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From Sour to Guts: The Unhinged Upheaval of Olivia Rodrigo's Sophomore Album

In 2021, the world became acquainted with the effervescent sound of Olivia Rodrigo. The then-18-year-old artist made her debut in the music industry through her pop album Sour, a collection of songs representing Rodrigo’s unique yet universal experiences in adolescence. Reminiscent of the wave of punk that arose in the 1990s and early 2000s, this album encapsulated the feelings of teenage angst, including the likes of longing, heartbreak, and jealousy. Record singles, like “Driver’s License” and “Good 4 U,” not only became addicting radio hits, but inspired a cultural revolution in the return of grunge and Y2K fashion. By 2022, Sour earned the musician numerous Grammy awards including Best New Artist, Best Pop Vocal Album, and Best Pop Solo Performance. Avid listeners have now waited for over two years wondering how Rodrigo can follow the historic achievement that is her breakout album. 

This past month, the artist finally provided an answer to this daunting question: Guts. The album, which premiered on September 8, features twelve songs that retain the seemingly unfiltered and emotional genius of Olivia Rodrigro. During an interview with the BBC, the singer-songwriter further elaborated on the meaning behind this new record. She explained, “Following your gut means trusting your intuition, having guts can mean bravery, and spilling your guts is telling everyone all your secrets - which is what songwriting is.” Upon first listening, Guts seems to promote this penchant for making the courageous, and at times self-detrimental, decisions of your early twenties. This is not to say that the album was not well-thought-out. In the same interview, Rodrigo even talks about having over 100 songs prepared prior to recording the project. Guts was thus designed to lean into a chaotic sound that captures the complexities and confusion of young adulthood. 

The opening track exemplifies this designed pandemonium. Rodrigo’s admitted favorite from the album, “All-American Bitch,” presents contradictions in terms of clashing lyrics and instrumentals. It begins with the ostensibly sweet sound of a finger-plucked guitar, followed by the first series of delicate vocals. The musician almost whispers to her listeners as she sings, “I make light of the darkness/ I’ve got sun in my motherfucking pocket, best believe.” Before the audience can be completely lulled into a sense of serenity, Rodrigo explodes into the chorus that takes this song from a simple acoustic to a spirited rock ballad. The incongruity between the verse and refrain introduces the primary theme of this track: the unattainable and even paradoxical expectations placed upon women. At one point in the song, Rodrigo even erupts into a succession of uncontrolled screams that emulate the insanity and frustration of following society’s gender norms. She quickly returns to her saccharine tone as she singsongs, “All the time/ I’m grateful all the time/ I’m sexy and kind/ I’m pretty when I cry.”

While “All-American Bitch” remains a personal favorite, there are several stand-out songs that support the unhinged attitude of Guts. Both singles “Bad Idea Right?” and “Get Him Back!” assume a “talk-sing” style unique to the punk rock genre, where it feels like Rodrigo is speaking directly to the audience through her music. Within the latter song, the musician once again makes use of the contradiction that has gradually defined her album as a whole. She tells the audience, “I wanna break his heart/ then be the one to stitch it up/ wanna kiss his face/ with an uppercut/ I wanna meet his mom/ just to tell her her son sucks.” Instead of making a statement on womanhood, Rodrigo uses conflicting lyrics to replicate the back-and-forth feelings of early love. It leaves the audience in the dark about the speaker’s true feelings towards her partner and ultimately contributes to the sense of bewilderment promoted by Guts

Through these chaotic tracks, Rodrigo leans into a playfulness that mimics the comradery in coming of age. She allows herself to be informal with her audience, which not only produces comical moments (like the “ballad of a homeschooled girl” lyrics “Can’t think of a third line/ la la la”) but also a sense of intimacy in her nonchalance. Rodrigo liberally talks about her sexual relationships throughout the work, making her listeners feel more like close friends debriefing after a night out. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the artist discussed the purposeful decision to pursue a level of lightheartedness and informality in Guts. She explains, “The last album was definitely a breakup record, much to my chagrin. I was really trying to make it not that, but that’s what it was. I’m feeling a lot happier these days. Everything’s pretty good. So I wasn’t going to make something super devastating, a record of ballads.” While Rodrigo directed her music away from harrowing emotional honesty, the carefree tone of her second album unintentionally created a form of familiarity with her audience. We, as listeners, come away from this record knowing an amazing and unfiltered side to Rodrigo. 

It would be remiss to ignore the melancholy interwoven in Guts. Although marketing relies on the catchiness of upbeat songs, Rodrigo still understands the significance of a slow-paced, vulnerable track. The first premiered single, “Vampire,” exemplifies this point. It begins with soulful piano chords creating the mournful ambiance that defines the rest of this song. As Rodrigo pitches her voice with emotional gravitas, she specifically conveys her regret in having a relationship with a former boyfriend. She belts, “the way you sold me for parts/ as you sunk your teeth into me/ bloodsucker, famefucker.” Through this allusion to a Dracula-like figure, the song compares this individual to a hunter who preyed on the young artist’s fame. Listeners cannot help but share Rodrigo’s grief as she not only mourns the loss of this relationship, but also her naiveté. “Vampire” ultimately elevates the musician’s discussion of heartbreak by showing the multifaceted layers of love regarding fame, manipulation, and innocence. 

Rodrigo ends Guts with the another gut-wrenching display of emotion. “Teenage Dream,” a potential homage to Katy Perry’s iconic work, speaks to the universal feeling of uncertainty that lingers from our time in adolescence. Taking an introspective tone, Rodrigo gives voice to the insecurities and concerns we all seem to be having as we enter early adulthood. The song grows into a grand crescendo as the singer asks, “they all say that it gets better/ it gets better, but what if I don’t?” Unfortunately, “Teenage Dream” does not provide an answer to this question; instead, it shows its audience they are not alone in not having the problems of their youth figured out. Rodrigo personalizes this message by incorporating her own experience as a teenager in the spotlight. She sings, “Got your whole life ahead of you/ you’re only nineteen/ but I fear that they already got the best parts of me.” With the mention of the number nineteen, the musician makes reference to her age when Sour first came out. She reveals the fear that her debut album may eclipse the rest of her musical career, forever looming as a standard of achievement she may never again achieve.

“Teenage Dream” leaves the audience with one question: how does this album compare to Sour's success? The two musical works, in my opinion, cannot be compared. Yes, Rodrigo incorporates the same sense of heartbreak, Y2K grunge aesthetic, and balance of pop and punk in both albums. Sour and Guts, however, showcase different experiences of an evolving artist. The former portrays Rodrigo's sense of innocence when she entered some of her first romantic relationships as well as the music industry. For many fans, part of the pleasure in listening to Sour stems from the simplicity of emotion and sound that is emblematic of this era. “Good 4 U,” for instance, naturally blends aggressive lyrics with the electric guitar. In contrast, Guts presents a matured musician eager to explore the experimental world of composition and theme. The audience is taken on a rollercoaster ride through Rodrigo's mind, engaging with complexities like beauty standards, the let-downs of fame, and the impossible expectations for women in the media. These advanced concepts are accompanied with a musical composition that plays with tempo, vocal tone, and instrumental harmony. As the music instantaneously changes in atmosphere, listeners experience a myriad of feelings that encapsulate the brilliant perplexity of this album. 

It is too soon to tell whether Guts will have the same cultural impact as Sour. After her recent performance at the VMAS, Rodrigo has already made headlines regarding the fake stage malfunction that startled audience members and at-home viewers alike. The musician also announced her global tour that will begin in 2024 and travel to several venues across the United States and Europe. Based on these developments, Guts is likely to reach the same degree of acclaim and recognition as Rodrigo’s debut. The music industry nevertheless waits to see whether the sophomore album will transcend the basic standards of success, like awards and record listeners, to achieve the enduring recognition of a cultural icon. 

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English major and double-minor in Sociology and Business Management. You can probably find me on a run around the res, getting coffee, or listening to Hozier.

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