Olivia Rodrigo, longtime Disney star recently reborn as pop’s newest heavy-hitter, has been singing her whole life. As a child, she gave soulful performances in talent competitions before landing her first large role in the Disney show “Bizaardvark” at 12. Currently, she plays the starring role in Disney’s “High School Musical: The Musical — The Series.” But at heart, Rodrigo, now 18, has always identified as a songwriter in the vein of artists like Taylor Swift, whom she has looked up to and has herself been a voice of teen understanding. In Rodrigo’s debut album “Sour,” out Friday, Rodrigo quickly sets herself up to be that voice for Gen Z: raw, messy and authentic.
Rodrigo is still a new artist finding her voice, so some songs feel like the start of a great idea that hasn’t fully finished.
As other Gen Z artists have stated, their generation is delivering more rawness than their predecessors. Rodrigo, a self-proclaimed oversharer and the child of a therapist and teacher, weaponizes that emotionally open generational rawness especially well. Rodrigo understands the demand for authenticity from her generation.
In an interview with Elle in April, Rodrigo stated she’s always believed music is supposed “to move you.” So it’s no surprise then that when she released her debut single in January this year — the teary, mournful breakup ballad “Driver’s License” — she introduced herself to the world by breaking listener’s hearts and announcing herself as an earnest, emotive artist.
What was surprising, however, is how quickly she proceeded to smash several records. “Driver’s License” was a global hit. It debuted at the top of the Billboard 100 charts, where it stayed for several weeks. It broke the record for most Spotify streams in one week. Spotify’s Global Hits director Becky Bass said they’d “never seen anything like this.”
She also blew up the Twitter-sphere, receiving nods of recognition from Cardi B, Halsey and Swift herself. The popularity of “Driver’s License” even inspired this ‘SNL’ skit, and she later performed on the show herself, as well as on Jimmy Fallon and on the Brit Awards. With all that success, “Sour,” and Rodrigo, had a lot to live up to — and both managed to do it.
“Sour” succeeds largely because it feels like reading pages torn out of a diary, or spending time with a close friend. Rodrigo charts a journey through her emotional worlds, spinning stories of what it means to fall in and out of love — with being a teen, with an ex-lover, even with ourselves. On the opening track “Brutal,” Rodrigo declares “I feel like no one wants me, and I hate the way I’m perceived.” On “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” she quietly sings, “never doubted myself so much. Like am I pretty? Am I fun, boy?”
This honesty springs in part from her goal to help teen girls feel okay expressing emotions that might be labelled “b—-y.” And Rodrigo achieves it, in a variety of formats. “Good 4 U” is an uptempo, pop punk hit about the biting anger of seeing a lover move on and seemingly do better. A track like “Jealousy, Jealousy” takes on teenage insecurity in the world of social media with a breath of honesty that most artists don’t quite reach.
Rodrigo is still a new artist finding her voice, so some songs feel like the start of a great idea that hasn’t fully finished. You’re left wondering if a song like “Hope Ur OK” might not have benefited from taking some more time to develop a real message, or whether a track like “Traitor” might not have been helped by a touch less literality in its lyrics.
The album’s strengths are its understanding of its audience and the era it exists in. Its pitfalls are interesting, creative mistakes made by an artist fascinated with the ways she can expand and experiment. Taken together, Rodrigo’s work does what it set out to do: establish her as a versatile, dominant pop star for the next generation, well past her Disney roots.