Favorites: Brutal, 1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back, Deja Vu, Jealousy, Jealousy
Overall: Quintessential pop-rock that offers two inadvertent lessons about life stages and younger artists
I remember reading a review dismissing Destiny’s Child’s The Writing’s on the Wall (1999) for being 'teenagerish.' The members of the group were around 18 at the time. Critics applied similar adjectives to Taylor Swift’s early work, who was also a minor when her career started. One of the consistent hypocrisies of the music industry and its realm is regularly shelling out and fixating on adolescent talent, but then lambasting them for speaking from their point of view. Should the artists try to appear or sound more mature, they’ll be accused of being obnoxious, contrived, or inappropriate (this is especially true for girls and young women). Ageist perspectives would swear that these kinds of acts don’t bring much to the table. Moreover, the idealism and sensitivity they tend to have is often perceived as a melodramatic liability. In actuality, it can be an asset.
Young singer-songwriters frequently express themselves in an intensely visceral way that seasoned artists are sometimes too calculated to still possess. The best and brightest capture the emotional climate of their station with trenchant poignancy, relatability, and endearing tenderness. Freshly 18, Disney affiliate Olivia Rodrigo joins this fold with her debut, Sour.
There’s no shame in Rodrigo’s angst game, as she comes out swinging with the guitar slamming “Brutal.” It’s not even a full three minutes, but it aptly summarizes the common plagues of adolescence (and the early 20’s, haha). She sings of how anxiety, insecurity, stifling expectations, and not being accepted have robbed her of what’s typically deemed 'the golden years.' This is a central theme on the album, second to inaugural heartbreak that’s exacerbated by infidelity suspicions. With co-writers Daniel Nigro, Annie Clark, and Casey Smith, Rodrigo notes how romantic loss often comes with conflicting feelings. For instance, hits “Driver’s License” and “Good 4 U” communicate that abandonment triggers both sadness and fury. The latter sparks pleasant memories of Alanis Morisette’s ‘woman scorned’ anthem, “U Oughta Know,” haha. Across “Enough for You” and “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” she reckons with the unhealthy amount of self sacrifice and compromise she endured in her relationship. She sings of shape-shifting around the ever-changing moods and needs of her gaslighting lover, who never saw her as fit. Despite acknowledging the mistreatment, she still hopes she achieved a level of fondness and favor in her ex’s eyes (ex. “Happier”). To a degree, she canonizes the affair (ex. “Favorite Crime).
Earlier on the album with “Deja Vu,” she diminishes facets of the dynamic that were supposedly special. She suggests they were just wooing tactics her former beau would take to any woman. Sidebar: I enjoy songs that address the rebarbative human tendency to ‘copy and paste’ with relationships. Folks will post like crazy about 'the love of their life' on social media as if they didn’t do that months ago with another person, but I majorly digress, haha. Rodrigo closing her saga with cuts like “Happier” and “Favorite Crime,” infer a regression in mindset. Perhaps this is commentary on the hold of manipulative mates, or the mental seesaw in the aftermath of a split.
“Hope Ur Ok” is the only number to separate from Sour’s narratives, being about old [presumably LGBT] friends who she wishes is surviving and thriving in the face of bigotry.
Rodrigo’s sung delivery isn't loaded with peak and valleys either, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting. While she mostly remains in the middle of her range, she finds ways to put her shades on display and give a thoughtful performance. Wispiness and contrasting richness are strategically placed to contribute to Sour’s aforementioned stylistic hybrid. Her whines and angry projections are controlled and smooth. This hints formal technique is being used, and the listed approaches aren’t recklessly there for an artificial ‘rock feel.’ Her buttery runs and harmonies are subtle, but they satiate the space enough to make a difference. Rodrigo’s vocals are mapped and selective, but it’s not an obstruction to her passion. In all, she leaves the impression that there might be more to her voice than what’s heard on the record.
Rodrigo proves that young artists do in fact have something to offer. It’s obvious Sour is her rhythmic journal. However, there are implications for listeners. Adolescence never really ends. She croons about feeling inadequate against unwritten social standards for success. Her ex engaged in psychological warfare before dumping her for someone else, which only fed her complexes. She’s short on authentic and fulfilling connections, and fears rejection. Overwhelmed by what’s going on in her head, it’s hard for her to see anything positive about where she is. Finding the silver lining might only be possible with hindsight…Might. Not only does all this persist in adulthood, it heightens in severity and becomes more intricate. For many, that’s a direct result of events that occurred in childhood or the teen years. Perhaps we’re not as removed from or above it all as we think. Maybe the generational battles wouldn’t be as heated if we stopped turning our noses up at each other, but that’s another conversation. Olivia Rodrigo brought Sour Skittles as an appetizer to the dinner table, and I’m fine with it. Except the red ones; take those out. I don’t like those.