The Japanese musician brought high-energy, catharsis and queer freedom to the iconic London venue Heaven
In less than a year, Rina Sawayama has gone from performing in 150 capacity venues to selling out a homecoming gig with 1,000 people. She’s toured the US twice and dropped a stunning, identity-affirming video, while continuing to ride the pixelated wave of her now year-old, excellent mini-album RINA. On Friday (October 19), the London artist sold out iconic queer venue Heaven, where legendary acts from Madonna and Robyn to Sade and Grace Jones have performed. It was a beautiful homecoming moment for the Japan-born, London-based artist, and testament to her forward-facing pop vision.
Sawayama has cultivated a dedicated fandom online – lovingly dubbed Pixels – which came out in force to Heaven, across gender, age, and style. Her opening was electrifying, marching onstage in a helmet and PVC trench to a cyberpunk-influenced, Appleseed-like intro. Removing her headgear slowly for a roaring crowd, she sped through “Alterlife”, a song about finding yourself by trying on other identities, with its grinding, Tatu-esque guitars and early 00s power pop key-change. In its crackly breakdown, Sawayama grabs the feet of a dancer aloft, riding them, swerving like a player in Gran Turismo.
LONDON that was so fucking emotional!!!! the hometown love, with still the same ppl in the front row 😭 Pixels I love u so much. thank u each and every one of u who came to see me this year, u let me grow with each show 🌱 I can't even 😭😭😭— RINA🏳️🌈🇯🇵 (@rinasawayama) October 21, 2018
(vid by Paul Chapman) pic.twitter.com/pJ08d9DYgP
The show’s production was more like a Janet Jackson 00s arena tour, packaged in a neat hour-long set by the retro-futurist. Sawayama had three costume changes, from the slick Matrix-inspired first look flanked by an Akira biker gang, to an all-white bodysuit reminiscent of a swan, surrounded by dancers dressed as doctors and nurses as she delved into painful, personal themes. Her final look, a neon orange Y2K co-ord, saw her flourish like a phoenix, as the visuals behind her rebooted with a ‘blue screen of death’ and rushing numbers. The set itself raced from RINA’s biggest bangers – ”10-20-40” and “Take Me As I Am” – to her breakout “Where U Are”. The narrative bounced from our complex relationship with technology, the lives and loves we cultivate online and off, and the journey to one’s true, most powerful sense of self. Interludes saw her dancers lead rousing New Kids on the Block-style breakdowns and a pummeling vogueing session that felt gloriously wild and carefree.
“Cherry” was a particular highlight, the soaring proclamation of Sawayama’s queer identity. Introducing the song, visibly touched by the reaction, she told the crowd that it felt special to bring a tune about personal freedom and curious new love to LGBTQ venue Heaven – ”you looked my way / with your girl gaze / that was the day everything changed”. “Who here is queer?!” she asked triumphantly. “Dynasty”, with her twinkling vocals, was a lush, cathartic moment mid-way through her set, and “Take Me As I Am” a powerful, energetic pop anthem. “Ordinary Superstar” and “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” got the worldwide headline tour reaction she deserved.
At one point, Sawayama told the crowd about how she grappled with her identity growing up, made to feel uncomfortable and sad by her peers who rarely attempted to say her surname correctly. Then, she asked the – very obliging – audience to scream her name back. The crowd was dedicated, supportive, and energetically queer. At one point, mid-way, the applause and chants got so loud she was visibly overcome. Sawayama also made sure to shout out the fans who came alone, some who had utilised the ‘Alone Together’ wristband system she introduced for solo attendees.
Rina Sawayama’s production was a touching, totally glorious moment to witness, with a fandom and audience that matched her pulsating energy toe-to-toe. It’s an exciting reflection of the thoughtful, unabashed, imaginative pop sphere we can only hope for in 2018, 2098, and beyond.