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Olivia Rodrigo: Sour

Olivia Rodrigo’s appeal isn’t just because she’s the Queen of the Teens (dob: 2/20/2003), but because she’s one of the rare pop stars to stand out as a writer before anything else. “Drivers License,” missing possessive and all, hit big because of how vivid it was: not just the apocalyptic peals of teenage emotion it evoked, but how the vastness of the suburbs the singer drives through reflects how lost she feels inside her own head. Rodrigo is not shy about being influenced by Lorde and Taylor Swift, two other stars whose pen is their biggest asset. But while Lorde always seems to be trying to win poetry contests that don’t exist, Rodrigo is disarmingly blunt. And while with Swift there’s always the sense of a wiser and more skeptical writer putting words in a more naïve protagonist’s mouth, Rodrigo seems to take her feelings at face value—almost. There’s the slightest glimmer of self-awareness, the elusive but pervasive sense that when her voice cracks as she belts “I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone,” she’s allowing it to happen out of revenge, that she’s letting the tears flow just to twist the knife. She could sing with a little more restraint, she could let her rational brain take charge, but then the poor guy who broke her heart wouldn’t hurt so much. No wonder she’s got the number one song in America.

Her first album Sour opens with a bit of a red herring. “Brutal” rattles off every complaint an 18-year-old in America is likely to have about the world, the job market and themselves. Its genuinely messy, guitar-drenched sound, more like the Kills or Jack White than the emo her co-writer/producer Daniel Nigro used to make with As Tall As Lions, prepares us for a belligerent hard rock crossover in the vein of Poppy’s I Disagree. But the subsequent songs are nearly all ballads, melodramatic in the ‘50s way rather than the ‘90s way, and as we get deeper into the album we realize she’s just getting all her other complaints out of the way on “Brutal” so she can focus on her breakup.

There’s apparently a real-life story involved, and Rodrigo is big on specifics, especially how quickly her ex moved on and how he does all the same things with the new girl that he used to do with Rodrigo. But sordid tabloid details are less important than the sadistic, wicked, resolutely teenage way she writes about her devastation. She wants to hurt the man who betrayed her; “You never cheated but you’re still a traitor,” goes one of the album’s most Swiftian choruses. But the irony older listeners will spot before younger listeners is that she’s making things no better for herself by wallowing. Sour is a rare thing in the post-‘90s, post-Whedon, post-“Mystery Science Theatre” world of snark-in-lieu-of-intelligence: an album that’s just self-aware enough.

Rodrigo’s songwriting is so pointed, especially for an 18-year-old making her first full-length, that her occasional lapses in judgment are forgivable. “Good 4 U” has a chorus so deliciously passive-aggressive it’s no wonder that so many 20-somethings have found themselves wishing they had Rodrigo as their suit of armor in high school. But its structure sounds like pop-punk trying to figure itself out again after its long chart absence. The drum fills lead nowhere rather than to a climax, and its ending is just a few seconds belated. And wouldn’t it have been better if the “Brutal” line “only have a couple friends” had ended with “and lately I hate both of them” instead of the comparatively clichéd and grammatically awkward “and lately I’m a nervous wreck?” Or if the chorus of “Happier” didn’t emphasize the “pee” syllable of that word? Or if she speculated on the life of a long-lost friend with a little more specificity than “hope he took his bad deal and made a royal flush?” Whether she works out these kinks or not will determine whether she’ll be in Swift’s league by her second album. But Sour already has a few points on Swift’s self-titled, so she’s off to a good start. Maybe she should be a little more… fearless.

Summary
Sordid tabloid details are less important than the sadistic, wicked, resolutely teenage way she writes about her devastation.
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QUEEN OF THE TEENS

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