On Olivia Rodrigo's 'Sour'
Maybe it’s the heat, and the thick, fuzzy air that comes with it. Maybe it’s the way the light falls at 8:30, almost like a whisper. I’ll be back tomorrow, it says, becoming pink, lush. It points to summer—toward days that bleed into one another because of temperature, not stasis. I think of the birds in the crisp blue sky and how free they look.
It’s not yet summer but you can taste it: the city’s dust and grit lodged in your throat, a cold plastic spoon raised just so to your lips and there, three different kinds of chocolate. You see more flowers on dresses and shorts, straw hats, and painted toenails. The birds trill morning to night, the rustling sound of bags holding flowers and fresh fruit. Summer officially begins at Solstice, the longest day of the year. The one day in late June that says be free, be reckless. It’s a green light for restless hearts. Anything feels possible. Yet, summer’s imprint is eternal, bubbling up and up to that moment.
Summer marks the start of how your heart breaks when you’re a teenager. You might do it yourself, someone else absolutely will, or maybe the looming threat of a new school year with a different social code, a way of thinking or being will cause a rupture.
Sour is like summer to me. Fraught, quick, burning. Olivia Rodrigo’s debut is a champion of feelings. A potency that fuels you for a few short months but lingers, never fading entirely. Memories that will live in the hall of fame of your mind forever.
Rodrigo is vibrant on Sour but she also dims. She writes and sings of these wild, familiar sensations of yearning, growing, and losing. She looks at herself compared to whoever she is around, in many cases on the record a boy, a boy who breaks her heart, and doesn’t see herself measure up. She sees his betrayal, her heart on the line. Maybe this is why people in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond have flocked to tell stories of their own rage and disappointment as a kid in response to this record. That they, too, would look to these words if they were 17 again. It’s like they want the immediacy and strength of those feelings to have public space again because we’re told those go away when you grow old. Here’s the opportunity. You’re hurt, your heart ached, and you get to wear it.
As with all young artists the world decides are the Rosetta Stone to understanding a generation, Rodrigo is meant to explain what Gen Z thinks or feels or does. I guess… she does? She’s 18, who cares? She’s referential (isn’t all music like that anyway?) You hear Avril, Fefe, Taylor, even shades of Kathleen Hanna. What she’s doing isn’t extraordinary. Heartache, love, disappointment. Those are all so familiar and entrenched in popular music. Many other bands and artists do this just as well, if not better. These themes have a reliable return on investment.
Sour is ordinary, specific, a journal that’s less dreamy and more capturing events and moments. From there, the story takes shape. That’s what makes it excellent, deserving of this moment. Your heart buzzes for the worst kind of partner. You try to understand it. Maybe in that moment, maybe not. As she sings on “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” the rollercoaster is all she’s ever known. It’s a life, you’re living it.
Still, anything feels possible.
The record’s triumph and tragedy is “enough for you.” A song that pulls forth all the moments you felt you could not measure up. With hindsight, a new prism of light shines on moments you wished remained buried. You can see your mistakes. How stupid you were to buy him those checkered Vans. Of course you’d be devastated that he left you for her. But it’s not because you did that act, that you didn’t care for him, it’s that you could have done more. “Enough for you” moves through the dialogue one has in the aftermath of that loss. A self-blame that, I wonder, who teaches us this? Everyone? No one? How did you know you weren’t enough? Would you ever look back and say this is what made me decide I was never good enough? Maybe you never do. Maybe you think about it all the time, piecing together the expectations to line-up with what you’re capable of and how far you still have to go. There is a loss and that is what we have sacrificed to care for and to hold with an unearned delicacy all that make up everyone else. It’s their stuff, not your stuff. She sings at the end, melodic, torn up, “I just want myself back.” A knife turns in your heart.
For NPR, Lindsay Zoladz categorized Rodrigo’s songwriting so precisely calling her the lowercase girl. The girl who, while quiet, perhaps, is always looking, always absorbing. I would go one step further to say that this kind of girl has a self-conscious component. It’s not just a boy she’s seeing, it’s the world she watches, acutely aware of how it is watching her. Deciding her fate. How she’ll shape herself or not, seeing how the world would try to do it for her. On “jealousy, jealousy,” the verse “I’m so sick of myself / I’d rather be anyone else” echoes loudly. “Brutal,” the song literally kicking the record off, is the furious, haughty teenage sigh of why the world sucks. It’s beautiful.
“Where’s my fucking teenage dream?”
Sour is an inner monologue of fury and sadness. It’s the wish for someone to love you back just as furiously as you love them. It’s the want to feel some sense of wholeness in the world. All of that is scary but it’s worth it. You could do more. You have always wished to do more. Rodrigo shows us the motions of that, of the messy ways in which we want to please and be pleased and take up space in someone else’s brain, even for a moment. To be considered at all. Because this whole time you’ve been considering them. It’s honest, not kind, even a little queasy asking to be loved this way, and to be rightfully hurt and angry in the shadows when it all dissolves as quickly as it started. She’s fumbling toward some sense of what is happening now while being told to consider all the things in the future. Big picture, big heartbreak. It’s overwhelming.
The green light of summer fades to yellow and then, finally, to red. Leaves fall and crumble beneath your feet. Snow comes, frosty air with it. You retreat inward, and fall further in. Soon, buds grow back. The world begins to come alive with colour again. Heat returns, sizzling on your shoulders, the top of your head. Everything smells like aloe. You’re ready to give your heart again. And again. And again. And hope to never stop. Even if it hurts.