Four months after “drivers license,” pop’s newest star offers a nimble and lightly chaotic collection of breakup tunes filled with melancholy and mischief.
Few people on Earth can know how Olivia Rodrigo feels right now; even by today’s standards of viral fame, her rise has been exceptional. On January 7, she was playing in the celebrity minor leagues, the not-quite-18-year-old star of the Disney+ show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. By January 12, she had smashed streaming records and blanketed TikTok with her debut single, “drivers license,” a piano-driven power ballad steeped in suburban malaise and teen anguish. Since then, she’s graced magazine covers, sung at the Brits, and become the subject of an SNL sketch. Then she was invited on as the musical guest.
But most of us can know how Olivia Rodrigo felt when she wrote her debut album, Sour: so gutted by heartbreak she simply couldn’t talk about anything else. “drivers license” outlined a crushing breakup, the contours of which became clearer in subsequent singles. A gossipy real-life backstory aided—though certainly did not precipitate—the song’s rise. (If you must know, it’s said to be about Joshua Bassett, Rodrigo’s HSM:TM:TS co-star, who has since been linked to another Disney star.)
The matter of failed romance is central to Sour, a nimble and lightly chaotic grab bag of breakup tunes, filled with both melancholy and mischief. Rodrigo’s first trick: Seconds into the lugubrious strings that open the record, she and her producer, Dan Nigro, abruptly switch to grunge guitar and distortion. Abandoning both the gossamer falsetto and the emotive belt that power “drivers license,” Rodrigo adopts a wry sprechstimme on “brutal” to rattle off her grievances: self-doubt, impossible expectations, her inability to parallel park. “Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” she snarls, wisecracking about the way pop culture romanticizes youth. It’s not particularly elegant—it’s not meant to be. Bucking expectations about the kind of sounds she might gravitate toward? That’s just part of the fun.
When she was little, Rodrigo and her mother made a habit of grabbing records indiscriminately from the thrift store, exposing her to the mistiness of Carole King and the muscle of Pat Benatar. Born two years post-Napster, two years pre-YouTube, Rodrigo grew up with music of all varieties at her fingertips. The range of her taste, and her disinterest in choosing a lane, animate Sour; queue up a track at random, and you might hear pop-punk fireworks à la Paramore (“good 4 u”), dewy-eyed soft balladry à la Ingrid Michaelson (“1 step forward, 3 steps back”), or alt-rock squall à la the Kills (“jealousy, jealousy”). Like any teenager, Rodrigo is trying on identities. The fluidity of her approach creates a sense of play that balances out the record’s more sullen moments—the self-righteous sprawl of “traitor,” for example, or the sinister extended metaphor of “favorite crime.”
Of Rodrigo’s many influences, she’s most obviously styled herself after Taylor Swift, whose work she praises often and emphatically. Like her idol, Rodrigo treats emotional turmoil like jet fuel, and laces her lyrics with specifics—a Billy Joel song she and her ex listened to together, the self-help books she read to impress him. She’s said that the shouty bridge in Swift’s “Cruel Summer” directly inspired her own in “deja vu”; “1 step forward, 3 steps back” interpolates the reputation song “New Year’s Day.” And publicly inveighing against a heartbreaker, then sauntering off with the last word? How very Swiftian.
But there’s more to Rodrigo’s writing than revenge; Sour gives her occasion to examine her own insecurities. “I wore makeup when we dated ’cause I thought you’d like me more,” she sings over fingerpicked guitar on the tearful “enough for you.” It’s a shot at her ex for underappreciating her, but also a hard lesson about not making concessions. On “happier,” a sweet-and-sour ballad that appeared in demo form on Rodrigo’s Instagram in early 2020, she grapples with the faulty narrative of female rivalry: “And now I’m picking her apart/Like cutting her down will make you miss my wretched heart.” It was this song that captured the attention of Nigro, a former emo band frontman who’s written with Carly Rae Jepsen and Conan Gray. It’s easy to hear what he heard in the homemade snippet: a gently tumbling melody, Rodrigo’s flute-like lilt, a winning balance of pettiness and wisdom.
Meanwhile, Rodrigo is still very much a part of the Disney ecosystem, reprising her role in the second season of HSM:TM:TS, which debuted just last week. To anyone familiar with the history of Disney darlings and the morality clauses that typically bind them, the profanity that peppers Sour will stand out as a break from type. This minor subversion of expectations has given Rodrigo a low-key rebel status. Like her seeming newness, her earnestness, the heartbreak baked into her ascent, it’s one of the qualities that make her easy to root for. In a way, the flattening effect of the internet has worked in her favor, allowing her—someone who has been on TV for roughly a third of her life and is signed with the biggest record company in the world—to slip into the role of the underdog.
Rodrigo avoided the major-label treatment when Universal left her and Nigro largely to their own devices to make Sour. But the effort to preserve the authenticity of Rodrigo’s voice also leaves her shortcomings more exposed. The flatness of the melody on “traitor” is especially noticeable alongside the movement of “drivers license”; “enough for you” is oversung. On a record largely centered around a single story, Rodrigo can fixate on select plot points (like the amount of time it took her ex to move on), rather than seeking out new angles. She sometimes settles for simple rhymes and self-evident phrasings: “You betrayed me/And I know that you’ll never feel sorry.” In moments like these, she seems more invested in content than in craft.
Of all the songs on Sour, “hope ur ok” feels most connected to her Disney lineage. Over a twinkly instrumental, Rodrigo sings directly to a victim of child abuse, a queer girl rejected by her family, and to outcasts more broadly. In its message of love and acceptance, the song calls to mind the empowerment anthems churned out by a previous generation of Disney stars. But as Sour’s closer, “hope ur ok” is limp. An outward-looking loosie tacked on to 10 songs about the world inside Rodrigo’s head and heart, it reads as a last-minute effort to demonstrate perspective and maturity. Someone out there might feel genuinely comforted by Rodrigo’s words, and that matters. But, as the success of “drivers license” shows, there’s a certain magic to be found in embracing your own mess.
Buy: Rough Trade