Hold The Girl: To Strut in Ghostly Shoes

by Ryan Wong

Rina Sawayama, “Hold The Girl” (2022)

Oh my God. She’s done it again.

Like a wave pulling back into shore, this was the first thought I had at the end of my first listen to Japanese-British singer Rina Sawayama’s sophomore record, Hold The Girl. Between her past releases and the five songs (“This Hell”, “Catch Me In The Air”, “Hold The Girl”, “Phantom”, and “Hurricanes”) already available from the album, I had gone into it with Everest-high expectations. I was expecting to be floored. For my jaw to drop. For me to jump around my room, swinging my arms and yelling profanities. 

None of those things happened. Instead, I spent forty-six minutes lying on my bed, staring up at the ceiling as the music played. From start to finish, each song was a monument: a behemoth I could do nothing but stand by the foot of, looking up at in astounded reverence. I’d lifted my hand to my forehead like a fainting Victorian woman (many times), beat my fists against the pillow, and opened my mouth only to close it when I realized I had no words for what I was experiencing. I was, as is not personally uncommon when it comes to Rina’s discography, starstruck and struck dumb. Because RINA and SAWAYAMA, her debut EP and album respectively, had gone above, beyond, and further still. To virtual worlds and stars made of silicon and 24K gold; to swirling galaxies of R&B, rock, and early 2000s pop inspired by Britney Spears, Hikaru Utada, Evanescence, Final Fantasy, and most of all, her experiences as an immigrant and pansexual woman. 

Following SAWAYAMA’s trajectory and at once carving its own sonic and thematic path, Hold The Girl is a celebration, a mourning, and a bold declaration of what it truly means to soar. Scattered across a plethora of genres, the album tells a story of revelation, regret, and recovery: how therapy and self-reflection have helped Rina face the trauma endured by her past self, the titular “Girl.” About the album, she stated in a press release: “It’s a very adult record, because it’s really only fully understood when you become an adult and you can look back on experiences [you had] as a kid. It’s about escapism. It’s about looking after yourself, reparenting yourself and finding yourself.”

This message is most clear on title track “Hold The Girl” and “Phantom”, on which the singer-songwriter speaks directly to her younger self. “I was wrong to assume / I would ever outgrow you / I need you now, I need you close / How do you hold a ghost?” she sings. “Inner child, come back to me / I wanna tell you that I’m sorry.” 

And it is this message that permeates through the rest of the album, buried beneath the layers of each track. The anguish of an adult watching themselves fall apart in their memories; the remorse of a mother towards her child; the anger of a child at the world around her; and the grown-up version of that same child, finally finding acceptance and joy. All of it, addressed to the same journey of growing pains and healing—of confronting ugly truths, and reaching out to embrace the person or people that have been with you through it all. 

Rina Sawayama, “Phantom (Official Visualiser)” (2022)

In this sense, I believe that my expectations were warranted. To be vulnerable, violent, and victorious all at once is not a new concept to Rina. Traversing the path of Hold The Girl, we arrive at familiar stops. From the intro “Minor Feelings” to “This Hell” to “Catch Me In The Air” and “Hurricanes”, the emotions present in songs like “Dynasty”, “Comme des Garçons (Like The Boys)”, and “Akasaka Sad” are echoed. This time, however, we see one stark difference. Where there was once a pessimistic, almost mocking tone in her past work, there is now an undercurrent of hope, present throughout the aches of the album. It is present in how she sings, “Mama, look at me now, I’m flying”—in how in “To Be Alive”, the closing track of the album, Rina is able to find happiness despite all she’s been through.

That, I believe, is the point of Hold The Girl (if music is to have a point at all). Our trauma stays with us, and it is all we can do as the versions of ourselves getting older with each passing day to reach within and shelter our inner child from any further hurt. It is pointless to say that we will no longer let it hold power over us: that we will let go of the bad days and thoughts in favor of choosing happiness instead. Peace, for an injured heart, comes not after the storm in the graveyard, but in spite of it. Happiness still shines through the clouds, falls from the sky, and lingers despite the ghosts that haunt us. It is scary, difficult work, but we need only put on our best shoes, look to the sky, and dance—the way we used to, and the way we still can.