It's rare for an emerging pop star to set the Spotify record for most streams in a day for a non–holiday track and then return to break it just a few months later with a debut album. It's even more unlikely that it is an eighteen–year–old can manage to throw everyone, no matter their age, back into the throes of high school romance in all of its angsty glory.
And yet, Olivia Rodrigo has managed once again to prove that she is not just a rising musician who is dominating social media for her work’s relatability—she’s also on her way to personifying the zeitgeist of the 2020s.
Rodrigo’s first studio album, SOUR, encapsulates the fallout of a messy, young relationship—sampling a range of genres, from the Paramore–esque pop–punk single “good 4 u” to the melancholic ballad “happier.” But beyond its reputation as a successful debut or an incisive breakup album, SOUR's appeal lies in its candor. Rodrigo skips right past ambiguity in favor of straight–shooting lines like “Cause I love people I don’t like / And I hate every song I write / And I’m not cool, and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park.” Gone are the indirect metaphors we’re accustomed to hearing in songs about growing up or failed relationships; instead, here are songs we can scream along to comfortably because there’s no need to decode the lyrics.
Maybe this openness is what contributes to the cathartic nature of SOUR, another reason why Rodrigo’s album is uniquely mass–appealing and emblematic of our current collective consciousness. While Rodrigo’s target audience is probably teens around her age, her debut threw the entire Internet into a frenzy; articles like The Cut’s "I Am 30 and Obsessed with Olivia Rodrigo's New Album 'Sour'" and Vogue’s “Help! Am I Too Old to Feel So Seen by Olivia Rodrigo’s New Album?“ demonstrate SOUR’s far–reaching impact. Similarly, social media sites like TikTok and Twitter exploded with fervent praise for the young pop star from high schoolers and college students.
Rodrigo’s dominance on the TikTok ‘For You' page is nothing new, with all three of her singles becoming wildly popular sounds on the social media app. The level to which most of her discography constantly appears on millions of popular videos, however, is unique to Rodrigo. The combined millions of videos under "drivers license" and its angrier sister song "good 4 u" showcase Rodrigo's ability to bottle catharsis into belted and impassioned bridges. Beyond her smash singles, users posted all of the things they did for partners who left or mistreated them while lip–syncing to “favorite crime,” used the inverted filter on themselves and a friend to “deja vu,” and asked their boyfriends to temporarily break up with them so they could fully experience SOUR’s heartbreak to the emotional piano ballad “traitor.”
On Twitter, users (including "hate u love u" singer Olivia O'Brien) tweeted about wishing they had Olivia Rodrigo's music back when they were still in high school, sparking another subset of jokes responding to the overwhelming retroactive clamor for Rodrigo's music. While the staggering social media response to SOUR may seem novel, Rodrigo's shrewd approach to social media promotion simultaneously appeals to Gen Z and millennial online audiences. SOUR has garnered both public and critical acclaim, confirming Rodrigo's universal appeal to a variety of demographics.
While SOUR mostly focuses on romantic relationships, Rodrigo brings in more enduring teen experiences, including themes of feeling inadequate compared to others or growing distant from old friends. The final song on SOUR, "hope ur ok," looks back on past friendships and is imbued with warm optimism. The track reminds us that following any emotional turmoil (exemplified by the rest of the album), there is comfort in knowing that things will eventually get better. And while Rodrigo sings "But, God, I hope that you're happier today / 'Cause I love you / And I hope that you're okay" to an unnamed friend, it feels like she's singing directly to us. Rodrigo's lyricism extends a unique empathy from the perspective of someone who has publicly loved and lost. She relates our sorrows to her own, but doesn't judge us for it.
At just eighteen, Rodrigo has captured all of the worst parts of a breakup and condensed the aftermath into eleven brief tracks. For a high schooler, it seems almost impossible that the product of her own heartbreak could speak volumes to so many people and pinpoint the most uncomfortable, gnawing effects of a breakup. And although SOUR is clearly dominated by negative emotions like anger and sadness, Rodrigo's status as a hopeless romantic hasn't been forgotten. Many of the love songs Rodrigo has posted snippets of on her Instagram didn't make it into her debut, causing fans to theorize that Rodrigo is planning on releasing a follow–up album filled with all the redeeming qualities of love called SWEET, serving as a foil to SOUR.
Regardless of any potential projects on the horizon, SOUR has already provided an album for everyone who's going through growing pains or romantic changes, no matter where they are in their lives. Perhaps Rodrigo's appeal to all ages shouldn't be surprising; love, heartbreak, and nostalgia have always endured as themes common to the human condition. Rodrigo has just managed to master putting a distinctive voice to entire generations' experiences—and she's setting trends along the way.