Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘SOUR’ Album Is A Bittersweet Dive Into Youth
Written by Hailey Oppenlander
Even if you somehow haven’t heard Olivia Rodrigo’s name by now, you’ve probably heard the instantly recognizable car door alarm that begins her hit song “drivers license.”
Rodrigo’s highly-anticipated first album, SOUR, was released on May 21st. Its 11 tracks fall under the umbrella label of “pop,” but Rodrigo shows off a range in her musical abilities, mastering everything from emotional power ballads to spiteful pop-rock.
Rodrigo has an impressive ability to convey the sour emotions of youth throughout these pop subgenres, with lyrical prowess beyond her years and a genuine voice. No matter how old you are, SOUR will instantly rocket you back to the messy aspects of youth.
Rodrigo is another Disney star to successfully break into the pop sphere. Rodrigo acted in Bizaardvark and most notably stars as Nini Salazar-Roberts in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+. She wrote a song, “All I Want,” for the show, which she credits as opening up many opportunities. Although she’s only 18 years old, Rodrigo has been in the music game for years, and spent quarantine writing and recording for her first album.
Three songs on the album — “drivers license,” “deja vu,” and “good 4 u” — were released as singles prior to the release of the full album. The first single, “drivers license,” went viral after its release on January 8th. That day on TikTok, I literally could not escape the song, as thousands of users made reaction videos, praised the song, and attempted to explain the real-life drama behind it.
With SOUR, Rodrigo has proven that she can follow up the unprecedented success of “drivers license.” In the first track of the album, “brutal,” Rodrigo says before the music begins, “I want it to be, like, messy,” setting up the theme of the entire album. Rodrigo’s music deals with messy emotions — heartbreak, resentment, anger, jealousy, and more. For those who only know her for “drivers license,” the aggressive electric guitar in “brutal” is sure to leave them surprised.
Though her voice is filled with heartbreak in “drivers license,” her tone in “brutal” feels more like talking, her voice teeming with annoyance, irritation, and exhaustion. Though it’s not one of the most popular tracks on the album, it’s one of my favorites for its honesty and relatability. Plus, it’s extremely satisfying to belt out in the car. “brutal” is an anti-teen anthem of sorts, highlighting the cruel aspects of youth that are often overlooked:
“I feel like no one wants me / And I hate the way I’m perceived / I only have two real friends / And 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”
From “brutal,” Rodrigo transitions into a set of heartbreak ballads, beginning with “traitor,” where she laments, “Guess you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor.” Next up is “drivers license,” which has stood the test of time with its high-flying chorus and hypnotic bridge. On “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” Rodrigo interpolates role model Taylor Swift’s “New Years Day” for a commentary about a confusing relationship, questioning, “Like, which lover will I get today? / Will you walk me to the door or send me home crying?”
A textbook example of Rodrigo’s writing strengths is the following song “deja vu,” which unravels like a story set to music. I took a Magazine Writing course last semester, and my professor told us that as paradoxical as it sounds, the specific is often more relatable than the general. “deja vu” thrives on its specificity, using images like sharing strawberry ice cream in Malibu, switching jackets, and singing Billy Joel to create an authentic picture of a relationship rather than relying on overused tropes. These lyrics paired with an impeccable production (close your eyes and you’ll float away with her “ha-ha’s” in the first verse) make this another of my favorite songs on the album.
On “good 4 u,” the last single released before the full album, Rodrigo goes full-blown pop-rock in an anthem for the bitter. Its early-2000s sound begs you to play the air guitar, whip your hair, and jump around in your room. Rodrigo slows down for the next two songs, “enough for you” and “happier,” which show off her voice’s ability to transition from powerful and impassioned back to soft and reflective in mere seconds.
Despite being Gen-Z’s “it” girl, in “jealousy, jealousy” Rodrigo shows that she isn’t immune to teenage insecurity and social media comparison traps, just like the rest of us.
Next is one of my favorite songs lyrically, entitled “favorite crime.” Rodrigo uses a crime scene as an allegory for a toxic relationship, weaving references throughout the entire song to communicate the demise of the relationship and reflect on her own role in letting it happen:
“I was your willing accomplice, honey / And I watched as you fled the scene / Doe-eyed as you buried me / One heart broke, four hands bloody”
Rodrigo concludes an album filled with sourness on a sweet note of hope: “hope ur ok” is a reflection on past friendships, homophobia, and the everyday courage that people have to continue living.
SOUR has broken numerous records and continues to top the charts a month after its release. Rodrigo now holds the record for the most songs in the top 10 on Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart at one time by a woman (with 8!), a record previously held by Taylor Swift. Although people say that she’s the new Swift, Rodrigo is an artist in her own right. It’s hard to describe her cultural relevance, but I offer this anecdote as evidence — at a party, my friends and I paused our party playlist to gather around my phone screen and watch her Saturday Night Live performance of “drivers license,” singing along with the high notes blaring through our speaker. At just 18 years old, I can’t wait to see what musical and lyrical direction Rodrigo will head next.