Olivia Rodrigo Explores Gen Z Angst on Promising Debut Album ‘Sour’

Navigating pop phenomena is like driving on a road full of speed bumps: every time you think you’re starting to develop some momentum with a new sound, artist or genre, another comes along to challenge your progress. Disney actress Olivia Rodrigo released her first single, “Drivers License,” this past January to mass popularity and acclaim. Just shy of her eighteenth birthday, Rodrigo became the youngest recording artist to debut at the top of the Billboard 100 chart. Her debut album, “Sour,” is a scrappy, honest Gen Z diary in eclectic pop packaging, giving listeners her own age something to recognize and identify with, while supplying a new set of musical shock absorbers for those who lived through enough of her predecessors to not immediately adjust to another teenager’s preternatural talent and poise.

Rodrigo sequences “Drivers License” at track three, opening with “Brutal,” a raucous, rock-tinged track that sounds nothing like her debut single, but certainly announces the energy and fuller complexity of her sound on the album. Since before the Gen X anthem “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the rest of the introspective grunge that accompanied it, one thing successive generations have taught us is that youth can be as much of a burden as an opportunity, and Rodrigo encapsulates that frustration, restlessness and dissatisfaction, singing “I’m so sick of seventeen / Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream? / If someone tells me one more time / “Enjoy your youth,” I’m gonna cry.” Hopefully it’s no longer transgressive for an 18-year-old pop artist to use profanity, but dropping an f-bomb in the first song on her full-length debut makes a pretty powerful statement that she’s unwilling to capitulate to market forces without expressing herself fully.

That said, “Traitor” for better or worse showcases more of the sound and sentiment that one might expect from a young artist still finding herself and figuring out how to present her feelings. Suffice it to say there has always been — and will always be — a bottomless well of teens blasting songs like these to associate with, and alleviate, their first heartbreak, but what Rodrigo does is create a bitter ballad whose strength is in the way its protagonist reckons with the end of her relationship and its accompanying betrayal with a more sophisticated mix of rue and regret, relief and sadness. Then of course there’s “Drivers License,” a song whose commercial ubiquitousness might feel obnoxious if you haven’t yet experienced the kind of longing she pinpoints, but she captures some feelings — and a few choices — that many people two and three times her age can relate to: “you said forever, now I drive alone past your street.”

But it’s “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” that really exemplifies all of the elements of her talent that distinguish her from contemporaries, even former and frequent chart-toppers, scratching at the heels of her explosive success. Wrestling with the mercurial attention of a boy, she fully owns the absurdity of questioning herself because he can’t or won’t be clear, feeling as sad that she was doubtful of her own merits as the fact that he can’t seem to get his act together either (“maybe in some masochistic way / I kind of find it all exciting / Like which lover will I get today? / Will you walk me to the door or send me home cryin’?”). She then nestles “Déjà vu” and “Good 4 U,” the second and third singles, right next to one another on the album, and they further chronicle a young woman’s familiar but relatable romantic entanglements, in the former, reflecting on the “special” experiences her boyfriend (or boy friend) shares with another girl, and the latter, a three-minute slice of pop punk she peppers with more profanity as she gets rightfully pissed about how easily an ex is adjusting to life after their breakup. 

Of course, what quickly emerges is a laundry list of feelings that plague adults for their whole lives — longing, regret, bitterness — but that seem especially acute during adolescence, when every single experience is either the best or worst of your life. But there’s a compelling specificity to her songwriting, such as on “Enough For You,” where she catalogues the little (and not so little) choices she made to keep an ex happy (“I wore makeup when we dated / ‘Cause I thought you’d like me more”), as well as the needs she allowed not to be met (“Tried so hard to be everything that you like / Just for you to say you’re not the compliment type”). These are actually the important insights to make, not just for young women who might be trying to please a partner, but for the partners who may not know, but should, just how harmful their cool detachment can be. 

Even if there’s probably one or two too many songs about an ex that she’s not sure she’s over, Rodrigo again peppers each song with at least a line or two that constitutes that real, very good advice for people listening to them — if you’re willing to pay close enough attention. On “Happier,” she mostly revisits similar themes from earlier songs about watching an old partner’s new relationship from afar, but she tweaks it just enough to make the clear-eyed observation that her enmity isn’t directed at his new girl: “now I’m pickin’ her apart / Like cuttin’ her down will make you miss my wretched heart.” But a song like “Jealousy, Jealousy” covers territory that might be more valuable not just in our current moment or to listeners of her age but in general, opening with a bass guitar that would fit comfortably on a Serge Gainsbourg record as she examines the impulse to compare herself, her beauty, and her accomplishments to others, and encourages them to resist it with her. 

After another bittersweet (and truly beautiful) ballad, she closes the album with “Hope UR Ok,” an empathetic and outward-looking song about an abused boy and latchkey girl, the kind of tribute, fictional or no, that can be really empowering and make people in those circumstances feel seen. While Rodrigo has more than earned her spot in the catbird seat, and proven that she’s got more than enough substance to go the distance artistically without kowtowing commercially, these are the kinds of songs you want to hear more of from her — or at the very least, less of the ones where, on any part of the emotional spectrum, she’s surveying the wreckage of a past relationship. Because for those who’ve ridden pop’s speed bumps for years, all of that amounts to slowing down for something they have seen many times before; and “Sour” makes you really makes you want to see her open up that engine and drive, without anything, least of all herself, impeding her progress. 

Sour” releases May 21 on Apple Music.