Updated: May 19, 2022 at 1:27 p.m.
Alternative pop singer Rina Sawayama brought her Dynasty Tour to a packed house at The Howard Theatre earlier this month, delivering a dynamic and electric performance full of guitar solos, discotheque beats and stunning vocals.
The Japanese-British singer launched headfirst into her set with hits like “Dynasty” and “STFU!” from her critically acclaimed 2020 debut album “Sawayama.” She then brought the crowd back to her earlier musical eras with songs like “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome” and “Cherry” and brought the concert to a dramatic finish with the fierce club bangers “XS,” “LUCID” and “Free Woman.”
Sawayama rose to stardom recently, working with artists like Elton John, Lady Gaga and Charli XCX in the last two years and causing the BRIT Awards, the United Kingdom’s largest profile music awards, to change their rules in 2021.
The rules state that only British citizens could win the awards, and Sawayama did not initially qualify, holding immigrant status that allows her to live and work in the country. She moved to the United Kingdom at the age of five and continues to live there today, but she viewed her original ineligibility to compete as “othering” and related it to the struggles that immigrants in the country often face.
“All I remember is living here,” she said in an interview with the BBC. “I’ve just lived here all my life. I went to summer school in Japan, and that’s literally it. But I feel like I’ve contributed to the U.K. in a way that I think is worthy of being celebrated, or at least being eligible to be celebrated.”
The phenomenal vocalist opened the concert with her soulful stadium rock-esque track “Dynasty” off of “Sawayama.” She commanded the audience’s attention as she greeted the stage with a dramatic pose in a bright red jumpsuit and bright red jacket with sky-high shoulder pads.
She then plunged into her metal and 2000s-pop influenced track “STFU!,” also from “Sawayama.” The song was a crowd favorite, with the audience chanting the explicit chorus loudly along with Sawayama.
Sawayama is known for her experimental take on pop music, crafting songs that don’t always fit into one genre. One minute I was dancing to electro-pop beats and the next I was feeling like I was trapped in an 80s hair metal band music video.
After her impassioned introduction, Sawayama played four more intense, more mainstream pop-influenced tracks. Three were from “Sawayama” – “Comme des garçons (Like the Boys),” “Akasaka Sad,” “Snakeskin” – and one was from her 2017 EP, “RINA,” “Cyber Stockholm Syndrome.” As the set went on, she got the crowd active and jumping around, hyping up the audience with these peppy tunes.
Sawayama’s energy onstage was that of a fully-fledged pop star along the lines of Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande and Beyoncé – incredibly confident and leaving the audience unable to take their eyes off her. Alongside her two backup dancers, she wasn’t afraid to get physical onstage with her dance moves, often gleefully jumping around and serving choreography that would make any 2000s pop diva jealous.
Sawayama then moved onto some of her sadder and reflective, yet occasionally still danceable songs like “Love Me 4 Me,” “Bad Friend” and “Fuck This World (Interlude),” during which the audience belted out lyrics about self-love and losing friendships, followed by a brief return to the concert’s earlier liveliness with electric guitar-driven “Who’s Gonna Save U Now?”
Sawayama then played “Tokyo Love Hotel,” a personal favorite of mine due to the song’s emotional peaks and grand synth sounds. On the track, she uses her powerful vocals to sing about her love for the city of Tokyo and how she sees Western tourists fetishize and reduce it to stereotypes about Japanese culture.
As an 80s synth-pop fan, I fell in love on first listen with the melodies of “Tokyo Love Hotel” and its amazing production that reminded me so much of songs like “How Will I Know?” by the legendary Whitney Houston, as the vocals and backing instrumentals gradually build to a euphoric moment where every part of the song seems to come together. Seeing it in concert gave me chills.
Sawayama is an out-and-proud pansexual woman and specifically called out the “queer energy” in the theater that night, to which the audience responded with cheers. It made my heart swell with pride as a queer woman myself to be in what felt like a safe space with other queer people where we didn’t need to care what the rest of the world thought of us, just singing along with Sawayama.
Sawayama then played her soulful ballad, “Chosen Family,” the concept of finding a family among those who are not necessarily related to you but those who truly love you and support you, a common experience within queer communities. The crowd swayed along and put their phone flashlights up as Sawayama sang to the audience about not sharing “genes or a surname” but finally finding a place where they belong.
Sawayama played an unreleased song called “Catch Me In The Air” from her upcoming album that she will be released in September. The song appeared to get a positive reaction from the crowd, with many a “woo” elicited from below the stage as it finished.
She then moved into another queer love-themed 80s-tinged track, “Cherry,” a 2018 standalone single to which everyone in the theater seemed to be swaying along under the pink stage lights to finish out the main set.
Sawayama shortly left the stage but returned a few minutes later after much chanting from the audience. She played what some consider her signature and most popular song, “XS,” off “Sawayama,” which I loudly screamed the lyrics to along with the rest of the audience. The 2000s pop-influenced song with intense guitar stabs sprinkled throughout is a masterpiece to watch in concert to put it lightly.
Sawayama finished the concert with a mashup of her house-inspired songs “LUCID” from the deluxe version of “Sawayama” also released in 2020, and her remix of Lady Gaga’s “Free Woman” from the 2021 “Dawn of Chromatica” remix album. As she left the stage for the final time, she left me in awe from her talent and stage presence.
With her insane vocals, incredibly catchy and meaningful songs and her pure ability as a gorgeously captivating performer, Sawayama’s concert was nothing short of showstopping and one of the best experiences of my lifetime.
This post has been updated to clarify the following:
This post has been updated to clarify that Sawayama’s upcoming album will be released in September, which she announced Monday.