Olivia Rodrigo is revitalizing the breakup album

Courtesy of Olivia Rodrigo PS Label

There is no one who can do angst better than a teenager, and 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo showcases that in her debut album “SOUR.” She incorporates the pain and the sorrow that come with being dumped into her lyrics, which are made even more impactful and intriguing by the alleged story behind it. More so, the cohesive theme in her album makes it feel like we’re following along with her in the stages of grief: the anger in “good 4 u,” the heartbreak in “drivers license” and the jealousy of “deja vu.” Much like her own musical heroes, Rodrigo’s authenticity and spectacular voice draw you into her music, but it is her emotional rawness that sets her apart from other pop stars. 

If you Google search for “drivers license,” the first result is not the information about the Department of Motor Vehicles: it is the music video for Rodrigo’s first single, which speaks volumes about the waves her first song made across the internet. The song made her a pop star overnight, and it currently has over 764 million listens on Spotify and over 211 million views on YouTube. The mournful ballad repeats a line that becomes a running subject throughout: “I can’t imagine how you could be so okay, now that I’m gone.” The simple line encompasses the many feelings of losing a partner — the longing, the sadness, the jealousy and the feeling of unworthiness — and Rodrigo probes into her wounded ego and heart with greater detail in her following songs, particularly “enough for you,” “traitor,” “happier” and “1 step forward, 3 steps back.”

“Deja vu” is an especially fascinating single on the album because it’s like an onion: once you peel one layer, there’s another one just underneath the surface. Her source of focus on this song is her ex’s new girlfriend, but while other songs may have a rather misogynistic tinge, her ire is directed at her ex. The concealed anger and overt jealousy in Rodrigo’s lyrics are in stark contrast to the fairytale melody which is eventually broken open by a gritty, distorted guitar. The lyrics are overly simple, but the feelings behind them make them hard-hitting. She sings “That was our place, I found it first“ in a rush, almost like a child who is upset at sharing a toy (or in this case, a special place). Her accusations are multi-faceted: not only does she have to live with the fact that her love story is being lived by someone else, she’s annoyed that her ex is engaging her own interests with someone else. It’s cathartic in every sense of the word, even if the melody and lyrics themselves aren’t complicated. 

The personal, if over simplistic, lyrics have an added complexity when heard in tandem with the music video. Rodrigo looks longingly at the new girl occupying her ex’s heart, copies her clothes and eventually sets up a room full of cameras to continue her obsession. She is the scorned woman, but she sets herself up in a position that is scarcely explored in the musical world — the begrudging admiration of the new love interest, coupled with the fear of not being enough. This song is made all the more interesting by Rodrigo’s racial background; not unlike Mitski’s “All American Girl,” the intentional choice of using a blonde girl in her music video and singling out her whiteness in “drivers license” shows that the cut is deeper than just a broken relationship. Being left for the paradigm of beauty in America is a pain that Rodrigo hints at, but unfortunately doesn’t further develop.

Like the lost art of album sequencing, it is becoming more and more rare that albums have a real theme. Rodrigo maintains one throughout her album: the heartbreak and the loss that comes with a breakup. Albums made by similar artists, like Ariana Grande or Dua Lipa, branch out to other topics, which is fine — but by dedicating this album to exploring all the different feelings that come with being dumped, Olivia Rodrigo makes a statement and makes it loudly. After all, what does Grande’s “Positions” really say? The songs are pretty and nice to listen to, but they are not groundbreaking nor will they make any real change in the pop industry. Rodrigo took on the challenge of stringing together a set of 11 songs into a cohesive theme that speaks about a universal experience, putting her more on par with intellectual indie artists than mainstream pop stars.

The sounds in Rodrigo’s album are distinct from one another but all pay homage to different artists. “Good 4 u” borrows chords from Paramore’s “Misery Business”, “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” borrows from Taylor Swift’s “New Year’s Day” and her opening number, “brutal,” is a punk tribute to The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb.” This is one of the few downsides to her debut — the sounds are just not fully original, which speaks to the inexperience that can come with a younger artist’s music. 

Verdict: “SOUR” is a sweet reminder that Rodrigo is not a one-hit wonder. Her lyrical skills, romantic voice and cohesive debut all point to one thing: a new star has arrived on the musical scene, and she is here to stay.

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