Olivia Rodrigo’s Got GUTS
Olivia Rodrigo doubles down on SOUR’s angst on GUTS.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
At first glance, Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album GUTS (2023) treads the same ground as her debut, SOUR: a record with honest meditations on teenagehood and heartbreak. But now that she’s older and looking back with hindsight, the aftertaste of adolescence is more complex than just “sour” on Olivia Rodrigo’s melodic tongue. On GUTS, Rodrigo guides the listener through the jadedness and confusion of being a modern, young, all-American woman.
When “drivers license” blew up on TikTok in January 2021, Rodrigo was already an established actress in the Disney-channel roster, starring in the shows Bizaardvark (2016-2019) and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (2019-2022). However, after proving herself to be more than just a one-hit-wonder on her next few singles (“deja vu” and “good 4 u”), she released her debut album SOUR (2021) and promptly soared into superstardom. Her honest lyricism and impassioned vocals proved to be a winning combination as SOUR shot to number one for five weeks and took home three Grammys.
Though Rodrigo showed immense songwriting skills, one of the pitfalls of SOUR was the repetitive break-up narrative that became tiresome towards the end of an already-short album. The occasional deviation of theme (“jealousy, jealousy” and “hope ur ok”) was more interesting than the wide-eyed and heartbroken relationship story stretched across the record’s 35 minutes. Two years later, Rodrigo returned with her sophomore album GUTS, a more mature, fun, and risky improvement on SOUR.
GUTS is able to shake off the flaws holding back SOUR by broadening its narrative and thematic scope. Sure, many of its songs are about a boy who broke her heart, but Rodrigo is able to fit that heartbreak under the umbrella of jadedness and disillusionment that comes with getting older. On “vampire,” the lead single she released in June, Rodrigo pulls away the fabric and façade that a much older ex-boyfriend tricked her with: “I see the parties and the diamonds sometimes when I close my eyes / Six months of torture you sold as some forbidden paradise,” she croons over delicate piano backing. What makes these lyrics so relatable is the constant self-blame; no matter how much pain her partner has inflicted, she still throws the blame on her own “stupidity” and naivety, with the chorus even repeating how his faults were her worst mistake. The songwriting shows complexity and growth from SOUR’s more innocent lyricism. As a single, the song also demonstrates the more exciting avenues of production and song structure Rodrigo and producer Dan Nigro invoke on this album; as “vampire” springs to life in the latter half, it builds to an exciting crescendo: the drums kick in and the pianos begin to bounce along to the rhythm; it’s “drivers license”’s more experienced older sister.
There’s a self-awareness and sarcasm throughout GUTS that makes every sentiment Rodrigo expresses delightfully melodramatic. The opener, “all-american [EXPLETIVE],” paints a portrait of the roles Rodrigo feels she must commit to as a young woman—including being “built like a mother and a total machine”—being ladylike and crafting art from human feelings while operating as a cog within the cold, mechanical industry. The song crescendos from cleanly plucked acoustics to screams and torrents of electric guitar. The lyrics also change drastically, from the warbly line “Coca-Cola bottles that I only use to curl my hair” to the loaded phrase “I know my age, and I act like it… I’m a perfect all-American [EXPLETIVE].”
On this album, time and time again, Rodrigo finds herself choosing between her heart and her better judgment, such as on the brilliantly sassy “bad idea right?,” in which Rodrigo hilariously narrates her inner monologue as she gets ready to backslide to an ex over some of the album’s most experimental production. The sharp, looping guitar riffs and Rodrigo’s bright harmonized shouts become the track’s chaotic yet sturdy foundation as the song gets even stranger with the random beeps and noises that come in the outro.
Besides love, a common motif in both albums is the universal pit-in-your-stomach feeling of jealousy. On SOUR, Rodrigo reflects on her envy of girls her age in “brutal” and “jealousy, jealousy” through the lens of someone who still doesn’t fully comprehend how much it’s eating away at her; she wishes for that “perfection” that others seem to have. However, on GUTS, the jealousy manifests itself in a melancholic acceptance of never being enough. In the fourth track, “lacy,” Rodrigo expresses the mixture of envy and admiration she has for a girl she views as more desirable than herself. She feels obsessed with being inferior to Lacy, describing it as “the sweetest torture one could bear” and looking to Lacy as if she is “made of angel dust.”
Being young is torture, and getting older doesn’t earn you much more than experience. Rodrigo proves through her growth as a songwriter that this experience is invaluable if one has the stomach to reflect upon it. The final track, “teenage dream,” is an apology note to Rodrigo’s younger self for not giving her the happiness she dreamt of, replacing it instead with worry as she asks herself: “Yeah, they all say that it gets better / It gets better, but what if I don’t?” It’s a somber note to end on, but also a hopeful one, because from SOUR to GUTS, Rodrigo has shown that these anxieties and questions do get some resolutions and eventual acceptance.