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Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Sour’ is a Delightful Look at Gen Z Pop

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Whether you know her for her role as Nina Salazar-Roberts on the Disney+ hit series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” or from her outstanding performance on “Saturday Night Live,” 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo is a force to be reckoned with. The singer’s 11-track debut album, “SOUR,” redefines what it means to be an angsty teen in an emotional, yet bitter way. From all the buzz and spotlight received on TikTok in January with the release of her hit single “drivers license” to the shockingly pop-punk sound of “good 4 u,” the singer has introduced the world to a new era of cathartic teenage heartbreak. 

Photo provided by Olivia Rodrigo @oliviarodrigo/Instagram

The album opens with “brutal,” a glooming prelude proving that there’s more to Rodrigo than the melodramatic, sad girl tune of “drivers license.” The song begins with a soft, angelic violin sound, which features words from the singer: “I want it to be, like, messy!” Almost immediately, the song turns, well, brutal. The innocent intro melody is replaced with a raging guitar tune and exemplifies Rodrigo’s alternative rock sounding voice, drastically similar to The Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb” or Paramore’s lead-vocalist Hayley Williams. In the first verse she sings, “And I’m so tired that I might / Quit my job, start a new life / And they’d all be so disappointed / ‘Cause who am I if not exploited?” It’s well known by now that the music industry is commonly associated with exploiting new up-and-coming artists. The corruption of young men and women within the entertainment industry has been a common theme in music, which Rodrigo openly states and relates to. Being a Disney Channel star at the age of 12 with her role as Paige Olvera on “Bizaardvark” and growing up with the constant judgment and authority that comes with fame has made her feel misused and taken advantage of. The innocence and sweetness that come with blossoming into a young woman were stolen from her — forcing her to act a certain way to avoid ruining her image. “brutal” serves as a “f**k you” to the industry that wears her down, yet also indicates her vulnerability by closing with delicacy under the wistful violin sound in the beginning. 

The final track on her album, “hope ur ok,” exemplifies her love for individuality through a ballad. She sings “His parents cared more about the Bible / Than being good to their own child” and “Her parents hated who she loved,” following these verses with “Does she know how proud I am she was created?” and “But, God, I hope that you’re happier today / ‘Cause I love you.” It is evident Rodrigo is an ally to the LGBTQ+ community. This intimate track reveals her humility and her awareness of situations that define one’s entire existence. Over a twinkling tune, Rodrigo sings about those who feel isolated — from being queer in a conservative household to being a victim of child abuse — and uses her music to empower and uplift marginalized members of society. 

“SOUR” currently holds the #1 position on the iTunes album sales chart in the United States. It serves as a delightful introduction to the savagery and honesty within Gen Z, potentially generating a new wave of music curated by and for Gen Z’ers. Rodrigo’s lyrics are both beautiful and elegantly fabricated to create a safe, loving and accepting space for all. 

Photo provided by Olivia Rodrigo @oliviarodrigo/Instagram

Whereas “brutal,” “good 4 u” and “jealousy, jealousy” indicate the artist is venturing towards the genre of alternative rock or pop-punk, the remaining eight post-breakup tracks seem to have been modeled after the artistic pop-country singer-songwriter Taylor Swift. Rodrigo has been a super fan, or Swiftie, for almost her entire life, and the outspoken nature of her songs and the femininity behind her lyrics were inspired by Swift. “Cruel Summer” from Swift’s “Lover” album was Rodrigo’s sole inspiration for writing “deja vu.” The fiery bedroom scene and Rodrigo’s demeanor in the “good 4 u” music video could be a direct reference towards Swift’s 2008 “Picture to Burn” video. Fans were even quick to note that the album’s track “1 step forward, 3 steps back” held a significant Swift reference — one and three make up the pop-country singer’s lucky number 13. Despite rumors that Rodrigo and Swift co-wrote the song as the country singer has a writing credit, “Rolling Stone” confirmed that the song uses an interpolation of “New Years Day” from Swift’s 2017 album “Reputation.” 

The deliverance of Rodrigo’s debut album switches the focus from her as a Disney star to a singer-songwriter. This slightly chaotic collection of tunes filled with heartache, love, acceptance and anger is just the beginning for her already growing stardom. In essence, “SOUR” blends the sounds of Paramore and Swift, allowing listeners to live vicariously through the singer’s teenage years, fostering scenarios that all individuals can connect and feel powerful to. The album succeeds all expectations, shocking fans with not only her range, but how well she combines pop and rock with her powerful messaging.  

McKenzie Boney is an Entertainment Intern for the spring 2021 quarter. She can be reached at mboney@uci.edu.