SOUR or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying About Getting Older and Accept Olivia Rodrigo’s Music For What It Is.
This is gonna be a little different from what I usually write. This is a very long, detailed (surprise, the guy with the Abed profile pic likes to be overly analytical) and self-indulgent review. I do eventually talk about the album itself in Chapter 4, so feel free to skip to that if you want. For everyone else, strap yourselves in.
Pop music is something that I’ve been obsessed with for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was a child at the turn of the millennium, pop music for me has always acted as a window to the outside world. The vision I had in my head of pop stars was that they were extravagant, untouchable, and notably, older than myself. Growing up though, I would often wonder when the time would come that people of my own age would take charge and become the big pop stars of the day.What observations of the world would they have to say? How would they impact the world of pop culture?
Enter Lorde. I was 17 when “Royals” and the Pure Heroine album came out, and it changed my life just as much as it changed the pop music landscape around it. Here was someone born in the mid-90’s, writing songs about friendship, suburban life and the fear of getting old - it felt like a revelation - an album that I will forever tie to my adolescent years - and it certainly did to many others too. In the years post-Pure Heroine, the pop star dynamic would change. In the wake of Lorde’s success, pop music would become very minimalist and pop stars would appear to be more down-to-Earth and relatable. This sound would continue to be emulated by newer and newer pop stars, which is how we get to Olivia Rodrigo.
Chapter 1: Drivers License
Outside of an acting gig in a Disney+ series, Olivia Rodrigo was barely a celebrity when her debut single “Drivers License” was released in the early weeks of 2021.The track is a mid-tempo piano ballad, with gospel and indie-pop flourishes but stays in place for the most part. The track’s narrative is one of young heartbreak; following a break-up, Olivia reminisces over a former partner and their relationship as she drives past his street. Sonically, Olivia’s subdued vocal style takes heavy influence from Lorde, which becomes very apparent in the layered bridge of the track.
On face value, this isn’t a song that I would have paid much mind to. It vividly captures a specific moment in a young person’s life, one’s first heartbreak and how it can feel like the most devastating thing in the world at that moment in time. While it did not have much to offer me at the point in my life that I heard it, it was clear that the song has a profound effect on the music-listening public and needless to say, the song was a hit. “Drivers License” debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the January of 2021, an almost unheard-of feat for a debut single in the streaming age. Though it was helped by strategic TikTok promotion and a rumour that the track was based on a love triangle between her, Joshua Bassett and Sabrina Carpenter - two of Rodrigo’s celebrity co-stars, the strength of the song itself kept it at the top for eight weeks. To me, the song’s success felt like a confrontation of my age; the first time that I felt like I was finally falling out of touch with the pop music landscape that I had been so obsessed with for the past two decades. It was a culmination of things that I was too old to know about; post-2000s Disney Channel, TikTok and teen celebrity gossip.
Chapter 2: Déjà Vu
For about three months, “Drivers License” was the only thing that Olivia Rodrigo had publicly released. While I had come to accept that maybe I just didn’t get the hype, that acceptance slowly simmered into frustration as the song became overplayed on the radio - not just on pop radio but also on Triple J, the alternative station....or so I thought.
Eventually in April, Olivia would go on to release her follow-up single “Déjà Vu”, and to my surprise....I actually kinda liked this one? The song is once again about looking back at a past relationship with the titular déjà vu referring to the former lover partaking in the same interests with their new lover as they previously did with Olivia; there’s singer-songwriting details pointing out things like Glee and Billy Joel. The music takes more of a modern synth-pop sound - notably only the coda of the track, Olivia’s shouty vocals are very reminiscent of the hook from Taylor Swift’s “Cruel Summer” - Taylor of course being a big influence of hers. Still, I never really got around to loving it; the song does have more of a beat to it in the chorus, but I keep expecting it to burst into something livelier and it just never does.
Chapter 3: Good 4 U
So “Drivers License” had me indifferent and but “Déjà Vu” had me thinking that perhaps this young woman had some sort of potential. Going into the third single “Good 4 U”, I didn’t know what to expect, but it was not…pop-punk guitars? And easily, I loved it. God, I’m such an easy person to win over. Inevitably, the Paramore and Avril comparisons would soon arise as they do with any female singer attempting pop-punk nowadays, but not without good reason. Just as those two leading frontwomen of pop-punk, Olivia’s presence on this track is commanding. There are also traces throughout of Alanis Morrissette’s break-up angstyness, Panic! At The Disco’s fast-syllable flow and Blink-182’s sense of urgency.
This was by far my favourite out of all her three pre-album singles, though it was still not without its flaws. For one, this is her third single about a former lover, presumably the same subject as the previous two singles. Though I will give it a pass because Olivia herself is still quite young and just writing about what she knows, it still made me wonder if she had the potential to explore emotional topics beyond heartbreak. The other thing that I felt could use some work was the production; it has its high and lows, but for a fast-paced pop-punk track, it never fully roars (or in this case, “rawrs”?) into full gear even if the drum work does tease it a little bit.
Nevertheless, at this point I had done a complete 180. Was I actually - dare I say - excited for this album?
Chapter 4: SOUR
And so that brings us to today. Five months after the release of her debut single, Olivia Rodrigo releases her debut album SOUR. Let’s finally see if it lives up to the hype.
“Brutal” opens the album, faking us out with an unassuming string passage before breaking into a loud, descending garage rock riff reminiscent of Elvis Costello & The Attractions’ “Pump It Up”. On the track Olivia talk-sings about the struggles of being a teenager. She covers a handful of adolescent concerns; doubt, anxiety, self-image, pressure from adults, the inability to...parallel park, I guess?
The album quickly settles into slower territory on the second track, “Traitor”. The track is an airy ballad with light indie-folk influences that echo of Phoebe Bridgers’ recent work, lyrically it’s about being emotionally hurt after a partner’s quick rebound after a relationship breakdown. There is recurring theme throughout which ties self-doubt with wanting to be enough for her partner, which is very apparent on tracks like “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” and “Enough For You”
On “Happier”, the theme of the song centred around Olivia’s wishes that her former love would not feel as happy with their new partner as they did with her. It’s a rather selfish line of thinking but it’s one that Olivia calls herself out on in the lyrics, and the instrumental has a very musical number-style quality that lends itself well to play up with the song’s melodrama.
There are some tracks that explore themes outside of teenage romance; the most fascinating one to me is “Jealousy, Jealousy”. This track addresses the the common idea of jealousy and self-worth brought by comparison to her peers and even people who don’t know her personally. This is the track that most reminds me of Billie Eilish, not just in the similarity of her falsetto voice but also the mischievous bassline that calls “All The Good Girls Go To Hell” to mind. “Favorite Crime” is another track that takes from the Taylor Swift playbook, a track built around the love-as-crime metaphor (see: Getaway Car).
The final track “Hope Ur Ok” is an open letter in which Olivia remembers two former friends from her younger years, in the middle of difficult points in their lives - a boy in a depressing family situation and a girl who is closeted in the fear of her parents. She sings the song hoping to reach out to those people and let them know that they are loved and on her mind. In a way, this move of placing an emotional support ballad at the end of the album reminds me of the closing track of Alessia Cara’s debut album, “Scars To Your Beautiful” but here Olivia dives into more specific details making it much more effective.
SOUR is a good album. Perhaps not great - she does return to the lyrical well of young heartbreak more often than not, and outside of a few tracks the album doesn’t really take any risks with its sound - but I’m not going to be an edgy contrarian and tell you that it’s bad, because it really isn’t. While she does not yet have Lorde’s beyond-her-years wisdom or Billie Eilish’s knack for interesting aesthetics, Olivia Rodrigo has quite a lot of potential on this album. So what was the point of me writing this all down for an album that I think is merely “good”?
The evolution of my opinions on Olivia Rodrigo’s music over these last five months mean a lot to me. I feel like they’re tied to something deeper within, the fear of the inevitable; growing older, and – as LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy would put it – “losing my edge”. When you’re a teenager, you feel many emotions for the first time and it feels like the most intense thing in the world. It’s something that’s shrugged off too often in the adult world, but there’s still something special to be seen in that kind of naivety.
What I’ve come to realise is that though I may be too old to appreciate Olivia Rodrigo’s music as a pivotal point in my own music journey, I can understand its value in the sense that it may just be that for someone else. In other words, SOUR may well be someone else’s Pure Heroine, and that’s okay.
👍: brutal | deja vu | good 4 u | jealousy, jealousy | hope ur ok