On GUTS, Olivia Rodrigo Gets More Earnest

Beneath the cannonball of her voice and the album's thunderous rock arrangements, there is a soft fragility waiting to be absorbed

Music Reviews Olivia Rodrigo
On GUTS, Olivia Rodrigo Gets More Earnest

There was a moment, in the first half of 2021, where adults felt a pressing need to announce to the world why they liked Olivia Rodrigo. The young, bright-eyed Disney Channel actress and songwriter had just gone through her first teenage heartbreak, and had poured her emotions into a “drivers license” (her devastating first single that topped the charts), and then again on her debut album, SOUR—which also topped the charts, won a few Grammys and catapulted the 17-year-old into global pop stardom.

Socially starved, we relished living through her innocence and naivety as she navigated her deep pain. We cried remembering high school heartbreaks that may or may not have happened (though, shockingly, first heartbreaks can actually happen at any age). We used the words “nostalgic” and “geriatric” and “millennial” a lot. What does all that outsized attention do to a teenager with no chance to hone her craft on a smaller stage, whose debut was already hailed as a classic, generation defining voice? In a 2021 piece for The Ringer, Julia Gray noted of our fascination with Rodrigo’s age and SOUR’s ‘00s-era musical influences as a “fixation with dated pop culture relics…We don’t see Olivia Rodrigo for who she is as an artist, but who she is when we project ourselves onto her.”

It’s fitting then, that Rodrigo’s second album, GUTS, begins with “all-american bitch,” an ironic gem that arrives as a gentle, folksy ballad before making a heel turn into a pop punk kiss-off to her idolizers: “I am built like a mother and a total machine,” she sings angelically over a light, fairytale-like guitar plucking. When the full band kicks in and rocks out in the chorus, it’s apparent just how much the now-20-year-old has been holding in all these years: “I don’t get angry when I’m pissed / I’m the eternal optimist / I scream inside to deal with it,” she chants, tauntingly, before actually screaming her guts out. This is about more than just adulthood: GUTS is a brash, sobering look at the totality of fame on a young woman—how it consumes, abuses and isolates.

On SOUR, Rodrigo wore her sadness and rage as armor; her emotions were intense but predictable; and the music hinted at a brighter sky beyond the stormy weather. Not so on GUTS, where bad decisions are encouraged, death is preferable over socializing and every playboy can be fixed. On the dizzy, jangly-rock “bad idea right?,” she willingly ignores her mind’s rational pleas to have one more tryst with an ex, while on the soaring ballad “logical,” she attempts to reason with her own lovesick feelings by believing the impossible: “‘Cause if rain don’t pour and sun don’t shine / Then changing you is possible / I guess love is never logical.” The stakes are higher in these new loves built on power and age differentials—and the consequences cut a lot deeper. “I know I’m half-responsible / And that makes me feel horrible,” she repeatedly sings near the song’s end, soft and fragile, embedded in a wilting layer of synths.

There’s so much self-deprecation and internalized blaming here, which could be viewed as a depressing cry for help if it wasn’t so much fun to listen to. Rodrigo, along with her songwriting and producing partner Dan Nigro, plays with abrupt changes in voice and structure in these otherwise heady tracks, as if to signal that she knows just how absurd she’s being. “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” a rollicking, bratty emo highlight, has her crying out in embarrassment over the most minuscule social faux-pas in a breathless chorus: “I broke a glass, I tripped and fell / I told secrets I shouldn’t tell / I stumped over all my words / I made it weird, I made it worse.” Soaring into a dispiriting line that sounds euphoric—“Each time I step outside / It’s social suicide”—Rodrigo quickly dips into a nonchalant chorus of “ahs,” dismissing her anxious headspace with a shrug.

Meanwhile, the raucous “get him back!” almost positions her as drunk and pleading to a friend at a party, as she raps in a muffled tone trying to make the case for her cheating ex: “But he was so much fun and he had such weird friends / And he would take us out to parties and the night would never end.” A sing-songy chorus drives the point home, as she flutters between what she really wants (“I want sweet revenge and I want him again”)—but it’s the track’s bridge where Rodrigo lets her rage boil up. “I wanna key his car / I wanna make him lunch,” she quietly sneers amid backing chants and a choppy guitar, ramping up the viciousness of her anger and letting it out in a gleeful squeal.

And yet, even with all of Rodrigo’s Kathleen Hanna yelps and fiery screams, I almost wish GUTS was a little more punk than it is rock: Its production seems too clean at times, its fadeouts too exact, and its structural changes too accurate. But the honesty of her rage is still refreshing and, at times, comes across as more earnest than the debut single that turned her into a superstar. Beneath the cannonball of her voice and the album’s thunderous sounds, there is a soft fragility waiting to be absorbed. Anger comes from having no total grasp of the unknown, from the realization that growth is a never ending process.

On SOUR’s opening track, Rodrigo wished for her own “teenage dream;” now that phrase titles GUTS album closer—a reflective lament on the pressures of fame and the fear of not living up to the world’s expectations: “They all say that it gets better / It gets better the more you grow,” she lightly sighs, “They all say that it gets better / It gets better, but what if I don’t?” Raising her voice from that fluttering falsetto to a stronger, yet panicked belt, Rodrigo brings her deepest fears to the surface. These are emotions you don’t need to reminisce on, as long as you let them float within you—as long as you know when to let them go.

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