The 18-year-old’s wildly successful debut may show its influences very plainly, but its anxious, barbed emotions announce a new and singular talent
“Who is Olivia Rodrigo?” At the start of this year, that question would have resulted in a shrug from most people over the age of 20. But by the second week of January, after releasing the lovelorn power ballad Drivers License, she was pop’s shiniest new star. Not since Britney Spears shimmied her way down a hallway dressed in school uniform has a debut single had such an immediate cultural impact: within four days, the song broke Spotify’s record for the most single-day streams for a non-holiday song – days later, Rodrigo broke her own record – and it would spend nine consecutive weeks at No 1 on the UK charts.
Like Spears, Rodrigo also got her start with Disney, notably in the television spin-off of High School Musical. However, Rodrigo’s pathway to pop dominance wasn’t built on dance routines and Max Martin-penned bangers but with Sour, her intimate, barbed, anxious and brilliantly crafted debut album about the butchery of heartbreak and the emotional hurricane that is being a teenager. As she utters at the very beginning of its first song, Brutal: “I want it to be, like, messy.”
At just over 34 minutes, Sour is lithe but precise. The mess comes from its seething tumult of contradictory emotions: picture Rodrigo swooping in wearing a cheerleader outfit and Doc Martens while brandishing a baseball bat, her face still wet with tears. “If someone tells me one more time / ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry,” she grumbles over scuzzy power chords on Brutal before fear overtakes angst: “They say these are the golden years / But I wish I could disappear.”
The album is full of these dichotomies. “Oh, I hope you’re happy,” she croons on the lullaby-like Happy. “But not like you were with me / I’m selfish, I know, I can’t let you go.” On Drivers License, Rodrigo is a ball of dismissive envy as she lambasts “that blonde girl” her ex is now with, although, she admits: “she’s everything I’m insecure about”. And the twinkling Deja Vu dresses jealousy and childlike bitterness up in a bow: “So when you gonna tell her that we did that, too? / She thinks it’s special, but it’s all reused,” she jabs at an ex-lover before self-doubt begins to creep in. The new girl is “another actress / I hate to think that I was just your type … ”
Rodrigo makes no bones about her influences. Clearly a pupil of Taylor Swift, her lyrics are often hyper-specific (take Deja Vu’s imagery of “watching reruns of Glee” and “Strawberry ice cream in Malibu”, or Traitor’s “It took you two weeks to go off and date her / Guess you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor”) and, like Swift, she’s not afraid to show off the stains on her heart. “You got me fucked up in the head, boy / Never doubted myself so much,” she admits on 1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back, which interpolates Swift’s New Year’s Day.
This sometimes brazen reverence for her forebears landed Rodrigo in hot water: the gleefully obnoxious Good 4 U, delivered with a pop of bubble gum and an eye roll, sounds overwhelmingly like Paramore’s Misery Business, so much so that the pop-punk group got a retrospective writing credit. Swift, St Vincent and Jack Antonoff also got credits on Deja Vu for its clear references to their song Cruel Summer.
Some, including Hole’s Courtney Love, dubbed this plagiarism, although perhaps this speaks to a generational disconnect between the old guard and the new. Authenticity for Rodrigo isn’t necessarily about originality but how she can manipulate what already exists to fit the contours of her overflowing emotions. “Nothing in music is ever new,” she told Teen Vogue. “There’s four chords in every song. That’s the fun part: trying to make that your own.”
Anyway, isn’t the point of being a teenager to try on different guises, stitching together an identity by stealing parts of the people you admire to escape the embarrassment of simply existing? As she sings on the punchy Jealousy, Jealousy: “I’m so sick of myself / I’d rather be anyone else.” Unfortunately for Rodrigo, the success of Sour means a disappearing act is unlikely – that driver’s license could only get you so far. Instead, we’ll have to figure it all out together.