Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Olivia Rodrigo Sour

Geffen
2021
Geffen
2021

“I want it to be, like, messy,” Olivia Rodrigo explains, right between the classy orchestral feint and the jagged power-chord guitar riff that comes crashing in to replace it. What immediately follows lives up to that description in one sense: a raw and aggressive rock song called “brutal” that gives voice to the 18-year-old singer’s anger, anxiety, and exasperation. In another sense the opening track on Rodrigo’s debut album Sour quite tidily sums up her situation as she sees it. “I’m so insecure I think/ That I’ll die before I drink/ And I’m so caught up in the news/ Of who likes me and who hates you,” begins Rodrigo, the biggest breakout pop star of 2021 by far. “And I’m so tired that I might/ Quit my job, start a new life/ And they’d all be so disappointed/ ‘Cause who am I if not exploited?”

That word last word stands out. Just months after the first in a flurry of Britney Spears documentaries examining how hellish teenage celebrity can become, it is striking to hear the latest teenage Disney Channel actor-turned-music industry sensation dragging her behind-the-scenes drama out into the spotlight from the start. As recently as a decade ago, adolescent pop stardom — especially among Mickey Mouse affiliates like Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez — involved presenting a fantasy, sometimes even a literal extension of their Disney Channel acting roles. The gig has changed a lot since then. “I’m very aware of that classic ‘Disney pop girl’ archetype,” Rodrigo told Nylon recently. “My music is definitely separate from my acting in a way I always dreamed would happen… being an actor is based on telling lies, and being a songwriter is based on telling the absolute, whole truth.”

This is a handy truism and also a wild oversimplification. You’d have to be extremely naive not to see the performative elements in popular music — and in social media, the force largely responsible for pushing pop stars to become “relatable” and “accessible” rather than larger-than-life — including on TikTok, the kingmaking shortform video platform that propelled Rodrigo’s debut single “drivers license” to record-breaking success. We may well be getting the real Rodrigo on Sour, but if she is playing a part, it’s a significantly different part than her teen-pop forebears ever played at her age, one that involves disenchantment and self-loathing and lots of cursing. “And I’m so sick of 17/ Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream?,” the opening track continues. “If someone tells me one more time/ ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry/ And I don’t stick up for myself/ Anxious and nothing can help/ And I wish I’d done this before/ And people liked me more.”

I dunno, people really seem to like Olivia Rodrigo. When “drivers license” premiered in January after months of social media teasers, it immediately shot to #1 and stayed there for eight straight weeks, shattering all kinds of streaming records in the process. A plaintive power ballad that began like a trembling Phoebe Bridgers track and built to a glimmering climax worthy of Lorde, “drivers license” cleverly used getting behind the wheel — a youthful milestone typically associated with freedom and excitement — into a vehicle for the kind of intense heartache only the young can experience. Rodrigo and co-writer/producer Dan Nigro, formerly of the Long Island alt-rock band As Tall As Lions, made sure there were several melodies invasive enough to take over your brain — some of them narrated with quivering fragility, others wailed with American Idol audition fervor. The song’s success was also fueled by a perceived love triangle between Rodrigo, her High School Musical: The Musical: The Series co-lead Joshua Bassett, and their fellow Disney actor Sabrina Carpenter. Like her hero Taylor Swift, Rodrigo laced the lyrics with plentiful Easter eggs her fans could eagerly connect to her real life as they understood it.

While remaining acutely fixated on the same breakup, Rodrigo’s singles since then have blown open new possibilities for what kind of artist she might be. First there was “deja vu,” which expanded from a lullaby-like hook you might charitably call an homage to Radiohead’s “No Surprises” into a midtempo symphony of interlocking guitars and tumbling drums. Another Nigro production, it became a canvas for more hyper-detailed storytelling from Rodrigo, this time an embittered lament about the way her ex seemed to be repeating their relationship with his new girlfriend note for note — “watching reruns of Glee,” “strawberry ice cream in Malibu,” Billy Joel sing-alongs and all. Even more than “drivers license,” it established Rodrigo as a charismatic presence on the mic. She can say more with a quick dismissive “huh” than many singer-songwriters do over the course of a whole song, and her performance in the video — in which she spies on her replacement from a high-tech lair until they begin to blur into the same person — communicates superstar levels of maniacal sass.

If the #8-peaking “deja vu” proved Rodrigo would not go quietly after “drivers license,” she might have another instant chart-topper on her hands with her current single, a spring-loaded pop-punk rager called “good 4 u” that has rightfully been compared to both Paramore’s “Misery Business” and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone.” Once again she’s addressing the guy who moved on so easily, leaving her distraught in his wake, but the anger has now ramped up to a barely controlled inferno — one that becomes literal in the video as Rodrigo’s cheerleader character seeks revenge via arson. Her equally fiery vocal performance is punctuated by obscenities she seems to relish: first slowing down to lean into the F-bomb as she inquires, “It’s like we never even happened/ Baby, what the fuck is up with that?” and then bursting out of the quiet to declare him “LIKE A DAMN SOCIOPATH!” with enthusiasm bordering on giddiness. Just as “drivers license” put a professional Top 40 tint on the bedroom-pop that has become a dominant force online, “good 4 u” is even more on-trend in its embrace of pop-punk. Rodrigo is no scene kid, but given the way the song has seized the zeitgeist this week, we may someday look back on it as the symbol of the genre’s early ’20s mainstream resurgence. At the very least, it’s proof that Rodrigo can convincingly rock out.

With those three singles, Rodrigo has caught the ear of millions, and many who enter her album through the front door will be similarly startled by “brutal.” The rest of Sour cashes in on that attentiveness, subjecting listeners to ballad after ballad approaching the same failed relationship from umpteen angles. The album threatens to become a wearisome slog at times, its momentum sometimes salvaged by an inspired lyric or a shift in dynamics that arrives not a moment too soon. Those who dismiss Rodrigo’s hits as watered-down mass-market versions of other artists might bemoan the way she irons out the quirks from Lorde’s conversational tone and Billie Eilish’s jazzy swooning slow jams. On the page, her lyrics can come off desperate and immature. The near-monolithic focus on one relationship gone awry inevitably becomes a test of patience, even at a tight 35 minutes. There are plenty of good reasons to dismiss this album if you don’t want to take Rodrigo seriously. But like so much of the best pop music, Sour works despite its weaknesses and sometimes even weaponizes them.

This is a teenager’s breakup album. Of course it’s melodramatic and obsessive! Much of its success is attributable to the way it puts you directly in that teenage headspace where every emotion is crushing and they’re all coming at you at once. Rodrigo and Nigro, who co-wrote and produced every song, bring all her worst feelings to life with stirring hooks, engaging performances, and well-designed arrangements. Sometimes those sensations are conveyed through savvy musical flourishes: “favorite crime” takes a spine-tingling turn near the end when the music intensifies and a choir of Rodrigos emerges to howl, “All the things I did/ Just so I could call you mine!” Sometimes the appeal is rooted in a scene-setting specificity Rodrigo has faithfully learned from Swift: “I knew how you took your coffee and your favorite songs by heart/ I read all of your self-help books so you’d think that I was smart,” she sings over finger-plucked acoustic guitar on “enough for you.” Even the more maudlin numbers like “traitor” and “1 step forward, 3 steps back” (which interpolates the Swift piano ballad “New Year’s Day”) skate by on the strength of Rodrigo’s conviction and her ability to condense universal frustrations into soundbites like “Guess you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor.”

If the soppy adolescent despair on display here is not “the absolute, whole truth,” it’s at least a believable paraphrase of reality, and that alone makes Sour a landmark release in the teen-pop continuum. It feels like one of those albums that, while too flawed to be hailed as a masterpiece, will linger as a generational touchstone, a time capsule from an era when blockbuster pop music veered toward folk, rock, and searing vulnerability. If it errs on the basic side, it shows how much the basics have evolved, and it introduces Rodrigo as a compelling avatar for her generation’s shifting perspectives. Furthermore, like all the best breakup albums, Sour sidesteps mundane repetition despite being stuck on the same subject. It feels less like the work of a songwriter with no ideas than a portrait of a hurting person replaying their memories again and again, approaching them from every angle, teasing out every last excruciating emotion as an alternative to letting go.

Eventually, most of us move on from our teenage heartbreak, so we can presumably look forward to Olivia Rodrigo writing about something else someday. For now, the closest thing to thematic variation in her catalog is a pair of songs near the end of Sour that explore anguish beyond the romantic realm. Closing track “hope ur ok” is a message of love and support to childhood friends Rodrigo lost touch with along the way, queer kids who struggled with cold and abusive parents. It’s a tender, sentimental note to end on, letting some warmth into the album’s emotional palette at last. And despite its title, “jealousy, jealousy” is not another shot at her ex and his new girl; it’s an expression of the constant comparison and generalized self-hatred endemic to growing up in the social media era. Over a nasty bass-powered creep, what starts out as Eilish pastiche evolves into something more like hard-edged ’90s pop-rock with a hook that blurs the lines between singing and screaming, swagger and disconsolate hollowness. “I’m so sick of myself!” Rodrigo exclaims, putting her internal turmoil on display for the whole world. “Rather be rather be/ Anyone anyone else/ Jealousy, jealousy!” It sounds like even she doesn’t realize how broad her horizons can be.

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