‘I want it to be, like, messy’: Reviewing Olivia Rodrigo’s album, ‘SOUR’

June 1, 2021, 11:02 p.m.

Six months ago, I had never even heard of Olivia Rodrigo. She played in the celebrity minor leagues, starring in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” and “Bizaardvark,” a show as bizarre as it is Disney-Channel formulaic.

Now, she is a household name, at least in the minds of anyone with a TikTok account. Rodrigo shot to fame in January 2021 upon releasing “drivers license,” an overnight sensation about midnight cruises past former memories. While this success was due in part to the magic of viral stardom and drama behind her public breakup with Disney co-star Joshua Bassett, one cannot deny its heart-wrenching, power-ballad aura.

On May 21, Rodrigo proved she wouldn’t be known as a one-hit wonder with her debut album “SOUR,” showcasing a slight identity crisis through lyrics she co-wrote with Daniel Nigro. As a whole, the album rings true to young-adult life — transforming the mundanity of heartbreak, envy and insecurity to the universal. Simultaneously, the album is peppered with light chaos and often prioritizes content over craft.

For her first trick, Rodrigo pulls a sweet orchestral sequence into a tumultuous head-banger. Written in the style of a posh Avril Lavigne–inspired princess, “brutal” is the slightly emo anthem tweens are bound to blast in their rooms with the door locked, and with good reason. The opening salvo, “I want it to be, like, messy,” could be a thesis for the rest of the album. Lines such as, “I hate the way I’m perceived / I only have two real friends / And lately, I’m a nervous wreck” are bound to be relatable to anyone who has been through high school, and the refreshingly jaded line “I can’t even parallel park” hints to her automobile-driven debut single. No pun intended.

It all feels a bit conventional for any rising queen of pop. Even so, I must admit I feel empowered by the track’s rapid pace and repetitive chords, all while putting on mascara. If Rodrigo wants to channel her inner rocker chic and distance her first song from “drivers license,” I’m not mad about it.

Then, the album abruptly transitions from an adolescent ranting with an “idgaf about anything” attitude to “this breakup kind of hurts actually” in “traitor.” Rodrigo features her powerful singing chops that perfectly accompany a melody of betrayal and teenage anguish.

At times, it can feel as though the former Disney channel B-lister cares a little too much about raw emotion and not enough about original songwriting. Some moments are unconcealed attempts inspired to be Swiftian or Lorde-esque. “SOUR” might not be Rodrigo’s tour de force, but it isn’t often that a Gen Z-er like herself is eager to explore punk rock and 1990s grunge.

One thing is for sure: Olivia Rodrigo dons identities like outfits — what makes her album a little chaotic, a tad bit experimental and quite relatable.

In an interview with Billboard, Rodrigo said that she did not want to be “pigeonholed into heartbreak songs.” While melodies seem oddly cut-and-dry in this album, she indeed succeeds in rising to the maturity of a songwriter more multifaceted than the sad ballad girl she may have been pegged as. One example is “deja vu,” which is both lyrically and melodically different from “drivers license” but just as enjoyable.

In “deja vu,” descriptions of fleeting moments build a specific story from a typically conventional number. Maybe I’m just a sucker for overly romanticized images of fruity ice creams and pastel-colored automobiles. Or maybe it’s the pop-culture references to Glee and Billy Joel and everything a slightly quirky power couple would talk about. Transcending the role of heartbreak anthem, “deja vu” is uniquely self-aware. Future Olivia superfans: Enjoy its aesthetic, profound, weirdly meta music video.

Lyrically, songs in “SOUR” can read as crafty wordplay gems, utilizing text-message slang (the lack of apostrophe in “drivers license,” the abbreviations in “good 4 u” and “hope ur ok”) while they walk a fine line between metaphorical and heavy-handed. “drivers license” shot to fame as a result of bored, quarantined kids sleuthing for clues of the Rodrigo-Bassett-Carpenter triangle, but also because of lines such as, “Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street” and references to red lights, white cars and front yards that embody youthful suburbia. 

Many of these tracks — with “jealousy, jealousy” as a prime example — involve a snappy bass line which develops into a heavier bridge. Olivia Rodrigo proves she can write about adolescent life without failing the Bechdel test, and her clever use of repeating words and syllables in “jealousy, jealousy” gives both a metaphorical and rhythmic meaning in some of her best songwriting yet. Most importantly, these lyrics reveal that she is unafraid to embrace her labels. She confronts insecurity with grace, facing off against “stupid, emotional, obsessive little me” in the song “enough for you.”

We see a growing sense of maturity throughout this album, beginning from the superficially emo head-bangers to a sorrowful finish. It allows for an entertaining listening experience rather than the manufactured pop album it might have been.

The final track, “hope ur ok,” gives a solemn and mature ending to this album — we may have begun with vengeance, but the record finishes with a peaceful sense of closure. Some may note that “SOUR” seems to simply fade away in an anticlimactic feel (maybe because it is meant to be looped back to “brutal”), but with a message and execution reminiscent of Lorde, I can see the first glimpses of the true Olivia Rodrigo and her coming of age. I just hope she discovers an identity of her own as her fame catapults.

So far, “SOUR” has generated mixed reviews. A majority adores it while others scratch their heads and wonder where they’ve heard that beat and those words before. Still, for an 18-year-old’s debut album, this collection is an impressive mix of genres and talents. There is no question that Rodrigo’s voice is a force to be reckoned with. As for the lightly chaotic identity crisis, how many of us knew who we were at 18?

She may borrow from the current idols of the music industry, but in the end it is Olivia Rodrigo we hear and love, barefaced and beautiful.

Favorites: “brutal,” “drivers license,” “deja vu,” “enough for you,” “jealousy, jealousy”

Nicole Tong '24 is the Reads beat desk editor. Contact The Daily’s Arts & Life section at arts ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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