The Student
Review
Olivia Rodrigo debuts Sour
by Jemima Mowlem, 18/08/21

★★★★

Olivia Rodrigo’s album ‘Sour’ is one of the best things to have happened to young people this year. A year that saw them locked into a cage of their own pubescent monkey-minds with “online” school and toxic social media as their main line of communication. 

Rodrigo is the youngest female singer to top the UK chart double, overtaking Queen on the longest album at Number 1 on the Official Top 40 Chart. “Good 4 U” broke the record for the most plays in a single week on Spotify.

Music for teenage girls, by teenage girls is a long-awaited act of genius. This album marks the end of trivialising the experience of girls as, until recently, the music industry treated girls as desirable commodities and undesirable identities. Upon release, she feared she would be criticised as a ‘hysterical’, soppy, and dramatic “break-up girl”. This is a trope that degrades female fans and artists: In the nineteenth century, the act of reading romantic literature was considered a passive activity belonging to a trivial female realm of fantasizing; Beatles fangirls were initially dismissed as orgasm hungry underage hysterics; Fans of One Direction mocked for uncontrolled screaming at concerts. Teen girl culture is belittled despite its wisdom and value to society at large. The rage and bewilderment throughout the album could just as easily be patriarchal resistance as it is about first heartbreak.

Rodrigo’s single “Drivers Licence” is a first-time heartbreak song that went viral on Tik Tok. A large segment of the app is admittedly teenage girls ranting about heteronormative dating. Yet Tik Tok is also a significant platform for sharing youth culture, music, humour, and values in an age of social dislocation and should not be overlooked as a force for change.

At eighteen years old, most female songwriters are pigeonholed into sexualised identities and lack autonomy (#FreeBritney). But Olivia Rodrigo is dominating the contemporary pop genre with a candid portrayal of aspects of the teenage-girl psyche.

The album cover may be girly pastel lilac, but the lyrics are dark. The song ‘Brutal’ begins with classical string composition followed by rock guitar sequencing, indicating a rupture of the composure and perfectionism expected of young women in pop culture. The lines “I only have two real friends and lately I’m a nervous wreck” probably ring true for quite a few of us Gen Z’ers. She takes a punch at Katy Perry’s sickly song “Where’s my fucking Teenage Dream?”.

In ‘Jealousy Jealousy’ the bridge “All I see is what I should be/ Happier, prettier, jealousy, jealousy” and the disjointed piano chords capture the despair and desperation of the adolescent coming to terms with never feeling enough for impossible standards of intelligence, success, and white beauty for young women. Rodrigo puns on this internet phenomena “Com-comparison is killing me slowly, I think I think too much about kids who don’t know me”. The angst and unpleasant heightening of emotion that characterises female coming-of-age is presented to fans as understandable and even an opportunity to connect as Hannah Ewans said, “to be a fan is to be alone together”.

The song ‘Happier’ has a 1950s dream-like melody and minor arpeggios on guitar that mimic teen break up songs and it lacks sophistication of feeling and form. Yet the lyric “think of me finally when your hands are on her” is searing in its vulgar honesty. The song ‘enough for you’ ends on a hopeful note that “someday I’ll be everything for somebody else” because she feels “used and discarded” by her callow ex.

Her Philippine-American heritage is a fresh and radical progression for the new decade of pop music and culture. The accusation that Gen Z are ‘snowflakes’ is combatted through Rodrigo’s message of kindness in ‘Hope You’re Ok’ for those with less privileged or abusive family backgrounds. Its simplicity borders on the Disney star perception Rodrigo wanted to avoid but the central idea of compassion works well as a pop song.

In ‘Good 4 U’ the bridge “Maybe I’m too emotional/ But your apathy is like a wound in salt” gradually culminates into a more intense accusation that her ex is “like a damn sociopath!”. It subverts the traditional pathologizing of female emotions as ‘hysteria’, instead warning us about the absence of breathing space for male emotional pain. Repression is often used as explanation for the startling fact that men are thrice as likely to commit suicide. The cruelty of disregarding one’s own emotions and that of a significant other is addressed in ‘Favourite Crime’. She accepts her responsibility for her own pain and for the killing of her relationship in the lines “one heart broke, four hands bloody”.

A talented and cool teenage girl belting about fear and confusion to a track of pop-punk is the first significant stage in overcoming the stigma surrounding mental health discourse for both genders during a global mental health crisis and deserves all the success it has received. Rodrigo is an example of how much Gen Z can achieve, despite setbacks.

image: Dfree via Shutterstock