When we last premiered a feature on Taylor Swift comparing both versions of Fearless, I was intrigued by the idea of working with my fellow contributors on a similar collaborative piece. Our next group topic takes a look at Olivia Rodrigo’s ultra-popular SOUR album. I asked Mary Varvaris and Zac Djamoos to join me in discussing key comparisons in Rodrigo’s sound to other modern artists, what worked well on the album, as well any missteps or areas for improvement in the young artist’s sound.
What qualities of Olivia Rodrigo draw comparisons to other artists? What songs in particular do you see these comparisons on SOUR?
Mary Varvaris (MV): The persistent narrative around “good 4 u” is that it mirrors “Misery Business” by Paramore. To be honest, I don’t hear it. I don’t hear shared melodies, and lyrically, they are pretty far apart – “Misery Business” is scathing in its ingrained misogyny while “good 4 u” is biting and sarcastic without insulting “the other woman.” However, I’m not upset about the comparison – people actually hear a likeness rather than bringing back the sexist trope that any band with a non-male singer is the “next Paramore” without anything in common with Paramore’s musical styles or Hayley Williams’ vocal and lyrical flairs. That was lazy, outdated, misogynistic bullshit that erased the hard work bands like VersaEmerge, We Are the in Crowd, or Against the Current were putting in. Paramore are incredible and one of my favorite bands, but those constant, unfounded comparisons that pinned women against each other simply for sounding alike or being influenced by Hayley is something I never want to see again. I hear more Breakaway-era Kelly Clarkson in “good 4 u” than anything else. With “brutal,” I hear the teenage fierceness and humor that dominated Wolf Alice’s debut album, My Love is Cool. The relatable ruminations about heartbreak (“traitor,” “driver’s license,” “enough for you”) are reminiscent of Lorde’s storytelling on Melodrama. Of course, she samples Taylor Swift’s “New Year’s Day” on “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” so the Taylor influence is there, too. I don’t think that Olivia is the next anyone, she is her own artist carving her own path.
Zac Djamoos (ZD): Olivia Rodrigo’s voice invites comparisons to Lorde, as does the album’s darker, slower style. Contrary to popular sentiment, SOUR sounds nothing like Paramore.
Adam Grundy (AG): Starting from my first listen of SOUR I noticed a few subtle comparisons of both artists past and present, all well-packaged together into a fresh and modern sound. The crunchy guitar riffs of the opener “brutal” reminded me of the stylistic choices found on K. Flay’s latest efforts, with more of the guitar bite of Beach Bunny. The near-album closer “jealousy, jealousy” is also in that same wheelhouse of K. Flay, with equally pleasing results. Other early album standouts like “traitor” are reminiscent of Julien Baker, whereas the mega-hit “drivers license” unfolds with the majestic beauty of Maggie Rogers’ trademark brand of pop. Similar to how Mary described the comparison to Lorde on this single, I can also hear that, with a subtle mix of Lana Del Rey. The duo of “deja vu” and “happier” initially reminded me of Billie Eilish with whispery vocals and similar production elements to bring out the best product in the end. I agree with Zac and Mary about “good 4 u” being a lazy (and inaccurate) comparison to Paramore, and really the closest it gets to that same wavelength is on its brash, punk rock chorus. Instead, I see more Taylor Swift and early-Kelly Clarkson on this standout song. I may even get some slack for this, but songs like “enough for you,” are in the same vein as Phoebe Bridgers, and with some more experience under her belt, Rodrigo will be more than capable of delivering a trademark album like her female powerhouse counterpart. Comparisons aside from these established artists I feel she is pulling ideas from, Olivia Rodrigo is still holding her own with an impressive vocal range, brilliant hooks, and well thought out lyrical poise not usually seen at the earlier stages of a career.
What works well on SOUR?
(MV): SOUR is a solid debut album. I am very far away from the feelings Olivia details all over the record, but I enjoy her songwriting nonetheless. While I don’t personally relate to the album – I’m working on caring less about relatability and enjoying music for what it is – it’s so refreshing to hear what’s possibly going to be the biggest pop album of the year embrace a multitude of musical styles and instruments. Olivia has brought pop-punk back to the mainstream, and people are really loving and embracing it! So am I – it’s good fun to hear songs like these again minus the “she’s a crazy bitch, she broke my heart, I hope she dies” that’s dominated so much of male-led pop-punk and emo music.
(ZD): Rodrigo’s voice, like Lorde’s, is excellent, as is her ear for melody. SOUR manages to be a pop album that sounds fairly distinct in the current landscape, which is impressive.
(AG): I think Rodrigo’s ability to speak to this generation of misunderstood teens and young adults is as powerful as I’ve seen in quite some time. She is able to directly re-package her influences on SOUR into a staggering blend of powerful pop choruses all built around the relatable concept of going through an ending relationship. She tackles her anxieties, fears, and fantasies with brilliant poise, and the music that backs up her voice is perfectly in-tune with her vocal abilities. I also feel that SOUR benefits from a front-loaded Side A that will immediately bring the listener in and make them take notice of her lyrics, and therefore hang on her every word on some of the more laid back tracks on the back half.
What are some of the album’s missteps, if any?
(MV): I do think that SOUR is too downtempo and too two-dimensional. It works in Olivia’s favor and for people who relate to what she’s exploring, but I do tend to tune out if songs blend together a lot and only explores one theme.
(ZD): That said, it stays in the same lane for much of the record. While “Brutal” is a wonderful and immediately gripping opener, it sets up the record to be much more pop rock heavy than it is. Resequencing to break up the ballads a bit could’ve helped.
(AG): I agree with both Zac and Mary’s point about the repetitious pattern of an up-beat track followed by a ballad, and so on, not doing favors to SOUR’s overall flow. The back half of the album tends to sag with more of these introspective styled songs about a broken heart and a lost love. That being said, the flaws in SOUR are more well-hidden than on most debut records since it tends to redeem itself more often than not.
What are some of the qualities of SOUR that you feel fans/listeners will most identify or connect with?
(MV): I think that pop-punk fans will revel in their nostalgia and enjoy a new exploration of the genre. As for what listeners will potentially identify and connect with, SOUR digs into post-breakup heartbreak. We remember jealousy (jealousy); we remember driving past our ex’s house crying and singing and begging for them to love you again. Everyone wants to feel less alone in their experiences and in the world. That’s why we latch on to albums like SOUR and Red by Taylor Swift. Heartbreak is a unique experience for everyone who feels it, but it’s ultimately universal and isolating when you’re facing it. I love that 16-year-olds, 36-year-olds, and 56-year-olds can find closure from past relationships by listening to Olivia Rodrigo. That’s what music is all about, and I think that’s a big part of why Olivia has dominated 2021 so far.
(ZD): SOUR is unabashedly a pop album, but it’s one with its own flavor (get it?). It doesn’t sound like the current crop of ‘80s or trap influenced pop at all. It just sounds like SOUR. That will certainly connect with listeners.
(AG): I think there’s a lot to love on SOUR. It blends so many modern artists’ styles and still sounds refreshing on every spin. I think younger listeners will look up to Olivia Rodrigo’s ability to convey a wide range of emotions and feelings as she deals with the aftermath of a break-up. She says a lot of things about this past relationship that I think people will identify with and say, “I wish I had the guts to say that!” So in those ways, I think Rodrigo is a powerful female role model for younger listeners to easily identify with.
Any other observations from repeat listens that stand out about Olivia Rodrigo?
(MV): I don’t love SOUR. I enjoy it, for sure, but I am more excited about where Olivia goes next. I eagerly anticipate her growth as a songwriter and as a vocalist. I just hope that people in the press who have torn down Billie Eilish for her individuality – how she chooses to dress, what her songs explore – stay the fuck away from Olivia and let her live.
(AG): This is an album that’s imperfect, but I love it for being that way. Subtle and not-so-subtle nods to scene staples like Taylor Swift, Kelly Clarkson, and at times Avril Lavigne, will find fans reaching for the replay button on this album more often than not. I surely am a little old to get all of the raw emotions Rodrigo conveys on this record, but I do still vividly remember what heartbreak feels like. Her ability to bring to the surface all of these raw feelings as its fresh in her mind is as equally powerful as it is heart wrenching, and it makes it that much easier to root for her success. Olivia Rodrigo is experiencing what many young artists can only dream of early on in their career: success. One can only hope, like Mary mentioned, that the media and fans alike allow her to be herself and try to build her up rather than be quick to tear her down. It’s so much easier in this era of online bullying to buy into the “noise” (whether that be negative or positive), but I would suggest everyone give SOUR a fighting chance with an open mind and heart.