Olivia Rodrigo justifies her sudden climb to fame on SOUR by embodying a whole generation and letting the world in on her insecurities.
After a couple of breakthrough acting roles in the Disney-verse, Rodrigo displayed an appetite for soaring ballads with a first single, ‘drivers license’–a leviathan of a pop song that broke a multitude of records shortly after its release in January. She let us in on her experience of heartbreak, drawing parallels with an American rite of passage and ultimately suggesting calamitous endings to teenage love are formative growing pains. By wearing many hats, from the indignant “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me” to the frustrated longing of “I still fucking love you”, Rodrigo used the full extent of her pristine higher register to process raw emotions by way of delivering the biggest song of the year (yet). There was a sense that so much time had been wasted on the wrong person and simultaneously a curious, yet relatable, feeling that time hadn’t been wasted after all.
Rodrigo’s rise to the main pop stage has been stratospheric, as demonstrated by her streaming numbers, her late show performances, a live spot during the BRITs and her recent appearance on SNL. Her secret? Brutal honesty and a remarkable ability to showcase an uncanny versatility this early in her career (and in life–Rodrigo is eighteen years old at the time of writing). The young singer-songwriter takes after a couple of her influences, especially through her knack for storytelling. It’s no secret the singer has been a long-time fan of Taylor Swift, and more recently, of indie darling Phoebe Bridgers.
Producer and co-writer Dan Nigro (whose roster of collaborators includes Carly Rae Jepsen, Empress Of, MARINA, Caroline Polachek and Kylie Minogue) is along for the ride but Rodrigo is clearly in charge of her narrative. Turning a tendency to overshare into an asset, she refuses to paint a picture with broad strokes. The more specific, the better. In that respect, she reminds most of Bridgers, whose inclination for juxtaposing razor-sharp observations with hushed confessions won her a legion of admirers last year with Punisher.
But Rodrigo’s dilemmas are less existential and less mysterious: the problems are identifiable, their solutions available but the climb up the teenage misery molehills is treacherous. Growing pains might be universal but Rodrigo’s way of dealing with them is particularly symptomatic of her generation–more specifically, of virtual depictions of Gen-Z in their online forts. She directly pours her own experiences into her music without convoluted triple entendres, sarcasm or self-deprecation. In fact the only time the latter might be suspected, in ‘brutal’, SOUR’s introduction, it reads more like unfiltered sincerity, albeit endearingly exaggerated through the prism of teenage angst, far from characteristically millennial faux-humility.
Echoing the first track’s sentiment, ‘jealousy, jealousy’ tackles the unhealthy downsides of social media. Rodrigo manages to sound particularly self-aware as she starts to break free from the external gaze: “I think I think too much about kids who don’t know me”, she sings, to a mean groove that echoes Julia Michaels’ debut. The track is filled with gorgeous self-harmonization, hurried synths in the back, earthy bass thrusts to the front. Its atonal piano à la Fiona Apple steals the show, sending us off to a surprising–and glorious–cacophony.
The ‘drivers license’ relationship–or rather its blind-siding conclusion–is SOUR’s founding block. Rodrigo sounds exhausted because of her volatile ex in ‘1 step forward, 3 steps back’, –“Which lover will I get today?” she asks, an involuntary witness to a twisted game of emotional Russian roulette. The waltz sounds inspired by Taylor Swift’s ‘New Year’s Day’ (reputation) but the underlying sentiments are diametrically opposed: the underpinning simmering anger threatens to overthrow the chirping birds and soft keys at every turn but never does.
Rodrigo also goes over the tribulations of infatuation with the dramatic balladry and electric resentment of ‘traitor’, with regret mingled with reproach rising to the surface (“God I wish you’d thought this through / Before I went and fell in love with you”). Those paths are well-trodden by the time ‘enough for you’ and ‘favorite crime’ come around: in an album full of emotional cruxes, those acoustic numbers aren’t distinctive enough to leave a mark on the listener. The storytelling device of ‘favorite crime’ and Bridgers interpolation (see Punisher’s title track) don’t make up for its excruciating predictability.
Final track ‘hope ur ok’ is to SOUR what ‘Rainbow’ was to Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy-winning Golden Hour. Not immediately part of the principal narrative, the epilogue is a sweet inspirational send-off that sheds light on the person Rodrigo is shaping up to be in the aftermath of those soured relationships. The song closes an album that has the potential to resonate with a whole generation the same way Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream left an indelible mark on pop culture. Less bombastic, more insular, SOUR’s invitation to (re)visit adolescence is a comforting reminder that–for some of us–those times are over–thank god.
Olivia Rodrigo’s SOUR is available to stream and purchase now.