Since her debut single “driver’s license” was released in January, Olivia Rodrigo has taken the world by storm. Her first album, SOUR, came out in May and quickly topped the charts, earning her appearances at awards shows and Saturday Night Live mere months into her music career.
If you aren’t familiar with Rodrigo, she is the latest in the long series of Disney Channel stars turned pop artists, following in the footsteps of singers such as Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, the Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato. Rodrigo currently stars in Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical The Series (bet you can’t say that three times fast), a series spinoff of the popular High School Musical movie franchise.
Rodrigo’s album SOUR pays tribute to her musical inspirations through the 11 tracks which focus on lyrical themes of heartbreak and the coming of age of the artist and her peers. While SOUR is an impressive debut album, it does leave Rodrigo plenty of room to grow and improve in the future.
What really holds SOUR back is that it isn’t sure what to be. Many of the songs are pure pop songs and ballads, but there are a couple of songs that lean into an early 2000s pop-punk sound. While variety can be a good thing, there isn’t really a smooth transition between the different sounds and there isn’t an even balance between the two types of songs (mostly pop with two rock songs). The rock-leaning songs are great, but they feel a little bit out of place here.
But SOUR’s biggest issue isn’t its genre confusion; it’s how on-the-nose it is in reference to its influences. One particular culprit is the piano ballad “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” which interpolates the song “New Year’s Day” from Taylor Swift’s 2017 album reputation. Rodrigo has mentioned in interviews how the album is meant to be a tribute to her favorite albums and artists including Swift. Swift has since expressed her approval and excitement for Rodrigo, but there is a difference between being inspired by Taylor Swift and interpolating one of her songs on your very first album. A well-placed sample can add interest to a good song but borrowing from a well-known song when you haven’t defined your own sound is confusing on a first listen.
Another song with this issue is the latest single to be released from the album, the pop-punk inspired “good 4 u.” Even from the first listen, the track sounds reminiscent of many songs from the era, specifically Paramore’s signature 2007 hit “Misery Business,” in both instrumentals and lyrics. Despite remarkable similarities, Rodrigo has not mentioned “Misery Business” or any other specific song as an influence or credited a sample of the song. Clearly many listeners have noticed the distinct similarities as mash-ups of the two songs have gone viral, leading to “good 4 u” topping charts and “Misery Business” making it into the Billboard charts 14 years after its release.
These similarities aren’t all bad, though. For one thing, it’s refreshing to hear a young popular artist making rock or at least rock-adjacent music. Despite what some may claim, rock definitely isn’t dead, but it has been a while since it was a part of the mainstream cultural consciousness. I for one will always be excited to hear women making rock music, even if it borrows elements from past creations.
Some of the songs actually do manage to strike a better balance between inspiration and mimicry. One notable cut, “déjà vu,” evokes the confessional lyricism and pop sensibilities of artists like Swift while not mirroring any particular song and presenting an original angle on a more traditional post-break-up song. Album opener “brutal” provides a similar twist on the early 2000s rock hits from the likes of Avril Lavigne or Kelly Clarkson. The final song on the album, “hope ur ok,” on which Rodrigo reminisces on people used to know and wonders how they are doing after many years apart, adds a sweet personal touch to close off the album.
Overall, SOUR is a perfectly respectable debut record. First records are rarely an artist’s best, but a good one can offer a glimpse at an artist’s potential. Rodrigo’s vocals on the album are distinct and impressive, especially considering her age and experience. The songs are solid in terms of writing and production, even when lacking in originality. If anything, SOUR’s success proves that Rodrigo is an artist that’s here to stay.