Music

Olivia Rodrigo’s Heartbroken Debut Album May Surprise You

A concept album is a daring first act, but the 18-year-old isn’t afraid to try.

A woman with long brown hair and a white tank top stares at the camera with her tongue out. She has multicolored stickers all over her face and stickers that spell out the word SOUR on her tongue.
Geffen Records

Back in 2019, aka the Year of Our Lord Lil Nas X, the “Old Town Road” artist faced the conundrum of almost every breakout success: How do you follow up fast on a world-dominating smash single without looking like you’re just milking the opportunity? His decision, with his debut EP, 7,  was to gallop away from the country-rap formula and try to prove his versatility with a hodgepodge of other stylistic exercises. It mostly didn’t come off, and it took a long interlude before Nas X would reclaim his cultural force, with the queer-inferno jam “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” a couple of months ago.

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Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” may not be to 2021 what “Old Town Road” was to 2019, but it’s come damned close. Unlike Nas X, Rodrigo was not entirely unknown, being a 17-year-old Geffen signee who’d spent the past five years starring on Disney TV shows. But her weeper of automotive triumph and romantic downfall got more massive than anyone anticipated almost overnight. It set streaming records and ensorcelled listeners far outside the tween-to-teen demographic, as certified by a Saturday Night Live parody sketch full of sobbing dudes that aired in February on the night of Rodrigo’s 18th birthday. (She made her own live SNL debut last weekend.) “Drivers License” propelled the rising current of Gen Z power ballads by female and queer artists directly into the mainstream . As Laura Snapes wrote in the Guardian, these songs “project that emotion inward, trading bombast for hush,” confiding in the listener in ways that draw on the mental health discourse of social media. Rodrigo was informed by the sadcore successes of artists like Lorde, Billie Eilish, and, on a more niche level, Phoebe Bridgers. But Rodrigo dispensed with their cool-weird-girl self-awareness and went for the full waterworks. Perhaps primed by a year of lockdown and political tensions, “Drivers License” was the cathartic release no one realized they’d been yearning for.

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So what would she do for an encore? Two well-received follow-up singles, “Good 4 U” and “Déjà Vu,” demonstrated range; Rodrigo showed that she also has a pop-punk, Avril Lavigne/Hayley Williams side. But with the release of her first album, Sour, she’s made sure that anyone who wants more of that “Drivers License” heartbreak kid gets what they’re coming for. Aside from a handful of outliers, Sour is a breakup album through and through. It treats the subject in a variety of styles, from folkie strums to shouty rants to tracks with a bit of groove. There are also plenty of recurring references to suggest the songs are all about the same split-up—not that there’s anything underhanded in that.

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Rodrigo is likely the most direct, popular heir yet of Taylor Swift’s approach to songwriting as emotional journaling, and it seems this experience was the central one Rodrigo had to process. Yet it’s unconventional, even risky, for a debut album to be a full conceptual breakup record, counting on an audience to be invested enough in the newcomer to crave the fine details of her inner life. Indeed, Rodrigo has said she and her producer/co-writer Dan Nigro tried including a few more straightforward love songs, but they didn’t seem to fit.

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But I think the unusual outbreak of collective feeling that “Drivers License” inspired also granted her a license to spill. That’s because, unlike most of the hushed-ballad singers out there, showbiz-kid Rodrigo is a belter. She doesn’t overuse it, but it’s a skill she’s been honing since she first started slaying in Boys and Girls Club “Idol” competitions as an elementary schooler. Writers like Karen Tongson and Christine Bacareza Balance would link this with Rodrigo being Filipino American and the deep Filipino lineage of talent-contest culture. In any case, it means that beyond her Swift or Lorde influences, Rodrigo is able to manifest what you might call the “Adele effect”—the sheer sentimental-sonic overwhelm that made Adele’s breakup songs bigger than other people’s upbeat bangers. That incidentally made Adele the subject of a 2015 SNL sketch that relied on almost exactly the same joke as the “Drivers License” one did, about the capacity of a steamrolling tear jerker to flatten boundaries between groups of people. Once you’ve done that, your listeners might follow you anywhere.

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And Sour is not just about heartbreak, it’s about first heartbreak. That risks wearing on a more mature listener, and songs here, like second track “Traitor” (placed just before “Drivers License,” and sounding like a weaker prequel), do lack most of the wistfulness and wisdom that enrich classic grown-up breakup albums through the decades. But it also can be moving to revisit what it’s like to undergo those ordeals afresh, without any built-up shields or set language. Rodrigo’s attention both lyrically and vocally to the intricacies of her reactions and reflexes, the small slights that mean everything—as in “Enough For You,” where she’s doing everything she can to win the boy’s approval and he shrugs, “I’m not the compliment type”—resonate like memories you’d forgotten until she sings them.

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Whomever the callow boy in question on Sour may be, he’s obviously no great loss. That first torturous lesson in the art of losing, the unfixable fracture that shows you love and life will never make a satisfying whole—that’s the experience that matters. In the right frame of mind, hearing a young artist debut with a breakup record is a reminder that loss and severance of some kind are the origin point of anybody’s sense of self, one of the few things that are universal. Oh, and it helps a lot that she earns an A from the Taylor Swift School of Super-Dramatic Bridge Writing.

There are also moments on Sour that remind you how Rodrigo’s life is very much not universal. The album opens with a swell of strings interrupted by Rodrigo laughing, “I want it to be, like, messy!” and then a punk-boilerplate guitar riff kicking in instead. This is the overture to “Brutal,” which is her kiss-off not to the boyfriend, but to her role as a Disney star. “Who am I if not exploited?” she asks, and then, with a scowl in Katy Perry’s direction, “Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream?” Ever since she dropped one big F-bomb on her hit, Rodrigo’s been fast-forwarding the standard script for capitalizing on and then rejecting Disney princess status. She hinted heavily to the Guardian earlier this month that she wants out of her contractual obligations to High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, to concentrate on her songwriting and performing. Whether or not that works out, she’s making a declaration of independence here. Of course, the rumors are that the love triangle she sings about on Sour is an on-set one. That’s irrelevant to the central feelings of the songs, but some of the references to these people being actors and songwriters do conjure up an insular world. Bad enough to have to date teenaged boys, but teenaged TV actors and would-be pop stars? Shudder.

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The fishbowl element of her life is invoked in “Jealousy, Jealousy,” which surprisingly isn’t part of the breakup story but finds Rodrigo anguished by the “com-comparison” of herself to Instagram models and influencers, who seem to be having more fun on social media. “I think I think too much/ about kids who don’t know me,” she sings. The clever pun about jealousy “following me” online is relatable stuff, yes, but the song is also a sidelong way—along with the “blond girl” line on “Drivers License”—for Rodrigo to point out that she may be pretty and skinny, but she still isn’t a white girl. It’s also a welcome hint that the world may be larger than any drama between, say, three young actors on a Disney show.

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That’s reinforced more potently in the closer, “Hope Ur Ok,” which offers a couple of vignettes about kids from hostile or abusive homes, whom the narrator once knew and lost touch with. It resolves a little tritely, but there’s a vivid compassion to the storytelling reminiscent of “The Story” by Conan Gray (another Nigro collaborator and friend of Rodrigo’s), as well as “You Were Cool” by the Mountain Goats, which each journey via memory to express allyship with and anxious hope for people whose prospects are more fraught than the singer’s. It’s a special category of song, and Rodrigo’s exploration of it suggests broader ambitions than most of what we hear here.

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After “Drivers License” took off, TikTok users created covers, parodies and fan-fiction songs in the voices of pretty much every possible character in the story—the guy and the other woman, of course, but also the driver’s license itself, and, my favorite, a motorist who gets stuck in traffic behind some girl who’s idling and crying in front of some guy’s house. At intervals when Rodrigo’s viewpoint starts to seem narrow, it’s tempting to suggest she take notes. But then I remember it took Swift until her eighth studio album to start writing from other perspectives. On her first go-around, Rodrigo has met the challenge of her flash success with an affecting set of newsreels from the front lines of her life. The trick now is for her to take the space to live out the sequels, and for no one to rush her.

Correction, June 1, 2021: This piece originally misstated the name of the Sour track “Enough for You” as “Good Enough.”

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