myriad of pop landscapes. The Japanese-English singer captures that mood of salient late 2000s music and technology. This was especially prevalent with her lyrics that cover the experience of being in an internet-connected world.
Her music feels equally informed by Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, as it does by Namie Amuro and Utada Hikaru. That’s the great joy of listening to RINA: it is global, beyond cultures and beyond the physical world.
Beyond Cultures, Beyond the Physical
It opens with the uplifting Ordinary Superstar, where Rina asks the listener whether they wanna be ordinary with her cause she’s just an ordinary superstar // So far but always hanging where you are. It’s a philosophical commentary on the use of social media to “access” all kinds of people. It highlights how technology made us feel that our stars and idols are just as accessible as anyone else.
The mood switches to combative when the next track Take Me As I Am comes on. Rina defiantly declares who she is to the world, backed by some Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis inspired grooves. Next up is 10-20-40, which is surprisingly a difficult-to-digest track about the use of drugs to medicate for the existential problem of the self.
The Question that is the Self
Existential problems continue to establish themselves as a theme for Rina’s lyric writing as Tunnel Vision brings in Shamir, an American singer-songwriter whose countertenor adds a certain roundness to Rina’s higher pitched vocals. Both of them lay it down slow in a track that highlights the paradox of spiraling out of control. The lyrics show how we use notifications to derive a semblance of normalcy, and yet love the rush they give when they come.
The two interludes Time Out and Through The Wire provide a little amuse-bouche of Rina’s vocal talents. Rina doesn’t sound like the deeply-polished singer presented in the rest of the tracks. In fact, the final two tracks bring us deep into cyberpunk territory. It was Rina unguarded and experimental: Alterlife sounds so fitting for an Ayumi Hamasaki album. In fact, a Japanese version of Afterlife would fit so well in Hamasaki’s I Am… album.
For a finale, Cyber Stockholm Syndrome finally rounds out the EP in a calm melancholy as Rina sings about being prisoner to the need to be online.
A Similar Experience
The more I learn about Rina and the more I listen to her semi-eponymous debut EP RINA, the more I wonder whether she and I had very similar experiences growing up. Being half-English and half-Filipino always lead to awkward questions and experiences, which led to me being very people averse. Playing video games and being on my computer was something I could do without bothering people. Did she obsessively play cobbled mp3 CDs on repeat, trying to lift the mood on being lost during those long days?
Does she look at the Virtual Console on her Nintendo Switch with a sense of deep seated nostalgia and a little pang in her heart? Does her phone’s music collection have an eclectic mix of music on it, spanning languages, styles and eras? I don’t think I’ll ever find the answer to these questions. But that’s fine, because Rina’s voice and message makes me believe that she did. Rina’s music is deeply relatable and simultaneously alienating – the tension between which makes for good listening and as she develops and grows into a musician, she is definitely one to look out for.