Pop’s Buzziest New Songwriter Knows Exactly What to Say

Olivia Rodrigo’s sharp debut album, Sour, confirms that metaphor and ambiguity are so last generation.

Cover of Olivia Rodrigo's album, Sour
Geffen Records

Great breakups aren’t just painful; they’re surreal—a space-time fissure, a smack from God, a bulletin that you’re not the world’s protagonist. Someone who was always there just vanishes. A future crumbles into a past. This is heavy stuff at any age but especially when you’re dealing with it for the first time, which means that some of the most mystic meditations on breakups have come from teen singers. “God only knows what I’d be without you,” the Beach Boys’ Carl Wilson sang, pining with curiosity, at age 19. “As real as it may seem, it was only in my dreams,” went the amazed 1987 chorus by the 16-year-old sensation Debbie Gibson.

In January 2021, “Drivers License,” by the then-17-year-old Disney actor Olivia Rodrigo, became a new landmark of young bewilderment. With creaking piano and ghostly hand claps, she and her producer, Dan Nigro, created the sensation of a séance unfolding in a teenager’s newly acquired sedan. Rodrigo sang of the plans she’d once made with a guy crashing into the reality that he’d moved on to another girl. Though her emotions were plain in her tearful delivery, the sonic swirl of the bridge hinted at something more complex than sadness. She saw her ex’s face in “Red lights, stop signs,” but a gush of echoes and harmonies suggested stranger visions—visions no artist can put a name to.

This odd, funereal song broke streaming records and spent eight weeks as No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, signaling the arrival of either a new powerhouse entertainer or a one-hit wonder. To anyone paying attention to Rodrigo, the safe bet has been on her longevity. In interviews, performances, and on social media, she radiates poise and approachability: attributes of a successful child actor, but also of the newer kind of teen idol, the TikTok influencer. She is good at singing and even better at vocal performing—at stringing together pouts, whispers, yelps, and chitchat to keep every syllable exciting. She has absorbed the techniques of Taylor Swift on a number of levels (cadence, lyrics, image management), but she also projects so much personality in her music that it would be silly to call her a copy.

The title of her debut album, Sour, cuts against the sentimental teen-pop lineage of the Beach Boys, Gibson, or early Swift. Rodrigo is not gunning to be America’s Sweetheart—though one imagines that the way to achieve that title in 2021 is exactly by rejecting it. Whether the example is the haunted aesthetic of Billie Eilish or the meme-baiting taunts of Doja Cat, recent breakout musicians use their vitality to perform jadedness. Their disaffection can end up being weirdly digestible, though. Across the lightly adventurous music of Sour, Rodrigo embodies a trend of treating songwriting as an act of explanation rather than exploration.

The fantastic opener, “Brutal,” for example, explains that she’s not just a sad ballad singer. Some of Rodrigo’s songs recall Radio Disney rock, but here the guitar riff is scary in the manner of Clinton-era Nine Inch Nails. That riff becomes acoustic strums in the verses so that Rodrigo can charge up energy like an anime superhero between bouts in a battle. In a shouted rap, Rodrigo delivers as concise and relatable a rant about the adolescent condition as anyone will ever record. It’s made only more delicious by the fact that the person complaining “I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream?” might be the luckiest kid alive right now. Rather than continue to escalate, the track winds down in less than two minutes and 30 seconds.

From there, the album dives back into the “Drivers License” mode of patient, well-crafted, post-breakup memoir—though mostly without the transcendence provided by that smash’s bridge. “Traitor” uses the fashionable technique of building an eerie soundscape out of vocal ahhhs, and Rodrigo lays out her case against her ex: Two weeks after they broke up, he started dating the girl he’d told her not to worry about. “Guess you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor,” she sings—a good line that’s almost lawyerly in its delineation between the letter and the spirit of the rules of relationships. The breakup she’s talking about in this and most of the album’s tracks appears to be the same famous one that reportedly inspired “Drivers License.” She’s belaboring a personal episode in a way that’s valid and understandable, but that also yields diminishing returns for the listener.

Rodrigo’s analytical, tell-while-showing songwriting is both effective and off-putting: Her musings have the personable crispness of a good college-admissions essay. Take “Deja Vu,” her catchy but grating second single. She and Nigro use twinkling bells, hazy guitar, and topsy-turvy melodies to create a sense of time slipping. Rodrigo describes date-night gimmicks that her ex is probably repeating with his new girl—strawberry ice cream, Billy Joel sing-alongs, the precise timing of “I love you” declarations. The result is a clever feat of songcraft, but it’s missing a note of complication or ambivalence. You feel as if Rodrigo is trying to pin down every concrete detail to keep from having to tackle sensations that are harder to talk about.

“When I was making music in my early 20s, what was in vogue was to be more metaphoric or suggestive,” Rodrigo’s go-to producer, Nigro, told The Guardian’s Laura Snapes earlier this year. “Nowadays, you have to be as literal and specific as possible.” For a new generation of balladeers, this literalism also comes with an emphasis on psychoanalytical problem-solving. The TikTok-famous Norwegian singer Girl in Red chalks up the complexities of human sadness to variations in serotonin; the young U.K. folkie Rex Orange County quantifies his emotional state on a one-to-10 scale. As with Rodrigo, the music of these artists has a distinct ’90s whiff, calling back to Fiona Apple, Radiohead, or Alanis Morissette. That era’s thirst for poetic ambiguity or existential woo-woo is gone, though. It’s good that recent songwriter pop aims to be comforting and therapeutic. But it can also come off as simple and, in something of a paradox, reserved: honesty that doesn’t reveal much.

Rodrigo’s talents clearly include self-awareness, which means that greater complexity may come with time. For now, she ends up with a sassy, charming, but oddly intellectualized variety of confession. With a sense of slacker-rock resignation, “Jealousy, Jealousy” diagnoses the generational sicknesses caused by social media: “Comparison is killin’ me slowly / I think I think too much ’bout kids who don’t know me.” She understands that life is messier than what the conspicuous consumption and pasted-on smiles of TikTok suggest. Yet I wonder whether her music will create a similar variety of envy in some listeners—the sense that Rodrigo has it all figured out, including the way to sing about not having it all figured out.