It’s likely that very few teenagers can say they’ve had as eventful of a year as Olivia Rodrigo has had. As a global pandemic comes to an end and we’re left puzzled as to how we might return to normalcy, the 18-year-old singer-songwriter and "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" star has spent her 2021 rapidly rising through the ranks of pop music.
After a handful of tremendously successful singles (“drivers license,” “deja vu” and “good 4 u”), Rodrigo has finally shared her debut album "SOUR," and it’s no short of tears, fears, throw-your-phone-across-the-room anger and nearly every other valid emotion a heartbroken teenage girl could possibly feel.
As whimsical strings gently lead listeners by hand into the world of "SOUR" on album opener “brutal,” Rodrigo quickly interrupts, exclaiming “I want it to be, like, messy!” Immediately, the track explodes into a cacophony of head-banging 90s grunge-rock-esque instrumentals. You can’t turn back now, and so begins the labyrinthine, thrilling journey through Rodrigo’s adolescent psyche.
“I’m so sick of seventeen/Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” Rodrigo grumbles on the opening track, almost like a teenager whose parents just woke her up for school. Seething with uncontainable rage, the singer-songwriter uses the standout “brutal” as an opportunity to list off the relatable woes of youth, like coping with insecurities, anxiety and, of course, struggling to parallel park. “They say these are the golden years/But I wish I could disappear,” Rodrigo continues, totally embracing the influx of angst and derailed emotion that accompanies our teen years. The opener concludes with Rodrigo singing “God, I don’t even know where to start,” which is ironic considering that she couldn’t have chosen a better, more candid way to kick off her debut.
The lows of adolescence are only one of "SOUR"’s integral themes, though. Much of the album sees Rodrigo lamenting a breakup. The love - or rather, anti-love - songs on the record are where Rodrigo finds her songwriting niche, penning effective, gripping songs like the gut-punching, regretful “favorite crime” and the honest acoustic guitar ballad “enough for you” alongside her producer, Dan Nigro (who’s worked with Conan Gray, Carly Rae Jepsen and Sky Ferreira).
The aforementioned folk-like “favorite crime,” a definite album highlight, sees Rodrigo as a metaphorical “willing accomplice” to her own heartbreak (“Oh, the things I did/Just so I could call you mine”). Pushing some of the blame on herself, Rodrigo remorsefully admits to turning a blind eye to her former lover’s faults (“I crossed my heart as you crossed the line/And I defended you to all my friends”). In all actuality, however, the true criminal is Rodrigo’s former lover who let Rodrigo accuse herself of his wrongdoings without hesitation. Ultimately, the track serves as catharsis for Rodrigo, who realizes that her only “crime” was falling for her former lover in the first place (“Your favorite crime/‘Cause baby you were mine”). While Rodrigo’s words tend to read more literally, “favorite crime” gives a taste of her already-advancing lyricism, boasting storytelling that is usually only commonplace in artists with several years under their belts.
Rodrigo’s greatest strength on "SOUR" is her ability to invite listeners to feel exactly as she does, thanks in part to her whip-smart songwriting and tender vocals, as well as Nigro’s distinct, diverse production choices. The anthemic and uber-popular “drivers license” is no exception to this testimony. Written after she had earned her drivers license, the track - a building piano ballad loosely akin to Lorde’s Melodrama - sees Rodrigo referencing her newfound driving privileges to reflect on a breakup (“‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street”). On the track’s cinematic bridge, Rodrigo erupts with emotion: “Red lights, stop signs/I still see your face in the white cars, front yards/Can’t drive past the places we used to go to/’Cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe.”
Rodrigo’s cultural phenomenon “drivers license” catapulted her to success nearly overnight, spending eight weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200 chart and surpassing 1 billion global streams - the first song in 2021 to do so.
On the previously released “deja vu,” one of "SOUR"’s best offerings, Rodrigo explores the feeling of seeing an ex relive the same sentiments of his relationship with her, only now with a new girl. Rodrigo’s wispy vocals hover over the melancholic track, detailing the blissful activities she once partook in with her former lover (“Car rides to Malibu/Strawberry ice cream, one spoon for two”) while an eerie, distorted mellotron fades in and out of the production. “Do you get deja vu when she’s with you?” sings Rodrigo, jeering at her ex that she was the one who introduced him to Billy Joel despite the ex playing “Uptown Girl” for his new girlfriend. It’s all very junior-high and theatrical, but it’s executed perfectly because it’s the exact type of music Rodrigo should be making at this point in her career.
Rodrigo makes most of the musical inspirations behind SOUR very clear. The singer-songwriter told Rolling Stone that the exhilarating bridge of “deja vu” was inspired by Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer.” Raised by Swift’s music much like the rest of her peers, Rodrigo hasn’t shied away from proclaiming her love for the songwriting legend. On the bittersweet game of tug-of-war “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” Rodrigo actually uses an interpolation of Swift’s reputation closer “New Year’s Day” (earning her writing credits from both Swift and producer Jack Antonoff). "SOUR" ballad “traitor” also plays much like a Swift-classic, complete with an exceptional, soaring bridge (devouring a bridge is a talent Rodrigo and Swift seem to share). The ferocious pop-punk single “good 4 u” might also remind listeners of bands like Paramore, but while SOUR’s muses are evident, the record still feels entirely unique to Rodrigo.
"SOUR" is like the ultimate compilation of Rodrigo’s diary entries, which is not at all to its detriment. “Every song is so personal and close to my heart,” said Rodrigo in a sincere statement posted on Instagram, “Getting to share them with people is the most special thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Rodrigo has a heart of gold that she proudly wears on her sleeve, and her songs are dynamic examples of her capacity to feel even the simplest of emotions so intensely (like envy, on the moody iGen warcry “jealousy, jealousy,” or missing lost friends on heavy-hearted album closer “hope ur ok”). If Rodrigo displays this much versatility and confidence on her debut, it’s exciting to imagine how her craft may evolve in the future.