Best of 2020: Pom Pom Squad Got Really Into Rina Sawayama This Year

Mia Berrin talks hyper pop, “genre–bending,” and capitalism.

I picked Rina Sawayama’s album, Sawayama. I tend to come late to new artists; I’m a creature of comfort for sure, so I spent most of the year listening to music I already knew. I wasn’t really familiar with Rina before the album came out, but I stumbled upon the video for “XS” and was in love immediately. I’m truly a little bitch for a good single. It’s this  Pussycat Dolls-esc pop song, cut up by these stabby grunge guitars and it feels totally seamless and natural in a way I’ve never really heard before. It’s unique and touches on a lot of intersections that really key me in to someone’s artistry, beyond them just having great music — her performance, her style, the visuals, the songwriting, the production… It’s all so conceptual and cool. It’s also accessible. It doesn’t feel like you have to be in–the–know to enjoy it or understand it. I feel like Sawayama is the kind of music I’ve always wanted to hear as a person whose heart lies equally with guitar-based music and pop.

The music I liked most this year addressed the pandemic as little as possible. I don’t find it comforting to listen to music about this moment while we’re still in it, so I can listen to a song like “Comme de Garçons” and let it take me to the imaginary gay club in my head where I’m sweaty and serving a look and dancing with all my friends. Or, I can listen to a song like “Bad Friend” and just stare at the 100+ unread texts on my phone. It’s the range for me. 

I feel like there’s been a conversation for a while about genre-bending — and it almost feels like a tired trope at this point, because what does “genre–bending” even mean? “Genre bending” has been happening in modern music forever — if it wasn’t, music wouldn’t have progressed as far as it has. “Pop” literally just means popular. Girl groups were on pop radio in the ‘60s, Nirvana was on pop radio in the ‘90s, and now hip-hop is on pop radio alongside Billie Eilish and Ariana Grande. So I just love the idea that hyperpop could really be anything. It’s sort of meta, un-ironic and simultaneously a criticism. It’s self-aware and it feels unique to a generation who has access to, essentially, the entire historical cannon of music and can do A LOT with just a laptop keyboard and Garageband. I grew up with the internet, and that was my intro to making music! With enough time and interest and wi-fi, I feel like you can kind of learn anything. Even when I listen to a record I think is absolutely mind-blowing, it feels magical but it doesn’t necessarily feel mysterious — it’s exciting and it makes me want to keep searching for what I can pull from myself as an artist.

Rina Sawayama’s SAWAYAMA is out now, as is Pom Pom Squad’s Ow

As told to Annie Fell.

When you hear Pom Pom Squad, you might picture a gaggle of matching teens, or a wry, sarcastic clan decked out in black; the reality is somewhere in between. Fronted by vocalist and guitarist Mia Berrin, the Brooklyn-based band unites punk inclinations with a raw, visceral vulnerability. It’s quiet grrrl punk reminiscent of Rilo Kiley, Mitski and PJ Harvey that would rather growl than yell.

Alongside Berrin, Pom Pom Squad features bassist Mari Alé Figeman, and drummer Shelby Keller. Hailing from a variety of different backgrounds — whether Keller’s jazz training or Berrin’s classic hip-hop and new wave upbringing — the group manages to be serious without taking themselves too seriously. It’s that balance of solemnity and whimsy that allows punk and tenderness to live side by side: chunky, distorted guitar on some tracks, and near-whisper on others; brash yells or tame, wry wit.

They first released the EP Hate It Here in 2017 and followed it up with “Heavy Heavy,” the first single off their most recent EP, Ow, which earned praise from the likes of Stereogum, High Snobiety, Paste and more. Berrin’s music reveals internal discord — she’s intent to cast off the “nice girl” narrative, and that means turning herself inside out to show that the inside isn’t so put-together after all.

Also integral to Berrin’s self-excoration is her existence as a queer woman of color, two identities that come with their own preconceived notions. With lyrics centering on mental health, abuse, trauma, and healing, Pom Pom Squad pursues radical self-acceptance through periodic self-exposure and self-undressing.