Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Sour’ Rewrites Pop’s Playbook — With Plenty Of Help From Her Heroes

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Whether you love Olivia Rodrigo or not, the impact of her debut album Sour on modern pop ethos will outlast anyone’s positive or negative feelings — including her own. The album is a smash, straight out of the gate, carried by the commercial success of 2021’s biggest single, “Drivers License,” and building more momentum with the top-ten placement of its second (and best) single, “Deja Vu,” and the fan-favorite, pop-punk-cribbing “Good 4 U.” Even after these three bangers, the other eight tracks on Sour are arguably even better, with all but three sticking to the rather one-note breakup storyline that the initial singles ushered in.

But after a year where the future of the music industry seemed uncertain due to the impact of the pandemic on live music, it’s sort of a relief that a brand new artist can still have this kind of universally-acclaimed debut. A dearth of new releases, festivals and shows didn’t weaken the industry at all, instead it seems to have driven fans’ devotion to new heights. Whether it’s teenagers on TikTok or millenials who have been prepared for a pop storyteller like Olivia by the preceding generation of stars like Taylor Swift and Lorde, Rodrigo’s ability to quickly ingest contemporary references and incorporate them into her own sound is a blueprint for how a new wave of pop stars could find success. Like hip-hop’s endless self-referential cycles, that kind of world-building — but in the pop realm — is exactly what makes Sour an instant classic.

Olivia’s introductory track, the slow-burning, torchy “Drivers License” doesn’t have a lot of company on her debut full-length, out this past Friday, and that’s also a good thing. The hit single became something of an anomaly for a pop song in the streaming era, doing hip-hop numbers and turning the sometimes-Disney star into a global sensation in what felt like an overnight push. The truth is, Tim Federle, creator and showrunner for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (yes, that’s really the show’s name) realized quite quickly that Rodrigo was a songwriting genius of her own when she began filing original music for the show, starting with her first-ever release, “All I Want.” Federle told Billboard that when he hit Olivia up for a song the script called for, it only took her three days to produce that initial track. “I sent Olivia this email, being like, ‘I think Nini needs a song, and I think you should be the person who tries to write it,’” he said. “And I remember three days later, Olivia was sort of sheepishly like, ‘I’ve got a little something, do you mind if I show you?’”

Since then, she’s put the sheepishness to bed, even if a handful of the best songs on the short 34-minute record do deal directly with insecurity, anxiety, and the monumental challenges plenty of Gen Z kids are facing. The strongest track on the whole album, “Jealousy, Jealousy,” speaks directly to the comparison-panic that constant surveillance on Instagram and other social media can breed, “Brutal” takes off the rose-colored glasses of youth and spills out highly-relatable pop-punk angst, and though it might the weakest, “Hope Ur OK” explores some of the more troubling backgrounds of kids from her past in a way that immediately evokes Conan Gray’s “The Story.” Gray is perhaps the only other Gen Z songwriter who is on par with Rodrigo, and though he hasn’t quite hit the record-breaking No. 1 single threshold that she has, his gigantic streaming numbers indicate a similarly-electrified fanbase. Both of these songwriters were born and raised on Taylor Swift, and it isn’t surprising that their reverence for her informs an intimate, soul-baring style that’s catapulted them both to the top.

The bulk of Sour follows a very well-tread path for an acolyte of Taylor Swift — barn-burning anthems about the men who will never get away from the sound of the women who love them. “Traitor” runs down all the ways betrayal can happen in a relationship that have nothing to do with physical behavior, while “Favorite Crime” accepts the culpability for willingly participating in a relationship that betrays the self. “Happier” is a song that’s quite depressing, already drawing more comparisons to Taylor’s own evermore track “Happiness,” and the heartbreaking “One Step Forward, Three Steps Back” interpolates the piano melody from “New Year’s Day,” to chronicle a rollercoaster relationship instead of a settled partnership.

In that same vein, “Good 4 U” is so close to Paramore’s cult hit “Misery Business” that fans have almost created a new economy around populating TikTok with mashups. Radiohead fans pointed out “Deja Vu” sounds like “No Surprises,” and some people think “Drivers License” sounds like Lorde’s first album. If you’re bothered by these sampling and mirroring techniques, then odds are Sour is not for you, but who can blame Gen Z for adopting the sampling and recontextualizing format the internet has made into a culture of its own? The very best thing that Sour does is illustrate Olivia’s understanding of the last two decades of pop music, and when you’re only eighteen, that’s an impressive feat. As her own cultural scope widens, and her relationship history expands, no doubt her sound will, too. Staying sour is an option, but with a debut like this, her next few years are looking sweet.

Sour is out now via Geffen. Get it here.