In case you haven’t noticed, teenagers get to dictate essentially everything that is popular in culture. Perhaps this was always the case, or maybe it’s been incredibly heightened over the past couple years. Teens were already incredibly internet savvy (in 2018, 95% of US teenagers had access to a smartphone, and that was three years ago) and thanks to over a year of forced quarantining and social distancing, it’s safe to assume that savvy has now transformed into teens building lives online.
I know what you may be thinking: that yes, duh! teenagers have always held reign on determining what is popular, but the major difference here? Most of them can now share their thoughts on any given topic with a simple tap of a button, blasted out to millions of people in the blink of an eye, deciding not only what the next cool thing SHOULD be, but what WILL be. Take 18-year-old musician and actress Olivia Rodrigo, who, to most people who no longer have a ‘teen’ at the end of their age didn’t know existed before 2021. This is no shade in the slightest, considering Rodrigo’s claim to fame prior to the new decade was her role on Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a show on Disney+ that first aired in November 2019.
Rodrigo stars as Nini Salazar-Roberts, the character based on Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens’ role in the movies). The show, whose second season just premiered a week ago (a date that may or may not have been beautifully coincidental to Rodrigo’s debut album drop, you decide), has garnered a dedicated fan base: one that helped Rodrigo’s original song written for the show, “All I Want,” go viral far past the run that most Disney Channel songs & soundtracks have. “All I Want” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 90 in January 2020, performed well on, you guessed it, TikTok, and is certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America—eventually leading to Rodrigo’s current contract with Interscope Records as their newest industry plant. While most Disney stars land their first deal with Hollywood Records, Rodigo’s leap to an unaffiliated label was a clue alluding to the direction that her debut album was going.
When I first heard “Drivers License” on January 8, I immediately stopped dead in my tracks (I really just stopped what I was doing on the internet) to see who the heck this Olivia Rodrigo girl was and where she came from. After doing some digging on the good old internet machine (mostly Twitter), I learned about Rodrigo’s background and the “tea” surrounding the subject matter of the song. The song is allegedly about Rodrigo’s now over relationship with fellow Disney co-star Joshua Bassett and his new girlfriend, fellow Disney star Sabrina Carpenter. Thanks to the magnitude of the celebrity machine, the popularity-determiner (algorithmic) app otherwise known as TikTtok, and a decently-written song (with partial thanks to Olivia’s writing & production partner Daniel Nigro), “Drivers License” became an instant cultural phenomenon, and seemingly overnight, Olivia Rodrigo was suddenly on everyone’s radar.
“Deja Vu” followed “Drivers License” as the second single from Rodrigo, who soon after announced her debut album, SOUR, was dropping on May 21. The track tackles similar subject matter, painting a story of an (alleged) Bassett having experiences with his new girl that are eerily similar to those shared between Rodrigo and Bassett. The song plays reminiscent to the stylings of artists like Taylor Swift (“Cruel Summer,” to be exact) and Lorde’s “Supercut,” two artists that Rodrigo has publicly stated as inspiration.
The third and final single released ahead of SOUR was “good 4 u,” a song that again, repeats subject matter, but yet quite sonically different to the first two. As I listened to the track over and over again, I started imagining the possibilities of Rodrigo’s trajectory if she had debuted with this track instead of “Drivers License.” It may not have been as commercially successful, but the track, one that is much more pop punk-infused, an ode to the Avril Lavignes and Hayley Williams of the worlds, showcases Rodrigo’s musicianship in a more unique way compared to the other singles, which are far more “theater kid” esque.
If you’re looking for an album that showcases a variation in subject matter, SOUR is not for you. It’s called SOUR for a reason, considering that all three singles are so clearly about one person and one relationship and the negative feelings surrounding what is assumed to be her first true heartbreak. A teenage relationship is surely an honorable, worthy topic of discussion for a young artists’ debut album, but it’s debatable that this subject overshadows the real talents of the young, smart, hardworking musician who clearly has a bright future ahead of her. Some of the songs hold up to the challenge, including the clearly-sampled Taylor Swift track “1 step forward, 3 steps back” (it samples “New Year’s Day” and credits Swift and Antonoff)—which is a song about a toxic relationship misinterpreted for passion and progress and the brutally honest “happier,” another song reminiscent of Swift (re: “Happiness”). Other ballads (“traitor,” “enough for you”) feel like reimagined songs of pop’s past, in an unoriginal, one-dimensional way.
Of the eleven tracks on the album, three of them can be interpreted as songs about other things, 2021 teen angst, self-esteem in the internet age, childhood friends. These songs are where Rodrigo thrives: her songwriting, which she has mentioned is her true passion in life, are at the forefront, Twitter conspiracy threads not up for discussion.
The album’s opening track, “brutal,” continues building on the momentum of “good 4 u,” a song that exemplifies the theory that rock music is on the way back to the mainstream in a (safely) edgy way that we haven’t seen done by a commercial, major label-backed female artist in awhile. In “jealousy, jealousy,” an Avril Lavigne anthem for the gen z’ers, we see Rodrigo take a stab at the same internet culture that helped skyrocket her to worldwide fame. “hope ur ok,” the 2021 version of Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” closes the album, a beautifully written song about complexities of childhood friendships and the things you start to see when you get older and wiser—is packed with a chorus that sounds like it’d be straight out of Lorde’s unreleased third LP: arguably the best and most heart wrenching song on the album.
Rodrigo’s talent is undeniable, but SOUR leaves just that taste in my mouth as I struggle to comprehend my own internal biases of what women should or shouldn’t write about, questioning their autonomy makes me feel weird. While I certainly don’t care to listen to someone much younger than me sing about their romantic experience (and one that’s likely her first), in a way that makes me feel like I know way too much about said relationship, it certainly doesn’t discredit the fire in Rodrigo’s belly for becoming a superstar, but my question for where this narrative may take her comes from a place of loving, possibly melodramatic concern.
Like I stated in the opening paragraph of this review: teenagers are the ones in power here. They’ll dictate how this album performs, the path that Olivia takes moving forward, and who will be the one to follow her. But if she has anything to say about the matter, my guess is she’s already prepping the next one.
SOUR is out now.