Chances are, unless you watch Disney Channel, the name Olivia Rodrigo meant nothing to you at the start of 2021. Then in mid-January, using her newly earned ‘drivers license’, she crashed onto the scene with a debut single that surpassed the Spotify record for most single-day streams, and sat at the top of the UK charts for a staggering nine weeks. With the release of her debut album Sour, 18 year old Rodrigo has proven that this wasn’t a fluke.
The record opens on a high with punk-rock anthem, ‘brutal’, in which the singer introduces her insecurities, her acerbic wit, and very clearly positions her as the epitome of the ‘angry teenage girl’ trope. No line demonstrates all three things better than this: “I’m so sick of seventeen / Where’s my fucking teenage dream?”
It’s an unexpected place to start, but thematically sets up a perfect introduction for what’s to come. Rodrigo is a woman scorned: by those she compares herself to on social media (‘jealousy, jealousy’); by societal conventions (‘brutal’); by those who rejected her LGBTQ+ friends (‘hope ur ok’); by her first love (nearly every other track on the album…). Everything feels exaggerated, like it’s high stakes. In reality, for someone as young as Rodrigo, it is. In an interview with The Guardian, the singer said, “I’m a teenage girl. I write about stuff that I feel really intensely. I feel heartbreak and longing really intensely – and I think that’s authentic and natural.”
This is something about Rodrigo that comes across so clearly throughout the record. She’s incredibly self-aware: she knows how young she is and how limited her experience is. Her talk of introducing her boyfriend to Billy Joel in ‘deja vu’ reminds listeners just how young she is, while the admission of her selfishness in ‘happier’ reminds them that she knows this. But, she’s so unapologetic about it, and it makes for music that you feel deeply rather than just hear. Her encapsulation of her most intimate thoughts and feelings makes those emotions real to anyone who hasn’t felt them, and to those who have, she takes the listener back to the first time they felt them. Many have compared her to female artists who have gone before her such as Taylor Swift and Lorde, but there is something distinctly Gen Z about Rodrigo’s willingness to be raw and open. If anything, her music emulates that of contemporaries such as Billie Eilish or Conan Gray.
When ‘drivers license’ came out in January, there was a lot of speculation about whether the song was about her High School Musical: The Series co-star Joshua Bassett. The teen drama even got a Saturday Night Live sketch made about it. However, the joy of all of the break-up songs on this album is that it doesn’t really matter if they’re about Bassett or not. These songs could be about any teen boy, from the perspective of any straight teen girl, and that’s why listeners have taken to them so quickly. As Beck Bennett’s character says in the aforementioned sketch, “It’s like she ripped a page out of my diary.”
The album was co-written and produced by Dan Nigro, with all of the tracks being recorded from his home garage. And you can tell, while it never sacrifices quality to be so, there is something about the record that feels distinctly homemade. The pair have demonstrated their ear for a catchy riff on singles like ‘good 4 u’, a track which also demonstrates that they know how to make the most of rock instrumentation. However, for the majority of the album, the production vision is simple: highlight Rodrigo’s vocals. From the use of vocal layering, to the heavy presence of more acoustic numbers, her vocal talent is clear as day. Ballads such as ‘1 step forward, 3 steps back’ and ‘happier’ really allow for some beautiful moments that emphasise the soft yet clean tone of her voice, as well as an already refined technique.
Rodrigo was initially due to release an EP, but fought for a full album so as to showcase the range of her musical ability and style. Sour certainly does that, dipping its toes into alternative rock, traditional pop, and even indie folk. However, in trying to be all of these things, the sequencing of the album isn’t as neat as it could be. There is a sense that Rodrigo is yet to explore her full potential in any of these genres, which is both frustrating and endlessly exciting.
That being said, the real gift of Sour is Rodrigo’s authenticity and relatability as a songwriter: she is a bona fide storyteller. She told NME, “I’ve always been an oversharer, and so I just think songwriting for me is an extension of my personality.” She really has shared herself in this debut record, and as she gets more years and opportunities under her belt, it’s likely that she’ll have plenty more to share.
She points to a line from the final song on the album, ‘hope ur okay’, as her favourite lyric: “I hope he took his bad deal / And made a royal flush.” This turn of phrase showcases the empathy and emotion that underpins and embodies Rodrigo’s songwriting style, and that will hopefully grow even more as she develops her career.
Between this and the current season of High School Musical: The Series, it’s clear that Rodrigo is going nowhere, and is only getting started. Sour has shown us why that’s good news for music lovers everywhere.
Words by Rehana Nurmahi.
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