God, It’s Brutal Out Here

Olivia Rodrigo’s cross-generationally relatable “Sour” has everybody in their feels

Olivia Rodrigo Sour
Image via Olivia Rodrigo on Instagram

Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour is topping charts and tending to broken hearts internationally. The tracklist inspires teen angst in Gen Zers and Millennials alike, resulting in an onslaught of “i wish sour came out when i was in high school” tweets, in addition to listeners threatening to break up their happy relationships if only to vibe with the album even harder. Sour speaks to the intense emotional rollercoaster of young love to such a degree that it will have people in their 30s calling their ex-high school-sweethearts “damn sociopaths” with all the emotion they felt at 17. Amid tepid accusations of Rodrigo’s status as an industry plant - an artist backed by a major label, resulting in “inorganic” success - Liv’s talent is worthy of the marketing budget. If her label has the funds to promote her with a purple Sour-themed Drive-Thru car wash, let’s let her have it! This album speaks to the teenage experience in a way no 20+-year-old could manufacture. The magic of teenhood is that everything feels like the end of the world or the beginning of everything, a feeling Sour captures perfectly with its punk rock influences and confessional lyrics.

Her lead single, “drivers license”, garnered Rodrigo masses of (crying) fans. I personally didn’t obtain my license until last year, and recently scratched someone’s car while parallel parking. If only for these reasons, I found myself resonating with the lyrics on a visceral level, despite the fact that I am in a healthy and fulfilling relationship. Followed by singles “deja vu” and “good 4 u”, it’s no secret that Liv is experiencing the immeasurable devastation of the end of a first true love. Even worse, the end of a first true love involving someone who sounds like a selfish partner, to put it lightly (“Tried so hard to be everything that you liked / Just for you to say you're not the compliment type”... Yikes). While the subject of the album’s anger has been teased and speculated, that’s not who/what this blog post is about (but I will say, ahem, shipping Nini and Ricky in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series has become an emotionally conflicting endeavour).

The production, performance, and lyrics of “good 4 u”, “jealousy, jealousy”, and opener “brutal” are doused in gasoline — I mean, pop-punk’s characteristic perturbation. She’s mad, we’re mad, and anyone who wasn’t mad before sure as hell is now. Accompanying all that anger in the album is a self-awareness and vulnerability as she opens up about her own insecurities (“I wore makeup when we dated ’cause I thought you’d like me more”) - also very punk rock. Where punk champions “great songwriting” and an “anti-authoritarian stance”, this album subverts the authority this boy once had over her. Speaking of subversion: she swears! You might be thinking, Okay, and? What’s the big deal?, but Olivia is still a player in the Disneyverse. Historically, Disney enforces a code of morality. If defied, that performer is typically excommunicated. Former Disney girls (Demi, Selena, Miley) have faced immense scrutiny, and any act of maturity has resulted in mass media’s criticism and Disney’s exertion of control. Rodrigo has somehow transcended this phenomenon, perhaps a result of Disney lowering the volume on its conservative branding (e.g. there are queer characters who aren’t villains now); regardless, I doubt Olivia’s liberal use of “f***” came without resistance. In this way, “Sour” is an act of rebellion.

Where bubblegum pop embodies the qualities that man both expects of a woman and looks down on her for, feminist pop-punk offers the antithesis of these expectations. Love, and songs about love, can be a battlefield, especially in a world that centers the male perspective. In the discussion of Sour’s success, it is important to note that a majority of people who have been in a romantic relationship with a man have experienced a power imbalance often involving mistreatment, exploitation, and disrespect. It is no wonder, then, why the internet is riddled with newly-converted “Livies”. Through Rodrigo’s lyrical specificity, she has created a body of work that is transgenerationally resonant with many, especially young women, whose heartbreak is often not afforded a serious consideration.

Rodrigo, described in Rolling Stone as a “pop queen paradigm”, has been vocal about her musical influences, from channelling Paramore to interpolating the soft instrumentals of Taylor Swift’s “New Year’s Day” (Miss Swift even co-wrote “one step forward, three steps back” with Rodrigo and Jack Antonoff). There is a fun variance of genre, a balance of dreamy balladry and intense reactivity that sure smells like teen spirit. She’s trying on styles and identities, living in the extreme highs and lows of her experience, and isn’t that what being 18 is all about? Well, that... And getting the last word.