I thought it would be fun to review Olivia Rodrigo’s new album. That is, until the reviews came pouring in from other sources that made me feel as if my insights were insignificant. For some of the best reviews of SOUR, check out articles from NPR, Pitchfork, and The Wall Street Journal. They are all much more insightful and well-written than any analysis I could provide. I really like this girl though, Ms. Olivia Rodrigo, and I really don’t know what to do about it. In light of these circumstances, I’m going to take a different angle: Olivia Rodrigo is the most likable teenage star I have had the pleasure of experiencing.
It wasn’t this way at the start. I couldn’t help but be skeptical about the way she made her entrance into stardom. I feel like we all remember the day “driver’s license” blew up. There were the TikToks, the abundance of Instagram stories, the subliminal messages from those who related a little too closely with the break-up anthem. And the song kept playing and playing and playing. My first move was to see what other music she had released. She had none. Well, she had some High School Musical: The Musical: The Show soundtrack credits. So she’s also an actor. An actor on Disney. Ok, so maybe this isn’t as organic as it seems. I was directly opposed to another emotionally-subjective teenager with a microphone and big company behind her.
Despite my opposition, the song kept playing, and I kept listening. I drafted a tweet in which I congratulated Gracie Abrams on her number one song, discrediting Rodrigo based on the success of “driver’s license” because of its similarity to Abrams’s music. I’m glad I didn’t send that one; it would have looked foolish after Rodrigo copped to being a huge Abrams fan in an interview about the making of her breakout single. Everyone needs to give Gracie Abrams her credit, and I’m glad she did. That took care of that small gripe I had with the innocent then-17-year-old. Olivia Rodrigo had a new lease on life in my phone. Still, I was hesitant to buy any stock in her being the next big thing.
While Olivia Rodrigo may be unique, she isn’t necessarily special. Pop artists like her are almost an annual occurrence. She is the descendant of the stars that have ruled radio for the last decade, the likes of Taylor Swift, Dua Lipa, Billie Eilish, Lorde, Ariana Grande, and Lana Del Rey. While these artists have their own differing careers, they are the latest in a long lineage of teenage stars who are the beneficiaries of major label investment that leads them to stardom and huge fan bases. Rodrigo has all of these advantages as well, along with a fan base growing in numbers and demographics following the release of her debut album. It seems like everyone is an Olivia Rodrigo fan after listening to SOUR, and there’s no point in fighting the crowd now. Induct me into the fan club at your earliest convenience.
If you read the reviews I linked above (which you should), you would have a pretty good idea for why everyone is joining me in line for admission. Lindsay Zoladz of NPR cites Rodrigo’s “lowercase girl” personality and caps-lock performances as a recurring attraction. Pitchfork credits her with “embracing (her) own mess”, awarding the debut album an impressive score of 7.0. The Wall Street Journal’s Mark Richardson is convinced Rodrigo is more than a one-hit wonder. A theme in all of these reviews is to relate Rodrigo to her predecessors, making the straight-line connection to Taylor Swift. Swift is credited on the album explicitly and implicitly, her impact showing up throughout SOUR. While the comparisons hold true, there is something immediately discriminatory about the two. I think Charles Homes of The Ringer Music Show put it best: “The way (Rodrigo) talks about relationships is less longing and more like, ‘How dare you?’… If I look at someone like Taylor Swift…its very much from the victim standpoint, that ‘you broke my heart and I didn’t do anything to deserve it.’…Olivia Rodrigo is just like, ‘You suck. And I made a song about how you suck.’” This sentiment appears throughout her debut, her confrontational approach containing emotional volatility while lacking hostility.
This narrative is most apparent in SOUR’s second single “deja vu”, perhaps the best stand-alone track from the album. While not a recurring issue, the lyrics of “deja vu” are so particularly immature and isolated that its hard not to laugh in absurdity. Car rides in Malibu for strawberry ice cream? Watching re-runs of Glee? Trading jackets with each other? This is what is offending you so much? It all comes into perspective when you contextualize her fragile 17-year-old ego. The apex of her sorrows come when she can’t believe that the two are singing Billy Joel together. While a pretty obscure thing to get worked up about in any other circumstance, Rodrigo’s adolescent romanticization is made apparent in her performance. The echoed vocals in “deja vu” that appear when she sings of the Billy Joel betrayal sound like she’s screaming into her pillow, the abyss of teenage regret and despair. Her performance leads us to believe this is the boy’s most sinister act, that being carrying on old traditions with new partners. Still, in the end, she hopes that he sees some value in her, that she was his “favorite crime”. What I, and likely others, ultimately envy about Rodrigo’s songwriting is that she takes her naive mistakes and pins them on others, making them the villain, whether its justified or not. She places the blame on the others involved in the relationship, something we all would like to do with the experiences of our teenage years. It would be great to have someone else to blame our irrational, cringey behavior on.
Anyone who has been successfully admitted to the Olivia Rodrigo fan club is a fan not only for the music but the artist who has endured the experiences she shares in her songs. Its undeniable to consider the fact that she is (now) 18, a characteristic that both impresses and hinders. In early interviews and media appearances, you can still see the teenage anxiety in her. She isn’t typical of groomed Disney stars in this way. She can’t wait to get all the words out of her mouth to relieve herself from the responsibility of talking. This often leads to the consequence of over-explaining and repeating herself to make sure she is fully understood. She has the teenage habit of laughing after every answer she gives to add levity to a conversation, even if there is no tension present. These spurts of teenage emotion leak over into her songs as well, where Rodrigo uses it to her advantage. The sarcastic, snarling laugh that she lets out while rehearsing the lyrics to close the second verse of “good 4 u” ignites her rampageous finale to the verse. These are all normal behaviors for people her age, and its refreshing to see a someone in a position like Rodrigo that is so relatable and authentic in their youth. Taylor Swift was so young it wasn’t realistic. Billie Eilish had too much charisma and experience to fully, outwardly reflect the insecurities she held within. Lorde just straight up disappeared, so its hard to get a read on her situation. Its pretty obvious with Olivia Rodrigo: she’s just a 17-year-old who happens to be super talented. But she’s still 17.
Even though she says she’s “so sick” of being seventeen in the album’s opener, there are times where she seems unable to escape her age. The heartbreak that drives the album’s biggest singles bleeds over into nearly every track, an all-consuming tragedy that envelops her whole being. It gets to be a little much on SOUR, but to her credit, that is how heartbreak feels at 17. Its all there is in the world. While it is clear that Rodrigo has not developed the coping skills to deal with this break-up, it is similarly evident that this is her debut album. There are some oversights and miscalculations on the album that are characteristic of debut albums. For example, the tracklisting has definite room for improvement. While good on its own, placing the track “traitor” between “brutal” and “drivers license” creates damaging juxtaposition. “brutal” is almost a complete opposite performance that lacks a smooth transition into “traitor”. Alternatively, “traitor” and “drivers license” are structured so similarly that the superiority of the latter detracts from the former. These are small critiques, ones that are typical of debut albums. I’m impressed with the small amount of critiques I have more than the abundance of compliments I can spare.
Who’s to say where Olivia Rodrigo will take us next? Lorde gave us a possible classic with her second album. We have yet to hear what Billie Eilish will return with. Taylor Swift is Taylor Swift. The trail has been blazed for Rodrigo by teenage prodigies of the past. I’m interested to see if she remains as relatable to her age demographic as she grows. Like, are we going to get an album about horoscopes and every moon sign when she turns 22? A mid-life crisis album when she hits 30? I’m just fine with these heartbreak albums as long as they’re done with some integrity. Though it wasn’t the case a couple months ago, I have faith in Olivia Rodrigo.