It’s been more than a week since Olivia Rodrigo, the 20-year-old pop sensation in possession of the world’s most famous driver’s license, unleashed her sophomore album, Guts. The annals of pop-star history are full of second albums that fell flat, but, phew, Guts slaps; it’s currently the no. 1 album on the Billboard 200, and it feels like an obvious Album of the Year contender. It also showcases Rodrigo at a fascinating moment in her artistic development and raises questions about her sound identity, how she’s positioning herself in popular music, and, yes, laminated pastry dough. Below, Ringer staff writers Justin Charity and Nora Princiotti discuss:
Charity: So, we’ve both had a few days to spend with Guts. I also spent some time revisiting her previous project, Sour, which fast-tracked Rodrigo to pop superstardom.
Guts is fun, and—perhaps more importantly, for our purposes—Guts is interesting, though in many respects, the current discourse about Guts is a straight-up redux of the discourse about Sour. Once again, it concerns Rodrigo’s originality, her rock influences, and her supposed creative debts to several other musicians, chiefly Taylor Swift.
We’ll talk it all out. First, though, let’s get our bearings and articulate our fundamental theories about Olivia Rodrigo. What’s her sound, exactly? What’s her vibe? And what are her strengths? I tend to think of her as a sort of chaotic band kid with a heart of gold, as she’s often singing about youthful indiscretions and petty impulses with a pleasantly petulant flair. Musically, she’s obviously interested in synthesizing the female pop and female rock influences of her childhood, and she does this pretty effectively, sometimes spectacularly, with some refinement in “bad idea right?” and “get him back!” on Guts. Her ballads are still kind of dry and perfunctory though, unless we’re counting “vampire” as a ballad. (I’m inclined to say it’s not.)
Princiotti: I didn’t come here expecting to share this, but I have this ongoing bit with a friend of mine where sometimes when we’re hanging out, and maybe having a glass of wine, we’ll start singing pop songs as if they were show tunes. The trick, mostly, is to act a little ridiculous and over-enunciate everything so that the lyrics start sounding like dialogue, but it’s also about picking the right song for maximum absurdity. One way I’ve started thinking about a unified theory of Olivia Rodrigo is that she makes this game impossible; she writes Top 40 bangers that are, at their best, not just sung, but performed. Olivia has pipes, yes, but she’s also got punch lines, and she’s definitely got flow. I’m glad you brought up “vampire,” actually, because it’s a great jumping-off point for this. I do count it as a ballad, at least in the sense that it’s the heir apparent to “drivers license,” and it does some important work in building a bridge between the Rodrigo who wrote her breakout hit at 17 while pouring her heart out at the piano and the Rodrigo of Guts, who’s every millennial’s favorite Gen Zer—and who can convincingly pull off “famefucker.” It’s the latter I’m most interested in, but they’re both part of the Rodrigo equation. I hear them in tension sometimes on Guts, but they work together on “vampire” in a way that’s pure Rodrigo.
Charity: I’ll note that neither of us has so far settled on a way of casually referring to Olivia Rodrigo on repeat mentions. Rodrigo? Olivia? May I call you Olivia?
In any case, I didn’t mean to throw “drivers license” under the bus with my comment about her ballads; “drivers license” is great, but otherwise, I suspect I’m with you—I find her almost always far more distinctive and engaging when she’s using blunt force, e.g., “famefucker.” She’s hardly the first pop star to adopt this sort of combative posture in her music, but she’s distinguished, I think, in the balance she strikes between being this intensely diaristic score settler and yet never being too self-obsessed or image conscious or otherwise uptight. She’s meticulous but still credibly carefree.
The thing you’re saying about performance is very real. It’s not just a ballad thing, as was equally true of “drivers license” and “good 4 u” on Sour—she has a way of winding into songs as if they’re these epic yarns. You hear the first couple of bars, you take a breath, and you’re thinking, OK, here we go, and you start looking around for interpretive dancers with streamers to come cartwheeling out of the woodwork. It’s very Adele. That’s someone who makes songs that are incredibly engaging to sing or even just pantomime, even if, realistically, you’re singing those songs 1/1000th as well as Adele does. It’s also very “Don’t Stop Believin’.” Olivia Rodrigo absolutely gets that karaoke theatricality is a powerful element of both pop and rock.
Princiotti: I think that blunt-force energy you’re describing has a lot to do with why rock has entered the chat, so to speak. I’ve enjoyed reading the many reviews of Guts that have focused on the idea that it’s a rock album, but I’m left wondering what that really means to Rodrigo’s core fan base, many of whom have never shopped in one specific section of a record store, or to a general public that sees her in the same ecosystem as Billie Eilish, Lorde, and, yes, Taylor Swift. The way in which it’s salient to me is that, beyond the fact that there are a lot of guitars on this album, there’s something about her type of performance that may be theatrical, but it’s also pretty rock ’n’ roll. I’m thinking of the velvety sneer of “Wanna kiss his face with an uppercut” on “get him back!”; the high-pitched delivery of “I give up everything!” in the outro of “love is embarrassing”; the “Fuck it, it’s fine” in “bad idea right?”—really any time she drops an f-bomb. These are all moments that add texture to the stories she’s telling, but what’s really grabbing about them is that this is when we get to hear Olivia Rodrigo perform being Olivia Rodrigo, which is a very rock star thing to do.
I wonder if that’s the source of some of my difficulty with the ballads. They’re theoretically her most earnest songs, but sometimes she’s trying to be a little too relatable at the expense of keeping it real. The “famefucker” line was almost cut from “vampire,” Rodrigo said, because fame isn’t a universal experience, but it’s the best part of the song. On the flip side, all the little bits and flexes and jokes on Guts have her signature.
Charity: Setting aside Olivia Rodrigo the Rock Star for a moment, what do you make of Olivia Rodrigo the Pop Star? The young woman who now finds herself in the churn of a press determined to pit her against Taylor Swift (at the height of her powers, at that). Or perhaps Rodrigo’s the one determined to stoke these comparisons and advance this emerging conflict—for clout, I suppose?
In any case, I have a hard time taking seriously the idea that Olivia and Taylor are currently engaged in some sort of meaningful rivalry. For one: The origin story of the supposed conflict between them is extremely tedious. Taylor bugged Olivia for a songwriting credit? Taylor took what’s-her-name on tour? What? Who cares? OK, obviously fans care, but part of being a fan is often having nothing better to do than speculate obsessively over utterly inconsequential developments in the personal lives of strangers. But why would either of the women involved in this supposed conflict launch a scorched-earth campaign when there’s obvious potential for either one of them, or even both of them, to come out of it looking pretty ridiculous? Admittedly, rappers have gone to war with each other over even less.
That’s the tabloid angle. There’s also, of course, the musical question. While I know Olivia is (was?) Taylor’s “biggest fan,” and I certainly understand why fans and critics have positioned Olivia as a successor to Taylor in commercial terms, I just don’t think their music or, speaking loosely, their vibes are really all that similar, especially comparing early Olivia to early Taylor. Early Taylor made the music of a girl whose parents wouldn’t let her watch The Simpsons. Olivia Rodrigo makes the music of a girl whose parents would’ve let her audition for Euphoria. Night and day.
I suppose the comparisons and the conflict are two separate concerns. What do you think about both?
Princiotti: Let’s talk conflict first. I must confess I don’t really care whom Guts’ “lacy” and “the grudge” are about. (I might if they were among my favorite tracks from this album.) But I agree with you: If those wounded lyrics are the product of a then-her-lawyers-called-my-lawyers situation, the punishment doesn’t really fit the crime. Disputes over writing credits are a very normal thing in pop music, and “deja vu” did sound a lot like “Cruel Summer.” And yes, Taylor initially championed Rodrigo as an up-and-coming artist, but we know enough from songs like “Nothing New” and “Castles Crumbling” and, heck, “Karma” to know that Taylor sees herself in some degree of tension with whoever the Next Big Thing in pop music is. Right now, that’s Olivia Rodrigo.
Far more interesting to me than whom the songs are actually about, if they’re even about one person, is the fact that Rodrigo is declining every opportunity to publicly reaffirm her Swiftie bona fides. She told The New York Times this summer that she hasn’t caught the Eras Tour yet, her stated reason being “I’m going to Europe this week.” (Never mind that the Eras Tour has been in the U.S. for months.) I suppose Rodrigo knew that this conversation would happen no matter what, and she decided it was best to ride the publicity wave and lean on plausible deniability. Though a more obvious answer might be that she’s genuinely a little stung by how her relationship with her onetime idol has evolved.
What I think the discourse is failing to do here, really, is normalize pettiness. I don’t claim to know anyone’s true feelings, but if Olivia is a little hurt and Taylor is a little annoyed, that’s perfectly OK. I personally dislike several people, many of them for dumb reasons, and it’s really not a problem. Keeps the skin clear.
Where I think the conflict angle and the musical comparison angle converge, honestly, is that we live in a world where nothing can be just a little bit about Taylor Swift. Taylor cannot be decentered in any conversation she’s a part of; it’s her superpower and her curse. It’s why some run-of-the-mill professional jealousy is read as a scorched-earth feud, and it’s also why we’re still having this debate about how much Olivia owes Taylor as a musician when, a couple of individual songs aside, they really don’t have much in common, as you point out.
Rodrigo has done more than enough to prove she has a musical identity that’s uniquely hers. Pop music has always been cyclical and derivative, but Guts is full of creative and thoughtfully constructed tunes—think of the little chord change under the “goddamn Kennedy” line in “all-american bitch” or the way the tempo kicks up as “vampire” builds. Yes, she’s often playing in a pop-punk sandbox that’s instantly recognizable to anyone who remembers 2004, but she’s updating those sounds with her own performative flair and a perspective on young womanhood that’s very 2023. I can hear a track and think, “That’s what an Olivia Rodrigo song sounds like,” and that’s the test that really matters.
And even if we were addressing what Rodrigo owes to whom as far as influence or inspiration, that conversation would make so much more sense to me if it were about Paramore or Lorde—the dynamic shifts all over Guts are very Lorde—than it would if it were about Taylor Swift. Is it just because she mentioned a boy one time?
Charity: Thank you, Nora, for that delightfully infuriating examination of the knock-down, drag-out tabloid war between Olivia and Taylor. I am, as you say, both a little hurt and a little annoyed just thinking about it hypothetically.
I’m totally with you on these last points about originality. Paramore certainly has the strongest claim in this context, in terms of “good 4 u” and “Misery Business,” and even then: The game is the game. I by no means think we should hold pop music to a low or cynical standard, but to your point, I think people could stand to be a bit more clear-eyed about big-budget, high-stakes pop songcraft—both its marvels and its limitations. Two albums deep, I have a pretty firm sense of Olivia Rodrigo’s sound, even if I also have an equally firm grasp of her musical influences. I like her point of view, and I think she’s doubling down on the right aspects while still leaving a lot of room for improvement and redefinition in the next album.
Princiotti: We’ve just lived through a summer where the two biggest pop stars on this planet sold out tours that showcased the depths of their catalogs. I’m not saying Rodrigo is destined for Beyoncédom or Taylorhood, but it’s notoriously hard to follow up a hit debut album, and Rodrigo has done just that. I imagine she’ll dip back into Guts for a concert set list in 2048, and I know I’ll be fighting for my life in the queue for the chance to hear those same songs live for the first time in 2024. [Editor’s note: Princiotti was waitlisted.] That’s a major accomplishment.
Justin, you’ve helped me work through so many of my thoughts and feelings around Guts and its accompanying discourse, and I thank you for that. But I can’t let us go without asking you about the one line from this record that has haunted my days since its release. What does “Lacy, oh Lacy, skin like puff pastry” mean to you?
Charity: Sweet, chic, golden, delicate—I kind of get it. No, I deeply get it, actually, the more that I think about it. Maybe she owes MF DOOM a writing credit too.