By: Tammy Chang
After a year of pandemic-related heartache on the macro scale, SOUR by Olivia Rodrigo zooms in and conjures up feelings I forgot how to feel — and I’m so thankful. The freshly 18-year-old High School Musical: The Musical: The Series actress’ debut album has come highly anticipated by the TikTok crowd after viral singles “drivers license” and “deja vu” blew up on the video-sharing app, and it is everything that you would expect from a Disney starlet’s first project and more.
With titles like “traitor,” “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” and “enough for you,” the 11 song tracklist reads like the Tumblr text posts and Finsta captions of my youth (and for those a little older, a secret high school diary). Honest, emotional, and sensitive, SOUR takes us through all the flavors of a teenage girl’s first heartbreak.
Part angsty burn book and part sentimental Dear John letter, it’s impossible to talk about this album without mentioning Rodrigo’s musical influences. There’s the obvious Taylor Swift and Lorde, who Rodrigo gushes about in interviews, but SOUR also screams of most moody pop artists active in the last two decades. Put the album on shuffle and you can hear chart-toppers of today like Billie Eilish, Harry Styles, and Phoebe Bridgers bleed through, but also the sounds of Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, and Sara Bareilles.
Much of Olivia Rodrigo’s branding utilizes homage and throwbacks. If you take a look at her online merch store that sells zines and cassettes(!!!), it’s clear that she leans heavy into the lo-fi, do-it-yourself aesthetics of the 90’s and early 2000’s nostalgia for someone born in 2003. Even her most recent music video for “good 4 u” references teen hits like Jennifer’s Body and Princess Diaries. In every aspect of her craft, Olivia Rodrigo lets us know that she is a fervent consumer and now active participant in pop culture, ready to make her mark.
There’s discussion online that most of us long out of high school are way too old to relate to Rodrigo’s music — but I can’t agree. Music can take the opportunity to illuminate universal truths or transport us to different worlds, and SOUR makes the choice not to. This isn’t a criticism, as every track is uber personal and instead gives us a peek directly into our young narrator’s brain as she processes the end of a relationship.
Still, despite the very specific details Rodrigo chooses to share — “I read all of your self-help books/So you’d think that I was smart” and “I bet that she knows Billy Joel/‘Cause you played her Uptown Girl” — older audiences who have experienced puppy love and subsequent betrayal (as well as the epic highs and lows of high school football) can remember what it’s like to be 17 and broken-hearted. On this note: this album is rumored to be based on what appears to be a very messy breakupwith her High School Musical: The Musical: The Series co-star Joshua Bassett, but to pore over the lyrics looking for secret clues about the relationship does a disservice to everyone involved. For one, there’s not a ton of juicy gossip, and it is also simply easier to imagine that these characters could be anyone.
Rodrigo’s lyricism is simple and sometimes even cliché, eschewing metaphor and simile in favor of telling, not showing through plain statements. But it works – she is at an age where everything that happens is so intense and literal, and we’re privileged to hear her internal monologue.
In the album’s first track, “brutal,” Rodrigo roars about her teenage disillusionment over crunchy guitar strumming and distortion, joining the ranks of angry teens past and present calling attention to the dismal material conditions of contemporary youth. Very “La La Land” by Demi Lovato, very Greta Thunberg.
Track 6 and most recent single “good 4 u” joins “brutal” as the other pop-punk-inspired song on the album. In this one, Rodrigo screams “screw that, and screw you/You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do” at her ex, and sarcastically wishes them a very good life. There are many flavors present in Rodrigo’s musical palate, and bitter is no exception. There is no shame anywhere in this album. Rodrigo’s vulnerability shines through from start to finish, and she is not afraid to air her grievances from this failed romance. The first ballad on the album comes in the form of Lorde-esque piano-accompanied “traitor,” where Olivia Rodrigo clearly presents SOUR’s thesis: “You betrayed me/And I know that you’ll never feel sorry/For the way I hurt.”
Track 3, “drivers license” is the runaway hit single released in January 2021 that has garnered hundreds of millions of TikTok lip-syncs and Spotify streams. In it, Rodrigo drives us through the experience of moving on, but not really moving on. It’s a very melancholy song that originally drew huge Taylor Swift and Lorde comparisons in production, but the songwriting was actually inspired by Rodrigo’s fellow upcoming artist Gracie Abrams. Rodrigo takes no shame but all pleasure in admitting how much of her work is influenced by other artists, sometimes even with their explicit blessing. Track 4, titled “1 step forward, 3 steps back” literally interpolates a melody from “New Year’s Day” by Taylor Swift. Rodrigo was granted permission to put her spin on the tune and is personally credited with playing the piano here to express her confusion about a lover that is very back and forth with their affection. When she yells “I know you get deja vu” later in Track 5’s “deja vu,” it is directly influenced by Taylor Swift’s bridge in “Cruel Summer.”
There are countless examples of this compositional deja vu (ha) throughout the album: when I first listened to “jealousy, jealousy,” it was very much giving me the vibes of a “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” track from Fiona Apple in its chaos and commentary. When I played it for a friend in the car, they could also hear the dark bass and breathy vocals of Billie Eilish song. Harsher critics might draw the conclusion that these heavy-handed influences indicate a lack of originality, but I admire how Rodrigo can experiment so much and still pull together a cohesive album as someone who is just now coming into their own as a person and finding their sound as a musician.
I personally am a big fan of music that features soft acoustic guitar, so Track 7 “enough for you” and Track 10 “favorite crime” are two of my favorites. I’ve actually studied the tabs for the gentle fingerpicking on these songs, but can’t come close to the charming and emotive vocals Rodrigo graces us with. Track 8, “happier” is another sweeping ballad that is the more optimistic, lyrical foil to “good 4 u.” Where “good 4 u” was sarcastic and biting, Rodrigo genuinely hopes that her ex is happy — but in the very honest way we have come to know, not “happier” than they were with her.
SOUR’s final song is slower, less personal, and more reflective on the lives of people Rodrigo has met. She has no idea where they are now, but earnestly hopes they are doing well, despite the struggles they had when she knew them. At its conclusion, she sweetly ends her debut album with the words “I hope that you’re okay.”
I am in love with the careful attention to detail that Olivia Rodrigo pays this album. In “drivers license,” the sound of a car starting up blends with the first chords of the song’s introduction. If you turn the volume up when Rodrigo sings “I bet you even tell her how you love her/In between the chorus and the verse” on “deja vu,” you can hear her mix a whispered “I love you” voice memo in that beat. There are Easter eggs hidden everywhere, and in every song, new girl Olivia announces to the class that she wears her heart and musical influences on her sleeve. This album will be a delight for the most fervent of pop music lovers, and for everyone else, the biggest singles are still worth a listen to get an idea of what the kids are up to these days.
In its entirety, SOUR takes us on a 34 minute, 46 second journey through everything Olivia Rodrigo has experienced in the past year. It’s not about the isolation of quarantine or how everything is always on fire. It’s messy at times and melodramatic in the way that teenagers often are. But that’s okay. At a time when circumstances and self-preservation force us to live moment-to-moment and only look forward, it’s a relief to take a pause, reminisce about silly drama, and feel jumbles of feelings that don’t seem to matter anymore. Remember when we thought that was the end of the world? We got past it. And we’ll do it again.