Pop

On ‘Sour,’ Olivia Rodrigo’s Songwriting Dispels The Myth Of The Artificial Pop Star

For decades now, a certain myth has persisted about pop stars: namely, that they’re fake — vacant vessels to be filled by (male) producers, young women without ideas of their own, and therefore not real artists. Putting aside the fact that even the best and most beloved musicians frequently work with teams of songwriters and producers while maintaining artistic integrity, Beyonce comes to mind, the sexist narrative that pop stars, in particular, are not real artists is part of the age-old rockism dynamic. Quick refresher for the uninitiated, that school of thought repeatedly asserts that rock is real, true, gritty music that’s deeply felt, and pop is music that’s only created in service of capitalism and earning money, purely for commercial gain and with no authentic feeling behind it. Any ideas as to who helped perpetuate that dichotomy for years? Regardless, that fallacy is being put to bed for good, and one of the main forces beating it into submission in 2021 is Olivia Rodrigo.

Rodrigo’s Sour would’ve been a pop hit in any era, and though her emergence is unlike any pop star we’ve ever seen, there’s something familiar about her, too. That’s because great songwriting — vulnerable, self-on-the-page, committed songwriting — is always familiar. Great songwriting feels like home. And for so many listeners, from Gen Z humming and dancing along on TikTok, to elder millennials reminded of their own early aughts favorites (Avril Lavigne, anyone?), Olivia’s words rang true. Sour is a record about the anger, sadness, regret, and despair that can accompany losing a relationship — plenty of writers, including me, have mined that rich territory for all its worth — but Rodrigo takes it a step further by constantly interrogating how she was complicit in the process of losing herself.

“One heart broke / four hands bloody,” she sings on the folksy late-album sleeper “Favorite Crime,” continuing “the things I did / just so I could call you mine.” On a similar note, “Enough For You” describes obliterating herself to please someone else, singing “stupid, emotional, obsessive little me / I knew from the start this is exactly how you’d leave.” Even among the great breakup songwriters, like Olivia’s obvious predecessor and hero, Taylor Swift, or even the almighty Adele, this kind of self-awareness usually comes two or three albums in. Perhaps that’s part of why Olivia is landing so high on year-end lists: another aspect of what makes her a critic’s darling is that in some ways, she’s ahead of her time. Even as she pulls from influences like Paramore, Jack Antonoff, St. Vincent, Courtney Love (at least aesthetically), and more, her deeply personal songwriting is imbued with a self-awareness that’s hard to come by.

And that self-awareness is also why it’s so clear Olivia is in control of her own process. It’s exactly the kind of element that only someone who lived through what they’re writing about would include, it would be impossible to replicate in a studio session with an indifferent professional who tosses off songs for other artists as a day job. Sour is full of all kinds of songwriting twists and turns that make it impossible to ignore, simply because the lyrics are so complex, the emotions are so layered, the story is not one-sided. “Maybe you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor,” is the kind of emotion that young women who are made to feel dispensable and interchangeable have been trying to put into words for years — it’s Olivia who succeeded. Even the first thing she says on tape, the ad-libbed studio commentary “I want it to be like messy!” establishes early on: this album is by and for and defined by Olivia. No sleek, put-together, externally curated project will do. And all the best parts of Sour are the messy parts.

“I’m not cool, I’m not smart / and I can’t even parallel park” brings the listener from the overarching, abject voices of self-deprecation and zooms all the way in on a tiny particular, moving in exactly the same way all of our own inner critics move. Rodrigo doesn’t ditch these embarrassing, shaming voices, but leans into them, puts them on the page so the full picture is clear: “And maybe in some masochistic way / I kind of find it all exciting,” she sings on “1 Step Forward 3 Steps Back,” referencing a relationship where she’s clearly not valued or cherished as a partner or an equal. Acknowledging her addiction to the chaos of unrequited love in the song, along with the pathos the treatment induces, is again, an advanced move, both on the level of emotional awareness and a songwriting level. So many of her little vulnerabilities like this one make Sour feel more like a conversation with a friend than an epic opera blasted from on high. And after a year of disconnect and distrust in higher powers and the celebrity class, Olivia’s songs possessed the tenderness to stay on the listeners level, rolling in the mud with the dark feelings and the self-sabotage.

Which is, perhaps, what makes the album closer so important. “Hope Ur Ok” is one of the few tracks here not focused on the bruised egos and jealousy that a fractured romantic relationship can easily induce. Instead, it’s a song about the people who were going through situations that were, arguably, much more challenging than the dissolution of young love. Singing of friends and acquaintances dealing with abuse, isolation, closeting, and familial rejection, Rodrigo sends a message of hope and support to her peers. It’s the final move of self-awareness on an album packed with personal pain; her concluding concession that there are things so much bigger than her wounded heart. And with that final component, Olivia cements herself as both a fantastic songwriter, a legitimate artist, and a stellar pop star who needs absolutely no help asserting her voice. Her work is so dynamic it uplifts her entire genre, and helps defeat age-old stereotypes for good.

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