Olivia Rodrigo is not your typical Gen–Zer. Her teenage years were dominated by Bizaardvark and later High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Her first step into adulthood—besides getting a drivers license—was releasing her debut record SOUR, filled with teenage angst, agony, and heartbreak. At the age of 18, she already had a multi–platinum record, currently holding the title for the third most–streamed album ever on Spotify by a female artist.
While SOUR was critically acclaimed, some felt the lyrical content was too immature. It’s worth noting that Rodrigo wrote the songs for her debut when she was, in fact, a teenager; any naysayers, however, are addressed “all-american bitch,” the opener for her sophomore record GUTS, where she sings, “I know my age and I act like it." “I’ve always felt like: you can never admit [being angry], be so grateful all the time, so many people want this position,” she admits in an interview with The Guardian. GUTS, then, is a more self–aware, pop–punk inspired album, filled with the unadulterated angst of a maturing musical talent.
Following the cathartic screams of the album opener, Rodrigo continues her confessional streak with the single “bad idea right?” In the half–spoken, half–sung track, she attempts but fails to talk herself out of seeing her ex. Yet, we’re not quite sure if she even regrets it: “I told my friends I was asleep / but I never said where or in whose sheets." Rodrigo marries her acting background and her musical career perfectly, allowing her to show some theatricality in what seems to be a nonchalant–sounding, guitar–driven track. Adulthood isn’t all fun and games, but maybe for one night, Rodrigo can forgive herself for not figuring her love life out.
Elsewhere in the album, she moves away from long–lost teenage love and instead pivots to the very real insecurities that plague the common 20–something–year–old: self–image in “pretty isn’t pretty,” social awkwardness in “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” or self-deprecation in “making the bed.” It is in these songs where Rodrigo shines the brightest and signals a thematic shift away from the puppy love and ultimate first heartbreak of SOUR.
Instead, we get inside Rodrigo’s head a little, revealing some of her deepest, darkest thoughts. In “making the bed,” she accuses herself of “playin’ the victim so well / but it's me who’s been making the bed,” in a tone of regret that feels so visceral against a haunting guitar backing the song. “pretty isn’t pretty” laments her perceived lack of beauty to the point of exhibiting behaviors of eating disorders—”I started to skip lunch / stopped eatin’ cake on birthdays.” Rodrigo seems to borrow a page from Taylor Swift, commonly attributed as a source of inspiration for the singer–songwriter, where hyper–personal lyrics seem to bring out the most relatable stories. But don’t mistake inspiration as copying, as the 20–year–old’s voice and lyricism are clear throughout her sophomore album.
A criticism one may expect from a project like GUTS is that it is too similar to its predecessor. Granted, this critique isn’t unwarranted; “vampire,” the album’s lead single, sounds like it was cut from the same cloth as “drivers license,” both with their subdued intros that build to a climactic bridge. In fact, the album is at its weakest when it plays the debut’s rulebook of heartbreak. “You found a new version of me / And I damn near started World War III” goes “love is embarrassing,” which sounds more like it came out of a writing session for SOUR than for the follow–up.
In addition, bringing personal matters to the table opens the door to speculation, mainly about Rodrigo’s sources of inspiration. Many argued that “vampire” referenced a supposed feud with Taylor Swift, who’s credited on SOUR’s “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” and that this theory is corroborated by “the grudge” as further evidence. Upon the album’s release, people on Tik–Tok immediately caught on that “all–american bitch” sounded too much like Miley Cyrus’ 2007 song “Start All Over.” Many more outlandish theories appeared across the web, all questioning how such a young artist gets her material. It appears that the constraints of pop songwriting caught up to Rodrigo: Just how much should she change her sound and style without alienating her audience? Is it her job to credit all artists for songs with common chord progressions?
Luckily, it seems that Rodrigo had some foresight to address these doubts, along with expressing how it feels to be under the spotlight at such a young age. “[I’m] only nineteen / But I fear that they already got all the best parts of me,” she confesses in “teenage dream,” wondering if it’ll get better like everyone around her says it will. And while the now 20–year–old singer doesn’t provide us or herself with a definitive answer, it perfectly exemplifies the core of this album: she doesn’t have everything figured out, and that’s okay. If SOUR is akin to a teenage diary, then GUTS is the young adult manifesto—a beautiful, awkward, raging, confusing, but ultimately sincere collection of songs about growing into adulthood under the public spotlight.