Opinion: Olivia Rodrigo’s New Album ‘SOUR’ Breaks Cultural Barriers In Music
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album SOUR has smashed records, topping the Billboard 200 Chart and producing two #1 singles including “Driver’s License”, which was the longest-running chart-topper for a debut single in Billboard history. Since the release of “Driver’s License”, Rodrigo has maintained at least one song in the top 20 of the Hot 100 Chart, going only two weeks without a track in the top 10. Upon its release, all 11 tracks on SOUR entered the Hot 100, with the lowest-charting song being ‘Hope Ur OK’ at #29.
Rodrigo’s commercial success has been massive. Her music career, set off by the release of “All I Want” in late 2019, has already made history in a multitude of ways. Undoubtedly, her craft has had a monumental impact on the music industry. Yet, equally important—if not more so—is Rodrigo’s impact on the cultural landscape at large.
Upon first glance, SOUR appears to be just another album about teenage heartbreak, with a tracklist that seems to model the stages of a breakup. This is not to invalidate such albums and the feelings they convey, but there is certainly no shortage of music on the topic. However, it takes just one listen to realize the innate uniqueness of SOUR, represented in the themes and motifs presented within the songs’ lyrics.
Female anger, jealousy, selfishness, and self-importance are often not touched upon in music—at least not in the mainstream, and definitely not at the prominence of an album like SOUR or any of its three singles. The absence of these topics in popular music is not an accident. The idea that such emotions, when expressed by women, make their possessors less attractive is still heavily prevalent in society and those emotions are often viewed with contempt from the male gaze.
SOUR is openly defiant of this standard, and Rodrigo’s manipulation of her music demonstrates a similar mindset. “Driver’s License” was hugely successful, but as a slow, depressing ballad about lost love, it covered a subject matter and musical form seen in thousands of other songs written by young women. Importantly, it was comfortable from a societal standard and was a well-done strategic move to release the song as Rodrigo’s debut single.
“Deja Vu”, Rodrigo’s second single, was also fairly comfortable but delved into the lesser-known territory of female self-importance. This concept is demonstrated in the assumedly semi-biographical lyrics like: “That was our place, I found it first / I made the jokes you tell to her,” and “[I] played you the songs she’s singing now when she’s with you.” These lyrics suggest that the singer’s influence on her former lover was so remarkable, that even in a new relationship the ex-boyfriend cannot help but repeat activities he had done with her.
Rodrigo’s most daring single is her latest, “Good 4 U”. It explores anger, delivered in biting remarks and passes such as “Remember when you swore to God I was the only / person who ever got you? / Well, screw that and screw you / You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do.” With each new single she releases, the lyrics are more openly explorative of increasingly “undesirable” feelings.
Some of the other non-single tracks on the album carry on this notion. “Happier” goes into selfishness, “Jealousy, Jealousy” into its namesake, and “Brutal” into general angst—all emotions for which women are criticized or attacked.
The music targeted toward teenage girls usually covers heartbreak or other romantic sadness, and again—these emotions are important and valid—but Rodrigo’s SOUR is a refreshing take on teenage life, especially for girls. The realistic and extremely human way in which she expresses herself breaks down some of the most prominent misogynistic hurdles in female musicality. Her commercial success demonstrates both the demand and the importance of such a breakdown.
Rodrigo may not be the first or only artist to defy casual misogyny so deliberately, but she certainly is one of the most popular. It should also be noted that she possesses a great deal of creative control over her music, considering her status both in the timeline of her career and her fame. She is credited as a writer on every track, and she owns her own mastery of music. As such, the amount of attention her music and the viewpoint of a 17-year-old girl attained is relatively uncommon. Rodrigo is therefore undoubtedly one of the biggest luminaries in the path to make female human feelings conventionally acceptable.