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Frankie Mancini / Gavel Media

'SOUR' Challenges the Predictable Reputation of Pop Music

The first five months of 2021 belong to Olivia Rodrigo. The 18-year-old’s entrance into the music industry began just one week into the new year, with the release of the earth- (and record-) shattering single “drivers license” on January 8. The crescendo of her debut came on May 21, with the release of her first album: Sour (stylized SOUR).

Sour features eleven titles, none of which use capitalization. This stylistic choice also characterizes Billie Eilish’s Grammy-winning WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO? (2019), Taylor Swift’s folklore (2020, another Grammy winner), and Ariana Grande’s Positions (2020). The small letters feel unassuming, as though Rodrigo is nudging her way onto the music scene. The tiny text, though, is where the suggestion of any meekness begins and ends. 

Rodrigo began her acting career in 2015, starring in the American Girl film Grace Stirs Up Success. She was one of two leads in the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark, which aired from 2016 to 2019. However, she was singing before then. Rodrigo was a contestant on Boys & Girls Club Idol (BGC Idol) for multiple seasons, first in 2011 as a part of the six- to nine-year-old division. Until recently, her personal Instagram @oliviarodrigo was studded with casual keyboard performances of songs she wrote. Many of them have since been removed from her public profile, but not before compilations of the intimate recordings were created. Fans have speculated that these originals will make eventual appearances on her albums to come. Years before the world took notice, then, Rodrigo was immersed in music.  

The opening track of Sour, titled “brutal,” is a punchy segue into her world. Its sound is reminiscent of Avril Lavigne and the realm of early-2000s pop-punk, but this does not forecast the tone of the entire album. It would be difficult to summarize the record with even a handful of adjectives; its mood progression moves up and down sporadically, not unlike the natural highs and lows of teenagedom that are all too familiar. 

The following song is much softer, poignant in the traditional sense. While “brutal” distracts listeners from melancholy lyrics with a moody arrangement and shouted lyrics, “traitor” is conventionally morose. Opening with an organ-like instrumental, the soft, whispery tone compliments the slow pace of the song. These features are all the more sobering when paired with a cappella-style recordings of Rodrigo singing “ahh,” which underlie the entire track. 

Next comes “drivers license,” the single that garnered a three-time platinum certification in less than six months. Any further description is probably unnecessary.

Drawing connections has become a sort of game surrounding Sour. Seasoned pop music listeners are able to pick up on subtle nods to Rodrigo’s predecessors in the industry, and it makes sense. As a member of Gen-Z, she and her listeners grew up with the same popular songs and artists. Both “deja vu” and “drivers license” use electronically echoic effects that call Lorde to mind. Sour harnesses a softness similar to Gracie Abrams, a known muse of Rodrigo's. Perhaps most noticeably, or most frequently discussed, is the presence of Rodrigo’s musical idol on the record.

Rodrigo is an enormous fan of Taylor Swift’s, a fact that she has made very apparent. In April 2020, Swift reposted a casual Instagram video from Rodrigo, in which she covered “Cruel Summer” from Swift's album Lover (2019). Olivia was visibly ecstatic and shocked, posting a response in all-caps which read: “TAYLOR SWIFT IS THE REASON I WRITE SONGS AND SHE POSTED ME ON HER STORY AND TOLD ME I WAS TALENTED??? WHEN IS ASHTON KUTCHER GONNA JUMP OUT OF A BUSH WITH A CAMERA CREW!!!!???!??!” Just over one year later, in May 2021, the two power figures posed together for a mind-blowing crossover picture at the Brit Awards Ceremony. 

The creation of Sour allowed further opportunities for the two young women to brush shoulders. Track four, “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” borrows the soft piano melody from “New Year’s Day,” the fifteenth track on Swift’s reputation (2017). A peek into the album credits reveals that Olivia credited Jack Antonoff and Swift as co-writers for this song, ensuring that any royalties go directly to them rather than Scooter Braun and Big Machine Records, who own the master recording of the song. This move implied solidarity between Rodrigo and Swift, and made Rodrigo all the more likeable to fans.

Rodrigo is incredibly new—to the world, to the music industry, and to her fans. Sour offers the deepest dive into her heart and mind thus far, and offers a hand to listeners as they better acquaint themselves with the young woman to whom millions have already pledged allegiance following the release of the incredibly well-received “drivers license.” As Brittany Spanos wrote for Rolling Stone, “If Rodrigo is already penning songs this emotionally potent at age 17, and as her mere debut, it’s anyone’s guess where she’ll go from here. She could likely become pop’s next great raconteur.”

Unfortunately, popular music sometimes suffers from a poor reputation. Sharing a music taste with the masses has a connotation of predictability, and sometimes even shallowness. The bright potency of Sour suggests otherwise. There is no danger of Rodrigo’s songs (or sounds) blurring together. Each track conjures a setting, circumstance, and unique emotion all its own; from bloody crime scenes, to tearful bedroom breakdowns, to top-down beach drives with strawberry ice cream.

It’s enormously warming to see pieces of ourselves within this young heroine. Enter track nine, “jealousy, jealousy.” Rodrigo’s incisive evaluation of social media-driven competition rattles in its validity. What qualms with life could Rodrigo possibly have? This is the essence of the track—the most beautiful, wealthy, and outwardly successful figures reckon with the same doubt that low-profile “normal” social media users experience. She establishes credibility when she sings, “I know that beauty’s not my lack/ But it feels like that weight is on my back.” There is an undeniable embrace of comfort that comes with pop music’s new It Girl breaking down these familiar emotions.

Rodrigo’s glide to the forefront of the music industry was swift, but not without drama. Joshua Bassett, her ex-boyfriend and co-star on Disney channel’s High School the Musical the Musical the Series (HSMTMTS) is presumably the subject of many of her songs. The timeline of their relationship and the lyrics to the three singles Rodrigo released prior to Sour gave fans time to put these pieces together long before her album dropped. One could write pages on these speculations alone––and many have––but through it all, Rodrigo has never once dropped a name or confirmed a rumor. She remains discreet, content to let her artwork rest in the arms of audiences and take whatever form or interpretation it may. 

Given its title, the closing track “hope ur ok” may appear to suggest well wishes for a lover, but Rodrigo takes off in a completely different direction. Recalling old friends and acquaintances whose struggles she witnessed as a child, she devotes the finale of her album to their (hopefully) eventual contentment. The mystery love of hers gets no mention here, and Rodrigo’s message is clear. She does not modulate between sweet yearning and tangy angst only to land on an overall uplifting send-off. The closing track is raw and rich, not quite sour but not syrupy either. You might call it bittersweet. 

The finale of Sour is symbolic of Olivia’s future. Contrary to the stereotypes of popular music, she and her music cannot be pegged down, nor easily categorized. Her album’s eleven tracks are a tour through the heart of an emotional teenager; few spaces are more turbulent and less predictable. The glare of the spotlight is arguably one of the most difficult hurdles for an emerging artist to face, but right now, Rodrigo beams from under it with a humble, deserving smile.

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Next to writing, some of my favorite ways to spend time include designing Spotify playlists for friends and making grocery runs to Trader Joe's. I'm drinking coffee or tea almost constantly, and my mantra is the classic yet undeniably basic, "If it's meant to be, it will be!"