On her record-breaking debut album, Olivia Rodrigo is tête-à-tête, unruly and full of awareness about self, one that is rapidly under evolution.
A sour expression indicates a feeling of noticeable distaste – like when you bite directly into an elaichi while feasting on Kolkata Biryani. Well, Olivia Rodrigo, eighteen-year-old Disney alum turned Gen-Z’s representative popstar, seems to have bitten into something equally disagreeable –her last relationship. Released on May 21 this year, her debut album Sour is a quintessentially Gen-Z breakup record (accidentally made clear by her anachronistic references to watching ‘reruns’ of Glee and relative ignorance of who Billy Joel is). The night the album dropped, I was on a phone call with my friend, who asked me if I’d be checking it out. “Maybe if I were younger,” I said, glibly, “I think it would suit me better as a freshman in high school?” Later that night before hitting the bed, I put the album on as sort of a white noise to fall asleep to. Big mistake!
On the cover, Rodrigo, chicly garbed in a fuzzy pale pink tank top and checkered bottoms, glowers directly at the camera. She is sticking out her tongue like a petulant and sulky child – a tongue that is embossed with the title of the album (Sour), perhaps hinting at how acerbic her language can get in the aftermath of a romantic rupture. But you’ll be learning that soon, as you hit play. It looks like she’s on the cusp of rolling her eyes at you, and her arms are unflappably crossed. The message is clear: she’s not here to negotiate, she’s here to rant and rave.
Olivia Rodrigo, relatively anonymous just a year ago, was catapulted into super-stardom very quickly with the release of her feature single ‘driver’s license’ back in January this year. It was an unlikely smash-hit, ineludibly looped at sleepovers, convenience stores and – admittedly – my own bedroom while also being featured in TikToks as much as people’s Instagram stories. It held the No. 1 spot on Billboard Hot 100 for eight consecutive weeks. Rodrigo has now become the youngest female artist to place all of her tracks in the top 20 of Global Spotify charts, parodied in a Saturday Night Live skit, and subsequently appeared as a musical guest on the show (which must be a definite yardstick for quantifying success, if there is such a thing). What’s more, Dionne Warwick has also publicly speculated the dedicatee of Rodrigo’s latest single, ‘good 4 u’ while extoling it as ‘really a good song’.
Rodrigo first gained prominence as an actor in Disney’s critically disregarded mockumentary High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, in which she plays the role of Nini Salazar-Roberts, a musical theater enthusiast, who is cast as Gabriella Montez. In many ways, she is a direct beneficiary of early 2000s Disney acts like Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus – except in one way she’s not: she swears profusely on her debut and has retained the ownership of her master recordings with Interscope/Geffen records. That is to say, she seems to be very much in control of her artistry as a young woman.
“I want it to be, like, messy” is the lead-in note to her fitful collection of eleven songs; ten of which explicitly document the aftershocks of romantic treachery. It’s almost as if she didn’t have her heart shatter into the traditional symmetry of perfect halves, but a motley assortment of ten breakup-themed instant hits. If I had to describe Sour in a single sentence or less, I’d say “Taylor Swift’s Better than Revenge, but make it a whole album”. That’s to say, it’s pop-punk, tongue-in-cheek, juvenile and absolutely feral in a way that will make its dedicatee want to move to a country with no radios, or preferably, any concept of music. With her confessional style of writing laden with nifty zingers (‘Guess you didn’t cheat/But you’re still a traitor’) sonically maneuvered into radio-friendly bops, Rodrigo has in fact earned fair comparisons to the likes of Taylor Swift and Lorde. (There is even a Buzzfeed quiz to determine if you’re more of a Taylor Swift or Olivia Rodrigo. But let’s be honest, what isn’t there a Buzzfeed quiz for?)
Rodrigo is, of course, a big self-professed Taylor Swift fan, and further cites the discographies of Lorde, Fiona Apple (‘The Idler Wheel…’ being her favourite album), St. Vincent and Cardi B as crucial influences. Tavi Gevinson, former editor of the now defunct Rookie magazine, also discussed on her Instagram story that Sour is ‘first solidly reputation-influenced album by a popular singer’ and that it is the first time 2013 Lorde has been ‘invoked as a nostalgia, not just an influence’. ‘1 step forward, 3 steps back’ does directly interpolate one of Swift’s melodies (New Year’s day off Swift’s 2017 album reputation) while the balladry of ‘hope ur ok’ sounds more referential to the novelties of a stripped-down, emotionally hefty Lorde song. But, with furtive affinities to Hole’s 1994 grunge masterpiece Live Through This, Rodrigo’s influences seem to be far more sophisticated and manifold than perhaps a casual listener could give her praise for, and that she surely deserves.
“I want to be a songwriter,” Rodrigo told The Guardian in an interview, “I don’t want to be the biggest pop star that ever lived.” Sour is indeed full of epigrammatic and clear-eyed lyrics that read like ‘notes app poetry’, full of virtuosic sincerity and an artful appropriation of girlishness. Her hyper-specific and evidently biographical lyrics could have easily been pulled out of my sixteen-year-old self’s journal where I used to write poems about how dudes aren’t shit.
Each song in the record goes through different stages of a breakup – sadness, anger, pettiness, jealousy and almost, closure – and are contained with a resolute sense of being young and brokenhearted. ‘Brutal’ sounds like Riot Grrrrl gone tamer, with punkish ostinatos and gruff, acerbic vocalizing about how unbelievably cruel it is to be young. ‘Where’s my fucking teenage dream?’ rages Olivia, but something about the way she says it tells me she’s not really looking for an answer. ‘traitor’ is one of my personal favorites on the album, claiming the idea of someone moving on a little too quickly as disproof of their love (“It took you two weeks to go out and get her/Guess you didn’t cheat but you’re still a traitor”). ‘1 step forward, and 3 steps back’ is about the pull-and-tug of being in a conflicted relationship (“I’m the love of your life, until I make you mad”) and how sometimes young love can go back and forth so often that in the end, it just doesn’t go anywhere. ‘déjà vu’ is a Lana-Del-Rey-esque track with anecdotage of one-spooning strawberry ice cream, riding cars in Malibu and listening to Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl. Olivia sings to her ex, a little bit hubristically, how everything he does with his next lover is something they already did once, and maybe did better, thus arousing a romantic déjà vu. “happier” sounds like letting go but not quite; it favors closure but on a conditional basis. She finds herself saying, ‘I hope you’re happy, just not like how you were with me’. ‘Good 4 u’ is a sourness that sweetens into pain on the following track, ‘enough for you’ which is perhaps the most emotionally hefty song on the record.
Listening to this album feels like getting a 2-AM phone call from your friend who’s just had a breakup as she sits on the kitchen floor, wearing her ex’s stinky clothes that she finds weirdly comforting, and tells you about everything after a week of catatonic silence. Though it achieves that effect very well, the album is not solely meant to cast aspersions on a past love interest in a Swiftian way. It is also a project of self-discourse – a bell jar capturing Rodrigo’s personal evolution catalyzed by romantic grief. What it is also a situational analysis of what Gen-Z girlhood entails in an influencer-dominated culture, (‘I kinda wanna throw my phone across the room/’Cause all I see are girls too good to be true/With paper-white teeth and perfect bodies,’ Olivia sings on a particularly good track, ‘jealousy, jealousy’) while also being a testament to the universality of heartbreak across generations. Though the content of most songs on Sour may be self-same, the manner of each differs in the tricks of its instrumentation and overall compositional value, erratically skipping from genre to genre, which makes the album a sonically brazen experience. There are pop-punk-influenced, bass-led songs like ‘brutal’ and ‘jealousy, jealousy’ juxtaposed with folky, minimalist ones like ‘enough for you’ and even ‘traitor’. Olivia’s voice is plaintive yet gutsy with kiss-and-tell; it is both self-pitying and full of blame, like any teenager’s would be. Most importantly, it makes me want to cry and mosh at the same time.
Here’s a thing about Rodrigo: her music is not a trenchant exercise in attitudinizing irony in the style of her acclaimed indie/alt-rock counterparts Mitski and Phoebe Bridgers. She’s not getting to grips with the dualism of pulsating heartbreak with a grimly humorous smile (though some Twitter users insist that she is making a class-conscious remark – ‘who am I if not exploited?’ – in track number one, Brutal). Rodrigo’s music is instead ripe with sincerity, luxuriating in affectless expression and unbridled emotion. That, however, does not mean she is outclassed by those who do pull that layered trick, because she pulls the opposite – one of saying exactly what you mean– just as well. Her tone is tête-à-tête, unruly and full of awareness about self, one that is rapidly under evolution. This makes her unusual and transparent enough to become one of today’s biggest pop phenomenon, while also seeming distinctly personal and girl-next-doorish. She is a good example of someone who can be popularly beloved but also artistically good.
In an aforementioned interview with The Guardian, Rodrigo made it clear that she was proud of the fact that the record thematically dealt with emotions that “aren’t really socially acceptable especially for girls: anger, jealousy, spite, sadness”. As it has been duly pointed out, the title itself is a reclamation of the expression ‘sour’ that is intended to disparage women as unjustifiably responsive to being wronged. As Diablo Cody’s 2009 feminist cult-classic horror comedy Jennifer’s Body – which Rodrigo references (https://genius.com/a/olivia-rodrigo-channels-cult-film-jennifer-s-body-in-the-video-for-her-pop-punk-inspired-single-good-4-u) in her ‘good 4 u’ music video – says in its opening dialogue, ‘Hell is a teenage girl’, and Olivia Rodrigo, for worse or for better, embodies that to its most hellish extent. And you know what’s really scary? She’s just starting out.
Read Also: #DUBeat Review: Folklore by Taylor Swift (https://dubeat.com/2020/07/dubeat-review-folklore-by-taylor-swift/)
Feature Image Credits: The New York Times