Wednesday, December 23rd, 2020

Rina Sawayama – Bad Friend

Next, Caitlin settles the burning question of the past few weeks: which Rina Sawayama single do we do?


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[7.78]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: The idea of Rina Sawayama is one of a genre-expanding, one-of-a-kind artist, pilfering the CD collections of 1998-2003 and adding her own unique twist. That’s what Sawayama sells you on: the nu-metal pomp of “STFU!” and “Dynasty”, the faux Max Martin of “XS”, the house pastiche of “Comme Des Garçons.” “Bad Friend” isn’t nostalgic in style, though, so much as nostalgic in tone. The production is reminiscent of contemporary lite-EDM producers like Snakehips or Kygo, but from its first lines, it lands you in a specific place and time. It’s an expertly struck ballad: both the big moves, like the vocoder on the hook, and the small, like the softly arpeggiating synths behind the verses, accent Sawayama’s vocal performance. She sings with a regret and tenderness and a complete lack of cleverness, letting emotion overtake her for once.
[8]

Caitlin Gee: The song’s structure is a neat little trick. On the one hand, it is built like a pop song. On the other hand, it’s uncomfortably accurate for the content of the song. Haven’t you had a time where memories of a once-forgotten relationship lazily bubble up like hazy synth blips, only to have painfully sharp realizations of what really happened slice through the fog and shake you with the vibrations of a thousand vocoders? “Bad Friend” aligns with the recent experiences I’ve had reflecting on past ended friendships — how much I hurt at the time, how much I might have hurt them at the time. As Rina points out in her lyrics, sometimes a little bit of distance, time, and hard-earned maturity is needed to gain such clarity. A lot of the realizations stung, but once I accepted them, I was finally able to release the troves of shame and loathing I held buried away for so long.
[8]

Al Varela: One of the hardest parts of growing up is falling out with a close friend: not necessarily losing them, but having both moved on to your own lives and you only see them from a distance. The way Rina Sawayama paints this picture is utterly heartbreaking, as she reminisces about her and her best friend wasted and blasting Carly Rae Jepsen, making fun of each other’s exes and getting in trouble. She wants to see them again, but her fear and insecurity always grips her shoulders and pulls her back. Sawayama calls herself a bad friend, but the massive, crowd-pleasing bridge where she asks the audience to “put their hands up if they’re bad at this stuff” implies how many people go through this situation — and how maybe, just maybe, that friend feels the exact same way. 
[9]

Alfred Soto: “So don’t ask me where I’ve been/Been avoiding everything” is a Couplet For Our Times, no question, but even if we hadn’t spent nine months standing 60 feet apart from food delivery people many of us understand how age, familiarity, and coupledom impinge on a platonic intimacy that culturally we’re not supposed to take seriously. Rina Sawayama understands. Her pained, almost embarrassed delivery — the attitude of someone used to being shamed for sharing these impressions — saves “Bad Friend” from a rather blah electronically tinged production.
[6]

Kylo Nocom: I’ve had many discussions with friends about how disappointing Sawayama was. I wasn’t able to pinpoint what exactly bothered me about the record — my concerns of catering to the white gaze were actively addressed on “Tokyo Love Hotel,” the album was more sincere than the fake pop star shtick of her EP, and I did enjoy many of the singles. All I could figure out is that the exact moment Sawayama starts actively sucking is when the fake gospel choir shit comes in on this song.
[4]

Oliver Maier: “Bad Friend” exemplifies two of the issues that hinder Sawayama for me: schlocky melodies, and lyrics that fail to unpack whatever it is the song purports to be about. Rina insists she’s a bad friend, but she’s never clear as to why or how, and I don’t think she’s really sure herself. One might expect conflict to manifest in the second verse, puncturing the nostalgic and (more importantly) detailed first verse about this friendship’s honeymoon period. Instead she only shrugs: “Guess we fell out, what was that all about?”. Is that not what you’re meant to be telling us? “God, it’s insane how things can change like that” — damn, dude, it sure is! It’s not that I think Rina is obliged to lay her most incriminating anecdotes on record, but there’s almost no evidence of reflection here, and the song reads as more than a little insincere. “Bad Friend” is an attempt at self-awareness without self-examination, with the worst offense saved for the middle eight: “Put your hands up if you’re not good at this stuff” is at about the same level of responsibility and clarity as lamenting the difficulty of “adulting.” Lack of nuance works for an EP about hyper-exaggerated pop personas and digital alter-egos, but less so for a debut album explicitly pushed as deeply/disarmingly/undeniably personal. What does work are the ace chorus melody, the “The Middle”-style vocoder harmonies thereon, and the production, which through its swells and shimmers tells a story that Rina cannot.
[5]

Scott Mildenhall: Euphoria, acrimony and gut-punching retrospection: all things hinted at by “Bad Friend”; all but the first left bafflingly under-explored. The lyrical detail is lacking, and the emotional weight doesn’t cover for it, nor the extent to which it was genuinely raw for Sawayama. There is so much potential in the thoughts, feelings and circumstances that inspired this song, but she harnesses them only as well as the most middling mainstream star might. Would people like this as much if it was by Rita Ora? Well, of course they would — just quite a lot more of them, if not all of the same ones.
[7]

Harlan Talib Ockey: As a hardcore “XS” and “Comme des Garçons” stan, I desperately hoped we’d get to cover something by Rina Sawayama this week — and then a finger curled on the monkey’s paw. Is that an unfair reaction? “Bad Friend”‘s reputation seems to be suffering from the “sincerity is uncool” curse, as well as from following the flawless initial trio of singles. But there’s a significant amount worth spending time with here. The lyrical storytelling in the first verse through to is a masterclass in evoking nostalgia through specificity. The dorkiness (“sparks and shit,” that “Call Me Maybe” shout-out) only builds our connection to the narrator; there’s a point where it becomes legitimately difficult to remember that Sawayama isn’t your actual friend. The most obvious misstep, then, is when that deeply personal atmosphere is disrupted by the gospel choir in the bridge, which feels like a church group aggressively barging in on your emotional conversation. Some songs don’t need to be universalized, especially when their greatest strength is their familiarity and candor.
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Michael Hong: Beautiful how the tenderness of the verses contrasts the ugliness of the vocoder-processed chorus, the stuff she wants you to hear versus the stuff she has to get out there. Not to you, really, just things she needed to spit out. Is it better to apologize, or should you just leave things be? Am I just making a mess by reopening old wounds? We’re both just cowards, aren’t we? Please don’t take it personal. Rina gives it all she can in that last word, the one that manages to peek through the autotune and lets you know that if you needed to, wanted to, reach out for some reason, I’m still here she’s still there.
[9]

Nortey Dowuona: Washing-machine synths spin behind Rina’s warm trill as the e-bass swirls then splits. Rina’s echoes bind themselves to her, but she sends them off to bring in skipping drums, and shaking percussion. The bass spins up and snatches away the echoes, as Rina flies away.
[10]

Vikram Joseph: Unlike much of Sawayama — which frequently feels like it’s been produced by seven different people simultaneously, and then packed into a compression cube — “Bad Friend” allows Rina space to breathe and room to be a little bit sentimental, and is far better for it. Referencing Carly Rae Jepsen both lyrically and musically, it shimmers and sparkles and glows in a way that actually feels like the hot summer nights under Tokyo lights that Rina recalls. Both the vocoder a cappella first chorus and the gospel-inflected middle eight are quiet triumphs. But the single’s real emotional heft is the revelation that the friends in question never fell out, but drifted apart so quietly they didn’t realise it was happening. “Bad Friend” is about realising that someone you used to know intimately now lives a life that you can’t relate to at all, and the queasy sequelae of that realisation: were you ever close at all? Does this disparity reflect a personal failing on your part, a retrogression relative to the inexorable outward tide of adulthood? There are times when no amount of rationalising can push those ideas back; they creep under door frames and through the gaps in the single-glazed windows of your psyche, the insidious vapour of self-doubt.
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Wayne Weizhen Zhang: How do you shake the sticky feeling that everyone is secretly mad at you or hates you, even if you can rationalize why that isn’t true? How do you prevent social anxiety from slowly dismantling your relationships, like freezing water creating cracks in the pavement at night? What is the recourse for redeeming a derelict friendship? (Is there one?) What if there was music therapy–pre-dating the pandemic, but given new context and texture during it–from one of the best pop stars of the moment to ruminate on the possibilities?
[9]

Katherine St Asaph: One of the loneliest feelings is that of watching, helplessly, as your relationships decay from social to parasocial. The shame grows exponentially — you lose friends often, seldom regain any — and never fades; if there’s a point it stops hurting, I doubt I’ll live to reach it. And the feeling is lonely in the literal sense as well as the representational. Being dumped, while painful, is at least socially acceptable; being friend-dumped is not. There’s endless content about how to rid yourself of that awful person but almost none about how to live with yourself, the awful person of whom they’re now rid. Almost nothing tells you how to stop wanting to run through bright lights again, or karaoke your hearts out to Carly (the details here are… precise) or just be okay in the eyes of someone you were close to. Maybe that’s why there are so many pop songs like “Bad Blood” to give ex-friends sassy thank-u-nexts, and so few from the other side, to give them empathy. Like Sawayama‘s “Chosen Family,” “Bad Friend” is uncomplicated, even sappy. The vocoded chorus comes off as a mumbled confession but is also basically Zedd, and “put your hands up if you’re bad at this stuff” is not far, really, from Logic’s “who can relate!” But how else could it be? The songs tend toward teenpop because we barely allow these feelings in teens, let alone adults. The lyrics are blunt since the situation’s too undiscussed for metaphor; they provide no answers, since you never get any. Of course the pop songs on the subject have a Disney-ballad lilt (and even the non-pop songs have a narcotic drift). The sound is palliative: a best painkiller forever.
[6]

Alex Clifton: I’ve had a number of devastating friend breakups, all my fault because I don’t know how to temper myself. Chasing the kind of closeness I’ve seen in movies and TV, I’ve fallen into obsessive relationships where I build my life around the other person and become their shadow. Slowly I realize that I can’t anticipate their every need, or that I’m not exactly what they wanted, or, more heartbreakingly, that they don’t care to reciprocate. Balance has never been my strong point, so I go too hard the other way, avoiding casual messages because I can’t bring myself to face how badly I’ve fucked it up. After that, my only choice is to watch them shift into someone I can’t know. It hurts to get updates from afar, even small ones like the new music they’re into, but it’s leagues better than wrecking myself in a fruitless quest for impossible affection. This sounds like a dramatic teenage problem, yet well into adulthood, I still haven’t figured out how to have strong, lasting, healthy friendships. It’s why “Bad Friend” strikes close to my heart — finally, an anthem for those among us who struggle with basic human connection. There aren’t enough songs about the dissolution of friendships — I’ve made my own playlist of “breakup songs” that are repurposed from romantic relationships — but Sawayama’s made an important entry into the canon, which captures the sensation of realizing how you’ve destroyed something that should’ve been easy.
[10]

Austin Nguyen: The guilt of friendships gone awry from time and distance by way of the Lost in Translation screenplay, vocoder-accentuated emptiness (an added vocal layer of what could’ve been), and freefalls into numbed silence. Elsewhere — the “Running Up That Hill” synths in the intro, how the bridge could segue into High School Musical 2: Gospel Edition — Sawayama misses, but I think this is how I was supposed to feel during graduation, if I had one?
[6]

Will Adams: On a sunny day in March 2012 I stood on the curb of an airport. I’d just been dropped off by my friends K and A, after spending the entire ride holding back tears. (I’m not sure why; I’d already sobbed in front of them and the six others we’d spent the whole week with during spring break, for the same reason.) Over the past six months I’d felt the euphoric sensation of finally belonging, of deep, trusting connection, until the clock struck midnight and a thought loomed: “Will I ever be this happy again?” As the months went on, signs increasingly pointed to “no.” Three of them would graduate that spring, in a few years I would too, we’d move to different cities, and our relationships would dim to a familiar but faint glow. It seems Rina Sawayama has experienced this, too. The details are different, but the ending is the same; the dazzling, intense moments where we laughed, sang our hearts out to Carly and poured out our deepest truths — they were the first people I came out to — would eventually become weak tethers: texting them on their birthday, only to notice the last time I’d texted was one year ago; congratulating an engagement via Instagram comment; knowing they’re in med school but not which one; replying “I don’t know” when my mother asks how they’re doing. It’s easy enough to blame this on the digital age or Growing Up™, but at a certain point the needle points to me. Is it my fault? “Bad Friend” opens with sparkles and nostalgic synths before Rina confronts that same question with a suffocating vocoder. From there are the familiar reasons why — we fell out, I’m just a shitty person, no one wanted my company anyway — until the bridge, which takes the pop cliche of “put your hands up” — just like those songs we sang — and reverbs it beyond recognition, as if to evoke a foggy memory of those nights. There’s a bittersweet, if cautious, optimism buried in the lyrics — “I’m so good at crashing in” — and the mostly bright arrangement, but the collapsing final “friend” seals it. “Bad Friend” is the sound of my anxieties of the past eight years condensed into three minutes. It’s the kind of song I’ll always treasure; it hurts, but it lets me know me I’m not alone.
[10]

Ian Mathers: Wow, this managed to make me: 1) feel bad about not keeping up with everyone I care about (there’s a lot of them); 2) remember all the times people I care about have clearly felt horrible about the same thing and how much I’m willing to cut them slack (depression, work, lack of time, w/e) without ever doing the same for myself; 3) miss even the smallest “oh yeah we should hang out” interaction, since clearly 2020 and at least the beginning of 2021 won’t give us even those. So now I’m in the weird spot of, indeed, putting my hands up because I’m not good at this, and thinking about all the people I’m going to hug next time I see them (assuming they’re into it). Sawayama keeps writing great songs about messy stuff; long may she continue.
[8]

Aaron Bergstrom: The crux of “Bad Friend” is that it doesn’t really sound like Rina Sawayama is a bad friend. Her worst offense seems to be her susceptibility to distance and the passage of time, her inability to make it 2012 forever. This doesn’t stop Rina from blaming herself, which is what makes this song so deeply relatable. The devil on her shoulder has a vocoder, and he’s all too happy to provide ominous amplification for all of her darkest thoughts. Luckily, she has a choir of angels on her other shoulder, and they burst in just in time with a show of solidarity, granting forgiveness and permission to be human, after which Rina is willing to soften her self-assessment to “maybe I’m a bad friend.” That small shift toward acceptance is enough to cast the whole song as a euphoric epiphany. If we’re lucky, “Bad Friend” will provide the soundtrack for the transcendent moments of a new generation, convinced as always that they will be young forever. They will not. They will drift apart. They will blame themselves. The passage of time will remain undefeated.
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3 Responses to “Rina Sawayama – Bad Friend”

  1. Absolutely devastating blurbs all around…y’all are making me scared for a real graduation (also apologize for unintentionally @ing Will; did NOT know that was gonna happen O_o)

  2. I didn’t want to hijack the blurb completely, but I’m also working on a theory that “Bad Friend” and Taylor Swift’s “22” are describing the same night. The math works!

  3. So many fun snarky blurbs all year but these gave me all the feels; S/O to Aaron for one that almost made me cry

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