Is Olivia Rodrigo a cultural reset, or just a parody of one?
Every now and then a new song, album, or new star pops up in the stable and reliable pop music landscape. and gives the impression that something new and exciting is happening; something that 20 years from now will be cited as a “cultural reset”. Examples of these pop tidal waves lately include Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’, Cardi B’s ‘WAP’ and the arrival of 18-year-old Disney Channel star turned singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo, including the first album Sour is released today.
Rodrigo’s debut single, “Drivers License,” a booming dream-pop ballad, was released in January 2021 and created an instant sensation. Within three days of its release, it was streamed 21 million times and reached number one on the Spotify, Apple, and Amazon Music charts. By the end of the month, it had surpassed the previous record for the number of global weekly feeds by a female artist – previously held by Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” – with 130,060,000. She has only released three solo singles to date, and is already known affectionately to fans as simply “Olivia”.
Rodrigo’s major influences are Lorde and Taylor Swift – and even with the word “major”, that’s a drastic understatement. Both artists are viscerally, deliberately present – indeed, absolutely inevitable – in virtually all of his songs. Swift is there in half-spoken rhythmic lines (“What the Shit/Is up/With this“) And catchy, semi-deep slogans on singing waltzes (” I guess you didn’t cheat but you’re still a traitor “); Lorde in her expansive and harmonized voice, her touches of darkness and even the slight “sh” sound Rodrigo makes when she says the letter “s”.
And so, while the hype surrounding Sour certainly does Feel as something new and exciting is going on, you must be asking yourself: is it really? Rodrigo undoubtedly has the perfect pop star voice and charismatic stage presence – why else would she have been chosen. High school musical: the series? But she seems to be riding a wave of references to other “cultural resets” and old pop icons, which is a surefire way to win over a nostalgic internet crowd, a generation that longs to be taken away from here.
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In her latest video, “Good 4 U”, she ticks multiple allusions, echoing scenes and costumes from 2000s classics such as The diary of a princess and Jennifer’s body as well as music videos from Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and, yes, Taylor Swift, to thick uptempo pop laced with teenage angst. On the album there are other interjections of grunge and pop-punk, which, given the number of heart-wrenching ballads on the acoustic guitar, seem to deliberately evoke the nostalgia of Avril Lavigne; there are olfactory, aesthetic, “strawberry ice cream” frolics throughout the territory of Lana Del Rey; and of course there is a good help not only from speech therapy (“Maybe in a masochistic way I find this all exciting”) but from actual therapy (“I guess the therapist that I found it for you, she really helped / Now you can be a better man for your brand new girl “), just in case we thought she had her finger on the pulse.
Some of the songs on Sour are undeniably magnetic, mostly singles. “Driver’s License” uses a repeated note on the piano throughout the verses, creating an explosion of emotion: “I know we weren’t perfect but I never felt that way for anyone.” In “Deja Vu”, Rodrigo brings a satirical touch to his Lorde-esque vocal harmonies: after a line about her ex-boyfriend trying it jacket too small when they were still together we hear sarcastic, staccato “ha ha ha”. These Avril Lavigne moments – opening “Brutal” and third single “Good 4 U” – are catchy howls that channel teenage relationship issues more forcefully than the rest of the album. “Brutal” ends with a gradual variation of the tempo, like Billie Eilish.
I have no doubt that even the most dull and repetitive ballads Sour will be sung in teenage bedrooms for years to come. Despite layered cultural references, the content never surpasses the most superficial level of post-rupture observations (which may even be part of its appeal). But it is certain that something so derivative cannot be a “reset” just because it feels good. It is the opposite of originality: a flattening of culture in consensus, universal reference points and commodified nostalgia.
But it’s already decided: this album will be a phenomenon, and Rodrigo is considered an icon. Maybe I’ll look back in a few years and feel different.
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