Since May 21st, 2021, my little corner of the internet has been dominated by love for one 18yr old: Olivia Rodrigo. If you are not on my corner of the internet, let me explain: Olivia is an actress, known for starring in Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series since 2019, which, despite its horrible name, seems to be fairly popular. More importantly however, Olivia is also a singer/songwriter, and released her debut album SOUR on this date. SOUR was preceded by three incredibly well-received singles, starting with “drivers license”, then “deja vu”, then “good 4 u”. It was “drivers license” that started Olivia’s internet takeover for me–the song (and the obvious nods to Olivia’s breakup with HSM:TM:TS co-star Joshua Bassett) went absurdly viral on TikTok and subsequently broke a string of streaming records: most single-day streams on Spotify, most successful first week on Spotify and Apple Music, and Olivia became the youngest artist to ever debut at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. People started paying attention to this young girl breaking records with every song she put out, and with that came immediate criticism. Because of her young age, and SOUR’s focus on breakup songs and teenage malaise, Olivia was hit with a wave of those saying she writes whiney, childish songs about boys, dismissing the importance of her emotions at this time in her life. Olivia shot back in an interview with The Guardian: “[That] is just BS in my mind”, she says. “I’m a teenage girl, I write about stuff that I feel really intensely – and I feel heartbreak and longing really intensely – and I think that’s authentic and natural. I don’t really understand what people want me to write about; do you want me to write a song about income taxes? How am I going to write an emotional song about that?”
I love this response for so many reasons. I, like Olivia Rodrigo, grew up listening to Taylor Swift on repeat (and still do), but I often did so in secret. When you’re a teenager, so much of what you want is to be older, to be seen as cool and mature. I learnt quickly that Taylor’s music was seen as the opposite of that: it was dumb, whiney, and for “teens”, which is the opposite of what an actual teen wanted to hear. More than that though, Taylor’s music was dismissed because it was girly, and the wrong kind of girly at that. I remember my older sister telling me one day, when she heard me listening to RED: ‘you know that Taylor Swift dates boys and breaks up with them as soon as possible just to make music right?’ implying her songs and her whole persona was fake and I shouldn’t listen to her albums. But I always felt seen in Taylor’s music, which was part fun and part serious, and even when serious always making fun at itself a little bit. Any emotion I was feeling, even if I couldn’t express it myself, I could find back in her discography. But I couldn’t tell anyone this, of course. That would be uncool, because Taylor Swift is uncool. So, for me, seeing Olivia Rodrigo’s music blow up the way it did, and watch her respond to critics with all the foresight that Taylor Swift has given her, feels like a little bit of vindication. That same sister, no longer a teenager herself anymore, which she of course was when she said that to me, sends me a screenshot of her listening to “brutal”, the first track on SOUR, with a text stating “I know I’m late to the party but I’m obsessed”. Yeah, you are late to the party–but I’m happy you’re here now!
So what is it about SOUR, and Olivia Rodrigo, that we love? What makes people, that arguably aren’t Olivia’s target audience as they’re not teenagers, still join her party? Part of it can definitely be found in Olivia’s statement for the Guardian: she has learned to stand up for her music, and listeners have learnt it too–we look back and see how teenage girls were vilified for liking things that were literally made for them (think Twilight, Taylor Swift) and don’t stand for it anymore. But part of it is Olivia herself, of course. To me, what draws us to SOUR even beyond the age of 17 is that those Big Feelings, that you first start to feel in your teenage years and struggle expressing, don’t actually go away. Hearing an album talk about those Big Feelings in every messy way they come in feels cathartic. Now I personally am no music critic, but I have studied English literature, and I sure can talk about a text. So, I want to give a small review of SOUR, mostly about the lyrics, insofar as it relates to some of the themes I’m talking about here.
Track 1 – brutal
“I want it to be like, messy” is the first sentence we hear Olivia say on her debut album, followed by loud electric guitar strumming. This sets the tone for the entire album, but “brutal” specifically. The pinnacle line of the song “God! It’s brutal out here” refers to the intensity of being a teenager, when your brain is still developing but your emotions have expanded to feel the extent of human capacity to feel for the first time. “I feel like no-one wants me. I hate the way that I’m perceived. I only have two real friends. Lately I’m a nervous wreck. Cause I love people I don’t like. And I hate every song I write. And I’m not cool, and I’m not smart, and I can’t even parallel park.” These lines are funny, in a, well, brutal, way. To me, it reflects the way that when you’re feeling down, it can feel like the whole world is against you, and every small inconvenience that you can usually ignore stacks to form something relentless and overwhelming. “They say these are the golden years, but I wish I could disappear, ego crush is so severe: God! It’s brutal out here.”
Track 2 – traitor
Traitor is much calmer than brutal in sound, but very cohesive in message. “And ain’t it funny? How you ran to her, the second that we called it quits? And ain’t it funny? How you said you were friends? Now it sure as hell don’t look like it.” The song is about feeling betrayed, but more than that it’s about looking back and grimacing at your own self, how you can feel so strongly and then be left hanging when it ends. It reminds me, like so much of SOUR, of lines by Taylor Swift, like this one from RED: “Loving him is like driving a new Maserati down a dead end street. Faster than the wind, passionate as sin, ending so suddenly” The freefall that you feel after a strong feeling ends is pure hurt and regret and a cruel kind of laughter, and Olivia portrays that perfectly in “traitor”, as she croons in the last line of the song “God, I wish that you had thought this through, before I went and fell in love with you…”
Track 3 – drivers license
The track that started it all still holds up compared to the rest of the album. Like “traitor’, “drivers license” expresses the emptiness of what’s left when a period of high emotion, like a relationship, ends. She uses the eerie malaise of endless suburbia as a metaphor to express this feeling: “Yeah, today I drove through the suburbs, ’cause how could I ever love someone else?” mixed with pure on-the-nose teenage anguish: “And I know we weren’t perfect but I’ve never felt this way for no one. And I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone. Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.” The bridge is what makes the song the hit that it is, when the held-back emotion of the track seems to explode into a bombardment of images and discordant feelings, a cathartic outbursts that ends in a cry: “Can’t drive past the places we used to go to, cause I still fuckin’ love you babe.” Emotions are hard to feel completely, and sometimes all you can do is scream and expletive at the sky in your car.
Track 4 – 1 step forward, 3 steps back
This song samples overtly from Taylor Swift, using the background piano of the final song on Reputation, “New Year’s Day”. This is an interesting choice, as “New Year’s Day” is very much a love song, something missing from SOUR. But it comes at the end of Reputation, the album that personifies Taylor’s rage at being mistreated by the media in her youth and currently, obviously a perfect choice for Olivia Rodrigo. More than that, “New Year’s Day” also touches on SOUR’s sadness of the past and fear of the future, albeit in a different way: Taylor sings “Hold on to the memories they will hold on to you”, and that’s one thing Olivia has done throughout SOUR, give us all those memories of teenage heartbreak in all its forms, and allow us to see it clearly. “1 step forward, 3 steps back” itself is a heart wrenching song. “It’s one step forward and three steps back. I’m the love of your life until I make you mad”, she sings, along with “You got me fucked up in the head, boy. Never doubted myself so much. Like, am I pretty? Am I fun, boy? I hate that I give you power over that kind of stuff.” Once again expressing the way that extreme emotion can leave us paralized, and the hatred we can feel toward the source of that emotion or even the emotion itself, wanting to be released from it.
Track 5 – deja vu
This track, the second single is thematically very similar to drivers license, and makes use of the suburban/driving metaphor again. This song is spiteful and almost mean, if it wasn’t so obviously brought on by understandable hurt and confusion, all visible in Olivia’s emotion-filled voice, yelling “I know you get deja vu!”. I hear a question behind every line of the song: how can the world keep turning and changing when I feel this way?
Track 6 – good 4 u
The last single released before the album, this track is Olivia really flexing her muscles. In the ‘behind the scenes’ video for the music video of “good 4 u”, Olivia says smiling “Petra (Collins, the director) I really love expressing, kind of, feminine rage? And we think that’s something that is not always super commonplace in media, and so we wanted to make this, like, totally angry psycho girl.” This ‘feminine rage’ is exactly what “good 4 u” expresses: “And good for you, it’s like you never even met me. Remember when you swore to God I was the only person who ever got you? Well, screw that! And screw you! You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do!” The song builds and builds, with little inflections of Olivia’s voice betraying her anger, climaxing in an exclamation: “Good for you, you’re doin’ great out there without me, baby, like a damn sociopath!” This track, like the others, masquerades behind a breakup song, but the theme that “brutal” set up in track 1 prevails in the end. Olivia repeats “Maybe I’m too emotional, but your apathy’s like a wound in salt”, regurgitating what teenage girls are constantly told, that their emotions are invalid, no matter what caused the feeling.
Track 7 – enough for you
Track 7 matches track 6 exactly, but expresses the sadness after you have no more energy for the anger expressed in good 4 u: “I’d say you broke my heart but you broke much more than that. Now I don’t want your sympathy, I just want myself back.” When you’re still finding out who you are, all you want is to be liked and loved, you’d do anything to be enough: “And I knew how you took your coffee, and your favorite songs by heart. I read all of your self-help books, so you’d think that I was smart.”, but then you’re told to be yourself, when you don’t even know who that is yet. “Stupid, emotional, obsessive little me. I knew from the start this is exactly how you’d leave”. Olivia finds a bit of hope for the future, though, in this song: “But don’t tell me you’re sorry, boy. Feel sorry for yourself. ‘Cause someday I’ll be everything to somebody else.”
Track 8 – happier
People always say teenagers are selfish, and Olivia is self-aware of that in this song: “And now I’m pickin’ her apart, like cutting her down would make you miss my wretched heart. But she’s beautiful, she looks kind, she probably gives you butterflies.” This song is simple, but powerful in its simplicity. Olivia perfectly portrays the selfishness of a breakup, when you’ve gone your separate ways, but your heart still feels “attached through all the sunlight of our past”, and you can’t fully let that go just yet: “I hope you’re happy but don’t be happier”.
Track 9 – jealousy, jealousy
With track 9, Olivia returns to a direct portrayal of the brutality of teenage years: “Co-comparison is killin’ me slowly. I think, I think too much, ’bout kids who don’t know me. I’m so sick of myself. I’d rather be, rather be: anyone, anyone else, but jealousy, jealousy started following me.” The song is a direct response to everything we know is harmful to young girls, when “all [you] see are girls too good to be true, with paper-white teeth and perfect bodies”, making you “wanna throw [your] phone across the room”. The impact of a song that explicitly states the way jealousy ravages teenagers can’t be overstated, and I know I’m grateful for its existence. The bridge does something very similar to “drivers license”, picking up the pace and erupting into a sequence of overwhelming images that perfectly encapsulates the way social media can feel, and the way emotions can hit you when they are strong enough.
Track 10 – favorite crime
The penultimate track of SOUR is one of the most heavy, as Olivia seems to reflect back on all the emotions expressed in the past nine songs, coming to terms with her own position in the cause of those feelings: “One heart broke, four hands bloody.” Using the breakup as a metaphor again, I see her reflect on the brutal nature of the ‘golden years’ again: “It’s bittersweet to think about the damage that we do, ’cause I was going down, but I was doing it with you. Yeah, everything we broke, and all the trouble that we made. But I say that I hate you with a smile on my face”. I think this is how we end up looking back on our teenage years, once we have distance to understand them a little better, bittersweet. The reason our society is so caught up in teenage years, with coming of age movies, YA books, albums like SOUR or artists like Taylor Swift and Lorde, is because they are simply like no other. These years are the first time we can fully remember an intense shift in human brain chemistry and hormones, and of course, it’s going to be messy.
Track 11 – hope ur ok
SOUR’s final track may seem at first glance the least cohesive to the rest of the themes, as Olivia starts it by expressing love and pride LGBTQ+ youths making it out of bad situations where their identities are not accepted, and condemning those that would not accept them. But in the bridge and outro of the song the theme expands somewhat, as she sings: “Address the letters to the holes in my butterfly wings. Nothing’s forever, nothing is as good as it seems. And when the clouds won’t iron out, and the monsters creep into your house, and every door is hard to close… Well, I hope you know how proud I am you were created. With the courage to unlearn all of their hatred. But, God, I hope that you’re happier today, ’cause I love you. And I hope that you’re okay.” These final lines of SOUR function like a balm over the chaos of teenage emotion she has expressed so far. It’s a message to her fans, and all those who struggle with mental health in their teens or beyond, softening the blow with a simple few words we all want to hear sometimes: “I love you. And I hope that you’re okay.”
Writing this has been an expression of my love for SOUR, and also a letter to the holes in my own pair of butterfly wings, and a way to tell myself to feel! Feel those crazy Big Feelings, even if you’re not 17 anymore, even if you’re 71. Feel the sourness, cause without sour you can’t feel sweet.