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REVIEW: Olivia Rodrigo injects Gen Z snark, genius into pop music with ‘Sour’

Olivia Rodrigo's 'Sour' is unabashedly Gen Z — and that's a good thing.

The chances of someone seeing the birth of a supernova with their naked eye within the next five decades, according to astronomers, is pegged at a measly 20 percent. With Olivia Rodrigo’s meteoric rise on the pop charts, however, I think it’s perfectly safe to say that we have already witnessed one.

Olivia, for the benefit of the uninitiated, first broke into the mainstream by playing the leads in the Disney Channel series Bizaardvark, and the ongoing Disney+ production High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. The California native, however, is best known for her debut single “drivers license,” a melancholic ballad about teenage heartbreak which, according to Billboard, smashed global streaming records almost overnight, effectively catapulting the 18-year-old multi-hyphenate into global superstardom.

Described by Slate as “the ultimate in Gen Z pop,” Olivia’s debut outing is a stirring and glittering track about every (American) teen’s traditional cultural milestone: getting a driver’s license and going on that first drive.

Instead of narrating a celebratory trip to her beau’s house, however, the track — sung in Olivia’s trademark whispery vocals and steeped in tender longing and self-doubt — instead bares the singer’s thoughts as she attempts to make sense of a relationship’s crushing, unfortunate end.

Produced by Daniel Nigro, who previously handled songs for indie-pop darlings Carly Rae Jepsen, Kimbra, and Sky Ferreira, the atmospheric track cleverly makes use of several sonic elements, including a revving car engine, syncopated handclaps, pulsing melodies, stomping beats, and a haunting wall of layered vocals to illustrate the singer’s emotional turmoil.

Olivia followed this with the equally-cathartic “deja vu,” a rock-tinged track in which she sings about an ex-beau’s apparent habit of introducing girls to the same things he and Olivia used to do — only this time, she’s trading in the melancholia for some good, old-fashioned teenage snark.

“So when you gonna tell her that we did that, too? / She thinks it’s special, but it’s all reused…That was our place, I found it first / I made the jokes you tell to her when she’s with you,” Olivia sings over a swelling score, her sweet voice now tinged with venom.

Produced once again by Nigro, “deja vu” takes elements from classic psychedelia and alternative rock, and uses them to embellish layers upon layers of twinkling percussions, ice cream jingle melodies, and heavy electronic rhythms on a track that’s already dripping with honesty and emotion.

Olivia’s use of rock elements carries over in her third single, the explosive “good 4 u.” 

Reminiscent of the pop-rock hits of the early to mid-aughts, “good 4 u” starts out with a throbbing bassline which then fades out to give way to an energetic guitar and drums-driven chorus. Sonically similar to the classic Paramore song “Misery Business,” the punchy track sees Olivia speak-singing about an errant ex-fling, her palpable anger complemented by lilting drum beats and hypnotizing vocal harmonies.

Olivia’s skill at wielding her emotions — as well as her wide range of musical influences — is especially pronounced in Sour, her debut album under Geffen Records.

Released on May 21, the album is an exploration of predominantly teenage emotions: anger, jealousy and sadness. And while that may seem too trite of a concept to build an entire LP on, Olivia tackles it from a surprisingly self-aware and breathtakingly honest perspective.

Take, for instance, “traitor,” which swaps out punk rock for some devastating electronic balladry, with Olivia singing about an ex-lover’s betrayal over a gorgeous synth and guitar-heavy backing instrumental. Or the somber and folksy “enough for you,” the album’s seventh track, which details the all-too familiar and all-too relatable folly of putting in too much effort for someone who just doesn’t appreciate them.

Sour, as an album, largely succeeds because of the sheer honesty present in its songs. In fact, most of the tracks are so well-written, that it actually feels intimate — voyeuristic, even — to listen to Olivia as she sings about this emotionally charged part of her teenage life.

A good example of this is “favorite crime,” a track in which she implies that while the erring ex-lover is still the one who did the hurting in the relationship, she takes accountability for the times when  she let herself be treated badly all in the name of what she thought was love.

Another album highlight is the ballad “1 step forward, 3 steps back.”

Nestled between “drivers license” and “deja vu,” and interpolating the melodies of Taylor Swift’s “New Year’s Day,” the song sees Olivia singing about an emotionally abusive partner — “You got me fucked up in the head, boy / Never doubted myself so much / Like, am I pretty? Am I fun, boy? / I hate that I give you power over that kinda stuff” — a ballsy move, considering the demographic most of her fans are in.

The same can be said for “happier,” in which an extremely self-aware Olivia sings about wanting the best for a past lover while at the same time, wanting to remain an indelible presence in their life.

“I hope you’re happy / But not like how you were with me / I’m selfish, I know, I can’t let you go ‘ So find someone great, but don’t find no one better,” Olivia croons over a haunting and sparse piano-driven melody.

For all of the juicy bits teased by the album’s melodrama, however, Sour shines best when it shifts its focus to things other than The Ex Lover.

The opening track, “brutal,” for instance, sees Olivia singing lyrics on teenage problems and generational trauma over crackling, wiry, guitar-driven instrumentals not unlike those of, say, Hole, Garbage, Elastica, and Jagged Little Pill-era Alanis Morissette.

“Cause who am I if not exploited? / And I’m so sick of seventeen / Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” she sneers on the punk-rock track before delivering its zinger of a hook: “it’s brutal out here.”

Sour is peppered with similar rock moments, such as the dark, bass-heavy “jealousy, jealousy,” whose lyrics are a biting commentary on the many impossible beauty and social standards imposed on young people by social media, and “hope ur ok,” a sparkly pop-rock gem reminiscent of Suzanne Vega’s “Luka” and Hey Monday’s “Candles,” which talks about child abuse, homophobia, acceptance, and optimism. 

For all its imperfections — the album could have been better with more rock tracks than ballads, in my opinion — Sour effectively captures the electric and chaotic emotions of teenage life, with Olivia distilling almost all of its entirety into 34 minutes and 46 seconds of sonic goodness, making it a strong first outing any artist could ever hope to have.

I can’t wait for what’s to come.

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