Ever since May 21, 2021, nearly all of my friends have raved about the same thing–SOUR by Olivia Rodrigo. Initially, I was skeptical–could an album by a 17 year old Disney star really be that good? However, a few weeks after the fact (and after hearing a catchy bit of the single “good 4 u” on Instagram), I decided to ask a few of my friends whether the Zoomer was worth the hype. To my surprise, they all believed she was. As such, I decided to ignore my inner music snob and give her a shot.
I waited for the perfect moment–a sunset walk around my neighborhood in LA. As the pinks and purples consumed the sky, I plugged in my headphones (I’m poor, okay) and listened to the album from start to finish, like a true music connoisseur.
I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised, and was impressed by the artistry of such a young girl. To be able to effectively articulate presumably the greatest pain of her life in such a concise yet meaningful way is something to applaud. I thought her singles “driver’s license” and “good 4 u” were particularly well chosen and the greatest of the bunch, besides “deja vu.” “Driver’s license” exudes a teenage vulnerability mirroring that of Taylor Swift early discography–an achievement special to Rodrgio given her public admiration for Swift.
Although Rodrigo’s lyricism mirror the early talent of Swift, the structures of her songs draws directly from Swift’s later albums, particularly Lover. This is in part due to producer Jack Antinoff of The Bleachers; Antonoff produced both Lover and SOUR, and no doubt carried his love for a catchy bridge into songs like “deja vu” and “jealousy, jealousy.” These songs are reminiscent of the strong, stadium anthem-like bridges of Swift’s “Miss Americana and the Heartbreak Prince” and “Cruel Summer,” making them stronger and more emotionally gratifying. While the structures of some of the songs on the album follow a sadly basic and at times overused pattern, Antonoff’s signature structure works for what Rodrigo is trying to accomplish: a widely appealing, pop-focused breakup album from a talented, yet relatively green teen idol.
In addition to drawing upon predecessors like Swift, Rodrigo similarly exemplifies the impact peers like Billie Eilish have made on her artistry. From the stylistic typography of her lowercase song titles and uppercase album title, to her sonically unique application of everyday sounds like turn signals, as well as angelically layered and abrupt harmonies, Rodrigo pays homage to yet another star occupying the ~i’m a sad girl~ genre. Like Eilish, Rodrigo’s use of the “sad girl” trope is appealing not only due to the frankness in her lyrics revealing her mistakes and flaws, but because of her age. Unlike early pioneers of the “sad girl” genre like Lana Del Rey and MARINA, Eilish and Rodrigo are considerably younger, meaning they have plenty to still experience and a greater opportunity to break free from the emotional turmoil they’ve poured into their music.
Additionally, while Rodrigo clearly takes a page out of Eilish’s book, she doesn’t fully commit to the use of unique instrumentals or darkness present in Eilish’s persona and discography. Rather, Rodrigo’s obvious anger and simultaneous innocence seems less haunting than Eilish’s depressive tone, suggesting Rodrigo’s pain is only temporary; perhaps this is why her music–particularly this breakup album–has resonated with so many people. Many of those raving about SOUR are older than Rodrigo, and perhaps maintain stable relationships, but understand the feeling of recently-lost innocence, the rage of tainted naivety, and all the feelings of inadequacy, silliness, and “I should have known better” that underlay SOUR and are so universal to early adulthood. The emotional undertones of the album remind older audience members of their challenges, and how far they’ve come since then; it makes them want to comfort their past selves and Rodrigo simultaneously. Much like her youth serves her as she dips into the “sad girl” identity, Rodrigo’s age brings a sense of freshness, authenticity, opportunity, and relatability that sets her apart from other Disney stars who have ventured into the realm of music, only to fail miserably.
While I was pretty impressed with her debut album, I’m not sure SOUR deserves all of the hype it’s been given. Despite her clear vocal talent and lyrical acuity, Rodrigo still has plenty of room to grow–yet another advantage her youth provides. Although I appreciate the influence Swift and Eilish have on Rodrigo’s music, it would be nice to see how Rodrigo separates herself from other artists as she progresses through her musical career. As someone just establishing herself, she has plenty of time and room to forge a clearer path and create a stronger, more distinct image, musical signature, and sonic identity. Furthermore, as she gains life experience, Rodrigo will likely have more situations to draw from, more variety among her content, and more imagination in regards to the stories she chooses to tell (meaning not every song will revolve around one event, as painfully emphasized in the over-repetition of certain themes, lyrics, and ideas). The album certainly isn’t perfect, but is a great starting place for someone in Rodrigo’s position, and will serve as a strong launching pad for her future endeavors.