Rina Sawayama’s Jimmy Fallon performance proved she’s a superstar-in-waiting

Her US TV debut was a thrilling reminder that, despite everything 2020 has thrown at her, the pop provocateur is well and truly destined for the big time

Performances on late night television have the potential to break an artist. Future Islands‘ legendary rendition of ‘Seasons’ on The Late Show With David Letterman has gone down in history, Adele credits her performance on Saturday Night Live in 2008 as having broken her career in America, and Christine and the Queen’s chance performance on The Graham Norton Show (Chris appeared after Drake cancelled, as Norton had read about her in an in-flight magazine) was the beginning of her smashing the mainstream.

Last night on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon we may just have borne witness to the latest performance to be welcomed into this illustrious club – thanks to pop provocateur Rina Sawayama’s US TV debut. Performing ‘XS’, a genre-splicing belter that sees Sawayama take down the opulent lifestyles of the rich and famous over slinky R&B beats and nu-metal riffs, she put on a career-breaking show.

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Slickly choreographed, with dramatic red lighting, glamorous pop-star-on-an-arena-tour outfits and a live band, it was next-level stuff. And if you feared this level of production is sometimes designed to mask shoddy singing – worry not, reader, as Sawayama more than delivered on those too, performing vocal gymnastics. From the first synth licks that accompany a dramatic opening shot of a silhouetted Sawayama flanked by four dancers, there was a strong sense of artistry here.

Clips of Sawayama and her dancers were cut with eerie, blurry footage each time the overdriven nu-metal guitars kick in and the cameras got right up into the action. It was like being in weird warehouse rave– a tantalising prospect right now. This strangeness was meshed with old school pop star glamour, bombastic dance routines, and hairography courtesy of a fan blowing Sawayama’s locks à la Beyoncé. And it was funny, too: midway through the first verse, we saw dancers scurry behind Sawayama, flaunting boxes of jewelry like QVC saleswomen.

After the performance aired, #RINAFALLON trended on Twitter worldwide. Hell, the performance was so good even queen of pop Kylie Minogue shared her approval, commenting “Bravo” on Sawayama’s Instagram post about the show.

It’s amazing, really, that Rina Sinawaya only released her debut album back in April. Then again, ‘SAWAYAMA’ was critically acclaimed (we gave it the full five-star treatment here at NME), and she was meant to be embarking on an international tour before the pandemic put that on pause.

Never one to rest on their laurels, though, Sawayama has over the past six months teamed up with Bree Runway for a banging remix of ‘XS’, put together a documentary about her debut record and spoken out against the Mercury Prize’s archaic eligibility rules (she wasn’t able to be submitted for the award as she isn’t classified as a British artist under the Mercury’s current rules; this prompted an official review from the organisation behind the awards).

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Alongside this, she’s also found a fan in Elton John (who says ‘SAWAYAMA’ is his favourite album of the year), and just announced her biggest headline show ever (next year at London’s Roundhouse).

In a year filled with sour lemons, Sawayama has made bucket-loads of lemonade – and this performance feels like a triumphant celebration of all she’s achieved. It’s a masterclass in how to put on a show, and surely the next late-night performance to go down in history. The show acts as a reminder that, despite everything 2020 has thrown at her, Rina Sawayama is on the road to superstardom.

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