Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘GUTS’-y step in musical maturity

Sept. 27, 2023, 12:27 a.m.

It is not often that a pop album manages to strike a balanced mix of captivating narratives, heart-wrenching lyricism and quality beats. Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore release “GUTS” was such a collection, sucking me into its swirl of complex early-adulthood emotions.

Rodrigo is one of the handful of artists whose works make it into my daily playlists. I tend to seek music that is more narrative — something I found in tracks such as “happier” and “1 step forward, 3 steps back” from Rodrigo’s first album “SOUR.”

“GUTS,” released on Sept. 8, threw me into complete shock.

Like “SOUR,” “GUTS” is composed of Rodrigo’s characteristic piano ballads and upbeat emotional outbursts. But what makes “GUTS” even more irresistible is its calmer indie and rock tracks with styles reminiscent of decades past. It is an exciting development to see Rodrigo step away from her image as a teen pop star and move toward more musical maturity and variety.

The album’s eighth track, “get him back!” — which has already amassed over 60 million plays on Spotify — impressed me with its mash-up of indie rock elements and Rodrigo’s signature fiery deliveries. The verse is sung in partial rap, something we hadn’t seen from Rodrigo’s previous works.

The chorus teems with emotional complexity, and the arrangement, produced by Dan Nigro, has the familiar, refreshing taste of Lorde. Songs in “SOUR” center around an unambiguous theme (such as anger in “good 4 u” and heartbreak in “drivers license”). However, “get him back!” explores the singer’s simultaneous vengefulness and longing toward a no-good ex. The title itself can mean regaining his heart or seeking revenge, both of which the singer wants.

Rodrigo expresses this wittily in enjambments like “I wanna kiss his face / with an uppercut.” In the music video, the enjambments were embodied by Rodrigo picking off one purple flower petal after another, in a modern rendition of the game “he loves me … he loves me not.” 

A similarly nuanced emotional arc is delivered in “love is embarrassing,” which marries the teenage fury present in “SOUR” with a newfound self-mockery. The stereotypical storyline laid out in the upbeat verse (the singer had decided somebody “was the one,” only to find out the guy “kissed someone from high school”) sets the groundwork for an explosive chorus. In one of the catchiest melodies I’ve ever heard, Rodrigo screams “Love’s embarrassing as hell” and “I give up everything” in a mixture of despair and seen-it-all acceptance, while the melody is a carefree celebration of her ignorance.

Listening to “love is embarrassing,” I can imagine myself in a musical landscape reminiscent of the 2000’s. The songs could have easily been the background track of a 2000s TV show like “Gilmore Girls,” with their strong drum beats and radio effects during the verses.

The 11th track, “pretty isn’t pretty,” solidifies the album’s nostalgic motif with a fade-out at the end. In this final rock-leaning track, Rodrigo explores the theme of beauty standards in greater depth — having touched on it in passing in “SOUR.” The song has both calm narrative moments when the 20-year-old reflects on when she “started to skip lunch,” and powerful exclamations of “I could change up my body and change up my face… but I’d always feel the same / ‘cuz pretty isn’t pretty enough anyways.” 

The musician delivers her message in a head voice full of vulnerability and sadness, instead of opting for the roaring exclamations in her first album (in hits such as “good 4 u”). I find myself unable to turn away from the tune.

In comparison with the jaw-dropping post-punk tracks, I found myself less impressed by “GUTS’” numerous ballads (such as “making the bed,” “logical” and “teenage dream”), which appear too similar in their piano-based instrumentation and emotional arc. The only exception was the lead single “vampire,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 soon after its release in June. 

The track goes above and beyond a well-crafted melody, piano pulses and “sky-scraping vocals” typical of Rodrigo’s slower tunes. To astonishing results, “vampire” introduces drum beats that add layers to the song’s texture and emotions, such as in the second chorus and before the bridge. It is an enchanting take on the familiar trope of a young girl seduced by a vampire lover.

Every track in “GUTS” has a certain charm, I can confidently say as I turn to the album for the dozenth time. The album is a testament to Rodrigo’s growth as an artist, as she produces more musically and lyrically nuanced narratives that have something for everyone.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

Yuanlin "Linda" Liu ‘25 is The Daily's vol. 266 editor-in-chief. She was previously managing editor of arts & life during vol. 263 and 264 and magazine editor during vol. 265. Contact her at lliu 'at' stanforddaily.com.

Login or create an account