How "Sour" Healed My Generation
The day that the “good 4 u” music video came out I Tweeted, “If Olivia Rodrigo was making music when I was a freshman in high school, I would have driven my car off of the highway, but like, in a good way.” I was immediately obsessed. I had no idea her album would release the next day, but when Sour dropped, there was a barrage of comments from others whose high school days were long gone that confirmed how I felt. I also saw many Tweets confused by the idea that a bunch of millennials would be gassing up a 17-year-old’s breakup album, so let me explain:
When I was 15, my first love dumped me after two years. It was incredibly tumultuous, but I won’t get into it. If you went to a high school where the boys were predatory, the girls were cruel, and the teachers were ambivalent, then you already understand. Afterward, I spent every single day between spring break and summer vacation crying with my head down on my desk. My teachers must have noticed that I was no longer walking around with the boy whose hip I had been attached to since freshman homecoming, but I guess they all thought I was just upset about losing a boy. They didn’t ask if I was okay. My friends didn’t ask. My family didn’t ask. No one offered to carry that weight with me. I tried my best to hold it in until I could get home, curl up in my bed, and listen to punk songs written by angsty middle-aged white men because it was the only way that I could feel seen.
All that, plus the typical pressures and expectations that are placed on high schoolers which can already feel almost impossible to survive. When I first heard “brutal” it affirmed the heartbreak and hopelessness that I so viscerally felt at 15. A decade later, teenage me feels seen through Rodrigo’s lyrics like:
“They say these are the golden years/But I wish I could disappear/Ego crush is so severe/God, it's brutal out here”
To hear these words sung is to be transported through time. Sure, I had artists like Paramore and Avril Lavigne who sang about similar themes or in similar styles, but they were almost a decade my senior. I couldn’t relate to the kind of love that they were describing in their songs. All I knew was the first implosion. I was convinced that I would never love again, that maybe I could never be loved again.
I’m so impressed with Rodrigo’s ability to not only describe how I felt then, but how I feel now. There’s a lot packed in here that really hits home like:
“I'm so tired that I might/Quit my job, start a new life/And they'd all be so disappointed/'Cause who am I, if not exploited?”
To be fair, there's a lot of younger artists, like Snail Mail or Billie Eilish, who, despite being teenagers can describe my emotions better than I can at 24, but Olivia uniquely captures the essence of what it feels like to be a teenager so succinctly that it leaves me reeling.
In the second track, “traitor,” she introduces the central narrative of the album. She’s been wronged. The person who’s done it refuses to acknowledge it and is happy with somebody else. This one is a favorite among fans, because who hasn't been hurt and longed for closure from the perpetrator of that pain? How could one describe that feeling more concisely than:
“You betrayed me/And I know that you'll never feel sorry for the way I hurt,”
“God, I wish that you had thought this through/Before I went and fell in love with you,”
If I had heard those words while I was hurting, maybe it would have been easier to give myself the closure that I was longing for. Am I still holding onto the relationship a decade later? Not at all, but the loss I felt changed me forever.
Another favorite line from this song is:
“I know if you were true/There's no damn way that you/Could fall in love with somebody that quickly,”
Because yeah… duh? Why didn’t I realize that while I was watching the head cheerleader post pictures with the love of my life on Instagram the week after we broke up? It’s a historic moment we’re witnessing, where teenagers with broken hearts are being so publicly validated by a peer with the platform and talent to speak for their pain.
The timing of this debut was a perfect storm. Olivia’s role on the Disney show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, had already made her an intergenerational star. There is the whole love triangle ordeal with her co-star Joshua Bassett and fellow Disney star Sabrina Carpenter, who are probably the covert subjects of the story she’s woven. This triangle is (in my opinion) the least interesting part about this album, but Sour’s first single, “drivers license,” skyrocketed to the top of the charts, in no small part due to the controversy. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the sappy pop tune at the time, but listening back it does pull on my heartstrings. It makes me nostalgic for the time when I myself was driving by the neighborhood of an ex or in a place we used to frequent. I’m brought to tears now the same way I was then.
Bassett and Carpenter have both put out their own songs (Joshua Bassett - Lie Lie Lie, and Sabrina Carpenter - Skin) about the ordeal, but these diss tracks feel more like a marketing strategy than anything sincere. For context, here are the lyrics from "drivers license" that clued fans in to their identities:
“And you’re probably with that blonde girl/Who always made me doubt/She’s so much older than me/She’s everything I’m insecure about,”
“I just can't imagine how you could be so okay now that I'm gone/I guess you didn't mean what you wrote in that song about me/‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street,”
Carpenter, famously blonde, is 4 years older than Rodrigo. Basset also wrote a song, supposedly about Olivia, called “Anyone Else.” The song is about wanting to be with someone who’s in another relationship. Given the crazy chemistry Basset and Rodrigo had on the set of HSM while Olivia was taken, the suspicions that it’s about her aren’t totally unfounded.
In Rodrigo’s next song, “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” there is one line that sticks out, something that I had only just begun to understand about myself in my previous relationships:
“I'd leave you, but the rollercoaster's all I've ever had”
Like… How does a teenager sum that up so succinctly? Incredible maturity and understanding of self are present throughout this track. I had to go through so many relationships, breakups, and therapy sessions before I could piece together the pattern of choosing people based on familiarity and the comfort of repeating trauma.
In “deja vu” Rodrigo moves past the heartbreak towards healing, with all the gritty emotions it entails like anger, resentment, and jealousy. It describes how her ex is doing all the things they used to do with his new girl. When this happens after a breakup, it might just feel annoying, but the first time it happens? It contradicts what it means to be in love or care for someone entirely:
“And I bet that she knows Billy Joel/’Cause you played her "Uptown Girl"/You're singin' it together/Now I bet you even tell her how you love her/In between the chorus and the verse (Ooh; I love you)”
When Rodrigo performs this song live, she does mouth “I love you” to the audience after this verse, and the power to speak directly to the person who has hurt you in such an independent and expressive way is enough to rile up any crowd.
“good 4 u” is my absolute jam. The intensity, the spite, the release of raw emotion. It is just so fucking cathartic. It is a revenge track rolled up into a pop-punk ballad the likes of which the world has never seen. You can feel her pain, but you can feel her growth too. This song is an act of rebellion in a world that asks youth to play their role and keep their emotions to themselves. Olivia Rodrigo is going to tell you exactly how she feels, loudly, in a cheerleader uniform and leather gloves. She’s fucking crazy with pain, and if you don’t want to hear it, you can cry about it the way that she’s had to.
“You will never have to hurt the way you know that I do”
While the high school burns behind her? It’s a vibe. It’s an absolute vibe.
Olivia wrote “enough for you” alone on her bedroom floor, and it is absolutely packed with more of the good shit. At this point in the album, you can hear the realizations she’s making about the person she’s devoted all these before-mentioned feelings toward:
“Don't you think I loved you too much/To be used and discarded?/Don't you think I loved you too much/To think I deserve nothing?”
The last line on this track brings it all home for me, as one of the many listeners who can’t stop streaming this breakup album even though they’re currently in a happy relationship and very much in love:
“But don't tell me you're sorry, boy/Feel sorry for yourself/'Cause someday, I'll be everything to somebody else.”
That’s what Sour is really about for me. I realize how far I’ve come. I feel affirmed in the strength and bravery it’s taken me to get where I am. The things I felt no longer cut like they did. I know that I was right when I told myself there was a light at the end of that dark tunnel.
Rodrigo further exemplifies self-realization in “happier” when she says:
“And now I'm pickin' her apart/Like cuttin' her down will make you miss my wretched heart,”
You can sense the horizons broadening between the beginning of this LP and the end. The focus expands outside of herself and her own emotions towards the people around her. It takes courage to rise above the competition that society expects from us because it means admitting some not-so-romantic things about yourself. Rodrigo addresses her judgments and projections in “jealousy, jealousy” when she says:
“And I see everyone gettin' all the things I want/I'm happy for them, but then again, I'm not/Just cool vintage clothes and vacation photos/I can't stand it/Oh God, I sound crazy
"Their win is not my loss/I know it's true, but/I can't help gettin' caught up in it all”
Sour is perfect in its simplicity and its vulnerability. It doesn’t let the fear of being called petty or shallow keep it from speaking truth. I get caught up in shit that in retrospect feels ridiculous, but the emotions are very real. It’s honest about its shortcomings, which is why the next track, “favorite crime,” will make me cry every single time I listen to it. In the same breath, Rodrigo holds her offender accountable while acknowledging the part that she’s had in allowing herself to be treated poorly.
It is so refreshing to be with someone who respects you enough that you know they’d never leave you in shambles. You can tell yourself that you’re blindsided when a relationship goes sour, but we’ve all made choices in the past to stay with someone in hopes that they could treat us the way that we deserve. In some cases, we choose to stay long after we know that it isn’t healthy for us:
“Know that I loved you so bad/I let you treat me like that/I was your willing accomplice, honey/And I watched as you fled the scene/Doe-eyed as you buried me/One heart broke, four hands bloody
"The things I did/Just so I could call you mine/The things you did/Well, I hope I was your favorite crime/‘Cause baby you were mine”
I imagine talking about yourself and your problems for an entire album wears on a person, especially when said album is written during a period of tribulation. The last song focuses outward completely and draws on Olivia Rodrigo’s empathetic nature. For me, a quintessential part of growing up and graduating high school is the relationships you form, foster, grow apart from, or wish you could play a bigger part in. Those people will follow you around long after you’ve left your hometown. In “hope ur ok,” Rodrigo speaks to sad bitches everywhere, and anyone who’s had the strength to overcome those difficult years. In this song she conveys an understanding that her issues are not the only issues and that we all have something to overcome:
“Does she know how proud I am she was created/With the courage to unlearn all of their hatred?/We don't talk much, but I just gotta say/I miss you and I hope that you're okay.”
It isn’t as if other Disney stars like Demi or Miley haven’t ridden the pipeline from budding actor to pop sensation with critical acclaim, and artists like Taylor Swift have put their pain on a stage for others to relate to over and over. But Olivia Rodrigo has created an album that is completely herself right out of the gate. It’s not tainted by that looming cloud of over-production by old dudes that think they know what teenagers want to hear.
It usually takes several albums before I can actually recognize someone's true identity in the narrative of their album. Even my favorite pop singers had to win me over to their side over time. Sour is one of the best debut pop albums to come out during my lifetime, and I can only imagine where Olivia Rodrigo will go from here. I was so starved for someone to describe my experiences to me that hearing them sung out loud a decade later hit me over the head like a sledgehammer. Streaming this album on repeat helped me and many others carve out some space to spend time validating our younger selves. I truly hope you give it a listen. If you do, I hope you’re transported back to a time when you felt like the world didn’t want to understand you and let the words wash over you like a much-needed hug from a friend. Now, on to thrive season <3