Review: Olivia Rodrigo delivers flawless Gen Z pop on her debut album
Whatever you think of Olivia Rodrigo — whatever you could say (or tweet) about the 18-year-old singer-songwriter shaping up to be pop’s breakout star of 2021 — trust that Rodrigo has already thought it.
She knows she’s “obsessive,” as she puts it in one song from her wily and affecting debut album, “Sour”; she knows she’s “too emotional,” as she puts it in another. And though she also knows she “thinks too much ’bout kids who don’t know me,” she simply can’t help it: “I hate the way I’m perceived,” Rodrigo admits in a voice proudly defined by SoCal vocal fry — a pretty striking confession given that it comes barely a minute into an LP whose whole job is to introduce her.
Hot on the heels of “Drivers License,” Rodrigo’s gloriously melodramatic power ballad that came out of nowhere to spend eight weeks atop Billboard’s Hot 100, “Sour” might be the most self-aware pop record in recent memory. Again and again across these 11 songs, Rodrigo measures her values and desires against those of others; she describes how her experience of a relationship differed from an ex’s and wonders why she’s not as psyched about being young as older people keep telling her she should be.
“I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my f— teenage dream?” she snarls over crunching guitars on “Brutal” — just one perfect Instagram caption on an album full of them.
This preoccupation with perception and identity makes sense for a member of Gen Z who grew up amid social media where even non-celebrities have to learn to navigate an endless projection of selves. Over a creeping bass line in “Jealousy, Jealousy,” she admits to wanting to “throw my phone across the room ’cause all I see are girls too good to be true.”
Yet for Rodrigo, it’s also an occupational hazard. Before “Drivers License” instantly ignited her musical career, the Temecula native with Filipino family roots was best known for her starring role on the deeply self-referential Disney+ show “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” on which she plays a girl who has a starring role in a production of a high school musical adapted from the original 2006 Disney Channel movie.
More complicated still, Rodrigo supposedly wrote “Drivers License” after breaking up with one of her castmates — an actor whose onscreen character had earlier inspired real-life Rodrigo to write a song for her character to sing (after writing it!) on the show.
Olivia Rodrigo’s swooning power ballad ‘Drivers License’ is the latest in a rich tradition of teenage melodrama in pop music, from the Shangri-Las to Taylor Swift.
Does all this make it sound as though “Sour,” which she made almost entirely with writer-producer Daniel Nigro, should come with a flow chart? You don’t need to know anything about Rodrigo’s life — OK, Rodrigo’s lives — to enjoy the record, which uses shapely melodies and crafty textures to deliver stories about the emotional trials of late teenhood. Rodrigo talks about how she’s “obsessed with emotions” — “I’m the most sensitive bitch in the whole world,” she told Interview magazine — and indeed the lovelorn desperation of a song like the pop-punk “Good 4 U,” about a guy “who will never have to hurt the way you know that I do,” is so vividly expressed that it feels almost euphoric.
Strip away the complex intertextual stuff Rodrigo learned to do by watching her avowed hero Taylor Swift, and “Sour” argues that even heartbreak is a welcome sensation after more than a year of soul-deadening Zoom life.
“Maybe in some masochistic way, I kind of find it all exciting,” she says of a boy’s mixed messages in “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” which takes enough inspiration from Swift’s song “New Year’s Day” — from its descending chord progression and its belief in romantic destiny — that the superstar is credited as a co-writer.
Yet fully appreciating Rodrigo’s skill requires paying close attention; she sings like an actor and writes like a screenwriter, which sets her apart in a post-Taylor pop scene that’s gotten quickly crowded with the whispery likes of Billie Eilish, Tate McRae and Gracie Abrams. In “Deja Vu” she punctuates a verse about an ex who recycles her old jokes to make his new flame laugh with a bitter chuckle that says everything about this dude; in “Traitor” she rhymes “little white lies” with “brown guilty eyes” so that you can see him just as clearly.
Stylistically, the songs move between crisp retro-’90s guitar rock — “Brutal” is a comically audacious Elastica rip — and tender acoustic balladry long on piano and fingerpicked guitar. (Nigro is great at using unexpected sounds, like the frayed synth tone in “Deja Vu,” to embody Rodrigo’s state of mind.)
Rancho Humilde Records, headquartered in Downey, has become a trailblazer in Latin music by giving traditional Mexican corridos a hip-hop makeover.
The referents are hipper than with previous Disney stars looking to break out of the Mouse House, and the language is coarser with F-bombs dropping every few tunes. There’s nothing offhand about these songs, though; each has been worked to a kind of exquisitely scuffed polish that suits the album’s hall-of-mirrors vibe.
Rodrigo ends “Sour” by turning her gaze outward in the hymn-ish “Hope Ur OK,” which tells of two childhood friends — one of whom she describes in a writerly flourish as “a towhead blond with eyes of salt” — who struggled with bigoted, unloving parents when they were young. She’s not sure where they ended up, she tells us, softly and breathily now, as though she’s looking back through the eyes of an old woman.
But of course, she’s not. “Nothing’s forever / Nothing’s as good as it seems,” she sings — another illusion inside and out.
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