Olivia Rodrigo launched to star status with her 2021 debut album “SOUR,” in which she blended the nostalgia of 2000s pop-punk with touching lyrics about teenage heartbreak. Her sophomore album “GUTS,” released Sept. 8, follows in the footsteps of “SOUR” with its rock-style instrumentals and vulnerable songwriting. The album is built on her frustration with bad relationships and, more complexly, the societal pressures she faces to look and act a certain way. Rodrigo’s musical interpretation of these two subjects positions her as a powerful voice of her generation.
“GUTS” kicks off with “all-american bitch.” The dynamic song juxtaposes verses about the difficult expectations of femininity with a punchy chorus exposing the absurd image of the perfect “all-American” girl. She knows how to pull out and play with the fun and ironic aspects of the ever-crushing burden of womanhood, as also exemplified in “ballad of a homeschooled girl.” In the high-energy song, she lists entertaining examples of times she’s slipped up while trying to toe the line of socially acceptable behavior. For example, she sings that she embarrassingly “Thought your mom was your wife / Called you the wrong name twice.”
Her confrontation with these feelings of discomfort in her own skin is also conveyed in more tender forms. In “lacy,” a delicate ode to the personification of the perfect woman, Rodrigo beautifully captures the overwhelming desire to compare herself to others whom she views as flawless.
She builds on this theme in “pretty isn’t pretty,” in which she admits all the ways that she has tried to meet these unattainable beauty standards. In the first verse, she sings, “Bought a bunch of makeup, tryna cover up my face / I started to skip lunch, stopped eatin’ cake on birthdays,” before expressing her frustration later in the song that, no matter what changes she makes, they will never be enough. The honesty of the lyrics is elevated by the overall musicality, which — while cohesive with her other songs — feels fresh in comparison to the soulful ballads or pop-rock anthems that make up the rest of her discography.
“making the bed” describes the dissatisfaction that comes with achieving the status and image she has chased, leaving her “so tired of being the girl that I am.” Yet, her nod to the idiom “you’ve made your bed, now lie in it” creatively suggests that she feels responsible for trapping herself in this miserable persona she built. The song is the high point of the album, with a catchy chorus and cathartic instrumentals.
Heartbreak makes up the second backbone of the album as Rodrigo toys with sentiments of both rage and yearning over a lost love. “bad idea right?,” which was released as a single Aug. 11, and “get him back!” both work through the tension of knowing her ex is wrong for her while still wanting to get back with them. The songs begin with sprechgesang — or talk-singing — from Rodrigo, a style she embraced throughout “SOUR” as well. Though this adherence to pop punk-esque vocals fits with the genre Rodrigo is pursuing, it distracts from her true vocal talent. For instance, her voice beautifully moves listeners through her heartbreak in “the grudge,” a song about the emotional wounds inflicted on her by a previous relationship.
Yet, “the grudge,” “logical” and even her number one single “vampire,” released June 30, feel somewhat repetitive, as they are all breakup songs that begin slow and then gradually ramp up. Many of her stylistic choices make “GUTS” feel like an extension of “SOUR,” rather than a standalone record demonstrating her growth as an artist. Rodrigo’s maturity and skill shine in the songs where she is grappling with her self-confidence and image, but her reversion back to the themes of heartbreak without any new developments holds the album back.
Still, these criticisms can be pushed to the side as listeners reach Rodrigo’s closing song, “teenage dream.” In the song, she asks herself “When am I gonna stop being wise beyond my years and just start being wise?” and “When am I gonna stop being great for my age and just start being good?” Like many artists who rise to success at an early age, she struggles with the implications of her fame and the questions of where she should go from here. The piano ballad proves to listeners that, while her youth may function as a thorn in her side, it is also a testament to, and an essential element of, her talent as a songwriter.
Daphne is an Arts & Culture writer from Austin, Texas. She is planning on studying International and Public Affairs. Her passions include cats, running and Phoebe Bridgers.