Once in a while, a new song, album or star appears in the steady, reliable landscape of pop music and makes it feel like something new and exciting is happening; something that, in 20 years’ time, will be cited as a “cultural reset”. In recent times, examples of these pop tidal waves include Beyoncé’s “Formation”, Cardi B’s “WAP” and the arrival of 18-year-old Disney Channel star turned singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo, whose debut album Sour is released today.
Rodrigo’s debut single “Drivers License”, a soaring dream-pop ballad, was released in January 2021, and created an instant sensation. Within three days of its release it was streamed 21 million times and reached number one in the Spotify, Apple and Amazon Music charts. By the end of the month it had surpassed the previous record for number of weekly global streams by a female artist – previously held by Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” – with 130,060,000. Although she had, until today, only released three solo singles, she is already known fondly by fans as simply “Olivia”.
Rodrigo’s major influences are Lorde and Taylor Swift – and even with the word “major”, this is a drastic understatement. Both artists are viscerally, deliberately present – in fact, utterly unavoidable – in virtually all of her songs. Swift is there in half-spoken, rhythmic lines (“What the fuck/Is up/With that”) and catchy, semi-profound slogans over lilting waltzes (“Guess you didn’t cheat but you’re still a traitor”); Lorde in her expansive, harmonised vocals, touches of darkness, and even the slight “sh” sound Rodrigo makes when she pronounces the letter “s”.
And so, while the hype surrounding Sour certainly makes it feel like something new and exciting is happening, you have to ask: is it really? Rodrigo undoubtedly has a perfect pop star voice and a charismatic stage presence – why else would she have been cast in High School Musical: The Series? But she appears to be riding a wave of references to other “cultural resets” and past pop icons, which is a sure-fire way to win over a nostalgic internet crowd, a generation longing to be taken anywhere but here.
In her most recent video, “Good 4 U”, she ticks off multiple allusions, echoing scenes and costumes from 2000s classics such as The Princess Diaries and Jennifer’s Body as well as music videos by Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, and, yes, Taylor Swift, over uptempo pop thickly lacquered with teen angst. On the album there are further interjections of grunge and pop-punk, which, given the number of acoustic guitar heartbreak ballads, seem to deliberately evoke nostalgia for Avril Lavigne; there’s olfactory, aesthetic, “strawberry ice cream” romps through Lana Del Rey territory; and of course there’s a good helping of not just therapy-speak (“Maybe in some masochistic way I kind of find it all exciting”) but actual therapy (“I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped/Now you can be a better man for your brand new girl”), just in case we thought she didn’t have her finger on the pulse.
Some of the songs on Sour are undeniably magnetic, primarily the singles. “Drivers License” uses one repeated note on the piano throughout the verses, building to an emotional outburst: “I know we weren’t perfect but I’ve never felt this way for no one”. In “Deja Vu”, Rodrigo brings a satirical edge to her Lorde-esque vocal harmonies: after a line about her ex-boyfriend trying on her too-small jacket when they were still together, we hear sarcastic, staccato “ha ha ha”s . Those Avril Lavigne moments – opener “Brutal” and third single “Good 4 U” – are catchy scream-alongs that channel teen relationship woes more forcefully than the rest of the album. “Brutal” grinds to a halt with a gradual bending of tempo, Billie Eilish-style.
I have no doubt that even the duller, more repetitive ballads on Sour will be sung in teen bedrooms for years to come. Despite layered cultural references, the content never moves beyond the most surface-level of post-break-up observations (which may even be part of its appeal). But surely something so derivative can’t be a “reset” just because it’s enjoyable. This is the opposite of originality: a flattening of culture into consensus, universal reference points and commodified nostalgia.
It’s already been decided, though: this album will be a phenomenon, and Rodrigo held up as an icon. Maybe I’ll look back in a few years and feel differently.
[see also: Who is St Vincent?]