‘Sour’ by Olivia Rodrigo – a Gen Z perspective on heartbreak

Sour Olivia Rodrigo
Source: brett jordan (via Flickr)

By Jessica Clifford-Jones | Review Editor

This year Olivia Rodrigo, Disney star and now singer-songwriter, took the world by storm. Her debut single, the power ballad ‘Drivers License’, was released early in the year and topped the charts upon release.

Despite the strong start, many believed Olivia Rodrigo to be a one-hit wonder and credited her single’s success to the drama it was about, namely her relationship and break-up with her High School Musical co-star Joshua Bassett.

However, Rodrigo swiftly proved them wrong. Her follow-up singles ‘Deja Vu’ and ‘Good 4 U’ also broke into the top 10 and achieved critical acclaim, making Rodrigo the first artist to debut their first three singles in the top 10 of the Hot 100 chart. Her album ‘Sour’ was released not long after to the great anticipation of many and it did not disappoint.

‘Sour’ is a primarily alt-pop album but it draws inspiration from a variety of genres, from pop-punk and alt-rock to ballads and folk. It’s a Gen Z perspective on the messy emotions of adolescence and all that comes with it, and Rodrigo’s incredible lyricism and emotive vocals lend itself perfectly to it.

The album’s title, ‘Sour’, refers to the ‘sour’ feelings that teenagers, teen girls in particular, commonly experience but are criticised and mocked for. In an interview Rodrigo explains, “… this record talks about emotions that are hard to talk about or aren’t really socially acceptable especially for girls: anger, jealousy, spite, sadness, they’re frowned-upon as bitchy and moaning and complaining or whatever. But I think they’re such valid emotions.” Rodrigo takes inspiration from female artists known for singing about those messy emotions, such as Alanis Morrissette, Taylor Swift, and Lorde, but she brings her own unique twist.

Rodrigo does an excellent job at alternating between slower indie-inspired ballads, upbeat pop songs, and angsty punk tracks (something that’s well reflected in her choice of singles), something Rodrigo set out to do, saying, ‘I want [Sour] to be super versatile. My dream is to have it be an intersection between mainstream pop, folk music, and alternative pop.’

The album opens with ‘Brutal’, an angry insecure banger that incorporates pop-punk and alt-rock; it’s simultaneously playfully tongue-in-cheek and sharply sincere, a balance that Rodrigo is a pro at. She is self-aware but still authentic and raw, alternating between light-hearted and poignant. The chorus ends on a biting, Valley Girl drawl singing, “God, it’s brutal out here”, a line that you can almost hear the eye-roll and scowl in.

Rodrigo does angsty and alternative well, inspired by 90s rock and punk acts, her cutting lyrics and emotive vocals working perfectly with the genre. The songs like this are some of my favourites on the album. ‘Jealousy, Jealousy’ is an upbeat and funky alt-rock track about social media and how it feeds into insecurity; ‘Good 4 U’ is a wrathful storm of bass and drums that brings back memories of early 2000s emo and grunge (unsurprising given the song takes inspiration from Paramore’s hit ‘Misery Business’).

Rodrigo emulates sad indie girl just as well as she does angsty emo punk, as she displayed in her first single ‘Drivers License’, which is a power ballad about heartbreak and longing. It uses the sound effects of a car’s ‘door ajar’ chime ingeniously as a fading transition into the song’s piano key and it’s crescendo followed by Rodrigo’s impressive belt is breath-taking. The other songs that follow the indie pop and ballad themes are similarly gorgeous, such as the folky ‘Favorite Crime’ and the slow acoustic song ‘Traitor’ that culminates into a vocally stunning bridge.

However, my main criticism is that the slower indie-inspired songs verge towards dominating the album, the genre balance leaning more in their favour. Some have criticised them for being too similar and while I don’t think that’s necessarily true, I do think that so many of them so close together does render them dull (though naturally this is a matter of taste).

The only song on the album that I’m not a fan of is the closing track ‘Hope Ur OK’, which reminisces about old friends who are struggling and wishing them well. While a sweet song, it borders on saccharine and cheesy, and also feels very out of place on the album. The rest of ‘Sour’ is unapologetically about Rodrigo’s teenage angst and obsessive heartbreak over her recent breakup and that refusal to be ashamed of her intense emotions is refreshing to see, especially from a teen girl. ‘Hope Ur OK’ is a deviation from that theme that feels almost like a cop-out.

However, ‘Sour’ overall is a phenomenal album and an extraordinary debut from a young artist; her musical versatility, evocative lyricism, and unashamed raw emotion is a wonder to behold. I’m waiting in excited anticipation to see what Olivia Rodrigo does next. 

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