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Review: Rina Sawayama at Terminal 5

The Japanese-British singer/songwriter ends her Dynasty tour in NYC.

Review: Rina Sawayama at Terminal 5 The music that blasted throughout Terminal 5 preceding Rina Sawayama's Friday show was pretty spectacular. Tracks by Britney, Robyn, and Carly Rae had the crowd dancing and singing along in the uninhibited, unembarrassed way that can only be activated by a certain type of song by a certain brand of pop diva. Songs like "Dancing on My Own" and "Call Me Maybe" are shiny, sticky pieces of ear candy that also happen to be about a kind of awkward, solitary quest for companionship--a type of journey with which we can all somewhat identify.

I won't go to the trouble of pulling specific lyrics, as I'm sure most people reading this--aka anyone who's visited a club or taken an Uber or shopped at a Target in the past decade--are familiar with them. But the subject matter of these songs, along with their extreme levels of boppishness and danceability, awaken within the listener a feeling of invincibility, as the song provides a sort of safe space. We can be in our personal feelings while also dancing, and that's okay. It's ideal, even.

When Rina finally struts onstage wearing a bright red, long sleeve leotard with giant, Disney villain shoulderpads, you'd think it was Britney herself stepping into the spotlight due to the sheer amount of volume that is produced by the crowd. Rina definitely has star quality, and this becomes even more apparent on opening song "Dynasty." While this song revolves around the grim topic of inherited pain and struggle, the sound of it is deeply satisfying to my Evanescence-loving heart. When Rina holds the mic to the audience during the chorus, we sing-shout the words, which she receives with an endearing amount of gratification.

This enthusiasm continues into the next song, "STFU!," after which Rina comments, "I actually can't believe how loud you guys are." She then gets choked up as she thanks us all and celebrates the fact that this is the final performance of her COVID-postponed tour. She ends by saying "Thank you for making me feel heard. But most importantly, thank you for making me feel confident," which, of course, leads to the next song "Commes de Garcon." This number, which includes the oft-repeated mantra "I'm so confident," is a worthy addition to the existing trove of materialism-driven, empowerment pop songs. This collection includes, among others, Britney's "Work Bitch," RuPaul's "You Better Work," and Fergie's "Glamorous."

During the next two songs, "Akasaka Sad" and "Snakeskin," I really hone in on the choreography, which is being performed by Rina along with two background dancers. While it is admirable that Rina is attempting something like this, as her songs lend themselves perfectly to this kind of energetic, synchronized performance style, the choreography itself is a bit juvenile, and instead of clean, razor-sharp dance moves, the whole thing feels a bit like a high school pom squad trying out a new routine.

After an outfit change, Rina sings "Cyber Stockholm Syndrome," from 2017's RINA, followed by "Paradisin'" a carefree celebration of life lived to the fullest, in the vein of Madonna's "Holiday." After this comes "Love Me 4 Me," a song which literally includes a spoken "If you can't love yourself/How are you going to love somebody else," and during the end of which Rina conducts the crowd in call and response: "I'm gonna love myself," she says, to which we are encouraged to reply, "'Cause I don't need anybody else!" What in the World of Wonder is happening? I'm all for a self-acceptance bit, but this seems a little too on the contoured nose and heels of Mama Ru. Things get even cuddlier when we're encouraged to turn to the person next to us and proclaim, "You're f-ing hot!" which, even if I'd wanted to, was impossible, as I was too busy scribbling and documenting Rina's every word. Plus, the stagnant humidity at the back of the GA section already had me feeling hot enough. Aaaaaanyway...

Up next is the incredible pop ballad "Bad Friend," a fan favorite and one with definite Ariana Grande vibes. With lyrics like "Don't ask me where I've been/Been avoiding everything/'Cause I'm a bad friend," this is a song about the all too familiar--and unfortunately unexplored--friendship breakup, a subject with which it seems we are all a bit more familiar post-COVID. This is where Rina Sawayama's brilliance really lies: the ability to craft catchy, hook-driven pop songs that explore thorny and unglamorous subject matter.

"Who's Gonna Save U Now" follows, and like "Dynasty," this number feels very in line with the work of Evanescence. It also showcases Rina's voice, which, at times, almost begins to approach Christina Aguilera levels of power.

"Tokyo Love Hotel" is another dancy, catchy AF song, and after its conclusion, Rina pulls out a Pride flag, a gesture which is met with applause, whoops, and hollers. Rina is, as she states later in the evening, an "out and proud pansexual girlie," and the flag provides a nice visual appetizer to the next song, "Chosen Family," a celebration of queer camaraderie. "We don't need to be related to relate," she sings, and while this sentiment may seem trite in 2022, it could also be taken as a powerful mission statement for Rina's aims as an artist.

"I realized the personal is political," she states in her introduction to the next song, "Catch Me in the Air," and it's here that I'm reminded, yet again, of the gold standard of artistic aphorisms: "Anything you do/Let it come from you/Then it will be new," from Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. In penning lyrics inspired by personal experience, Rina is contributing to our cultural, collective archive of artistic data on how it feels to be human. And these offerings also happen to be fun to dance to.

Rina closes with "Cherry," after jokingly admitting, "This is my last song, I have no more songs." This, of course, proves to be a fib, as she comes out minutes later in a blue crop top and flared jeans to perform the encore, which begins with "XS," continues with "LUCID," and ends with a wonderful cover version of "Free Woman" by Lady Gaga. "This is my dancefloor I fought for/Ain't hard, that's what I'm living for," she sings, and we believe her. Rina has found her mission, spinning heartache into gold, and she's helping us find freedom in the process.

Daniel Nolen is a writer, designer, and performer in New York City. He is the co-host of the BroadwayWorld podcast Broken Records, as well as the weekly live show Cast Offs, every Monday at 8pm at Alan Cumming's Club Cumming.

Photo by Hendrik Schneider

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