Originally written and published by me for PopMatters.
“I’m so sick of seventeen / Where’s my fucking teenage dream? / If someone tells me one more time/ ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry,” sings Olivia Rodrigo on the opener to her debut studio album Sour, a record that became highly anticipated following the overnight success of her first single “Drivers License,” which skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in January. The 17-year-old singer/songwriter, who first found fame as an actress with Disney on Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, stated that her first album takes the biggest influences from some of her favorite artists, such as of Taylor Swift, No Doubt, the White Stripes, Kacey Musgraves, and Alanis Morissette. Not only does Rodrigo put her own spin on the eclectic sounds of her predecessors, she manages to create something uniquely and unabashedly her own simply by refusing to be anyone but the current version of herself—messy emotions and all.
The fact of the matter surrounding Rodrigo’s juggernaut success is that she is not only giving a voice to teens of her own generation, who grew up on the Internet and are beginning to inherit generations of societal damage without their consent, but also reminding us of the enduring appeal and resonance of rebellious young women. The weekend of Sour’s release, Twitter was inundated with memes and messages of praise surrounding Rodrigo’s sound and lyrics, mostly from Millennials dodging cultural norms of shame for liking something supposedly not made for their age group. It’s worth unpacking that lines like “Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” resonate equally with a generation of adults who have had to work harder for things that their parents were able to easily attain (a home, a car, middle-class job stability—take your pick). While Gen Z teens like Rodrigo are already acknowledging that “it’s brutal out here,” it’s a truth that all fully grown adults but especially Millennials know all too well.
Not to mention that rebellious themes of being exploited or men being trash were also not necessarily awarded to the early work of former Disney stars of the early to mid-aughts, such as Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, or Demi Lovato, signalling a particularly dramatic shift in the cultural platform being offered to young women. Indeed, Rodrigo is certainly more of an Alanis than a Miley—all that’s missing is one hand in her pocket as she sings “Brutal” or “Traitor,” and one can only imagine the impact of a 17-year-old girl singing “I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped” in a way similar to that of a grown woman who didn’t mind if things got messy when she released “Hands Clean” two decades earlier. The difference now, of course, is that the cultural appetite for female anger has been completely redefined, thanks in large part to the rise of social media, the Time’s Up and Me Too movements, and abject governmental failure on a global health crisis, among other things.
Sour, for the most part, is a pop album that dips its toes into the alt-pop and bedroom pop subgenres, specifically spending most of its time in the latter. It’s not that the lo-fi nature of the typically self-produced bedroom pop can’t be interesting or compelling—Alessia Cara’s The Pains of Growing surely proved that wrong—but Rodrigo’s lo-fi deep cuts that were made in the shadow of “Drivers License” can sound a bit repetitive. Her craft as a songwriter is especially evident on tracks like “Enough For You,” “Happier,” or “Hope Ur Ok,” but the acoustic complexion these songs were going for could have benefitted from a bit more background noise.
While fellow budding Gen Z pop stars like Lennon Stella or Olivia O’Brien have already managed to carve out their sounds and niches, much of Rodrigo’s vocal ability is reliant on the fact that she sounds immensely similar to Lorde—another singer who found overnight success as a teenager with angsty music about youth and rebellion. Bedroom pop seems to have already become a defining marker for pop music’s current generation and while it can serve as an empowering way to display raw examples of one’s talent, especially in the work from home era, it can also pinpoint the glaring ways in which a singer still needs to grow.
But perhaps that’s exactly what Rodrigo was going for. Unlike other ex-Disney child stars who have been public about the years of growth and soul-searching they had to endure to find an authentic sound outside of the one their family-friendly label forced on them, Rodrigo has had the rare, new opportunity of a platform to be exactly who she is in this moment. (She’s also thankfully signed to Geffen Records and not Disney’s Hollywood Records.) Sour’s ability to play between the lines of angsty rebellion and imperfect young human being who’s aware of the ample room left to grow is surely what resonates most with listeners of any generation. And after all, if there was ever a time the world needs your anger, it’s now.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Sour: “Brutal,” “Drivers License,” “Good 4 U,” “Enough For You,” “Happier,” and “Hope Ur Ok”