Pop Perfection: Olivia Rodrigo “Sour”

Olivia Rodrigo is selling a lot of records without the co-sign of a near-40-year-old dude in flyover country, so it’s not like this is the most essential, ground-breaking post I’ll ever write, but I kept hearing her singles in public and thinking “damn, that’s a good song, I need to listen to her album!” I kept not getting around to it until recently and now that I have, well … wow.

Olivia Rodrigo is about to turn 19 years old, and on her debut album “Sour,” she’s shown a savant-level mastery of not just pop music, but the human condition. Every song is ridiculously catchy. Every song has at least one line that makes me gasp with how cutting and authentic it is. Her voice is powerful and clear. The album’s lead single, “good 4 u,” is the kind of explosive, undeniable statement of purpose and talent you just don’t often see topping the pop charts.

Understand, not a lot of pop gets me that way. Music done well is music done well, whether it’s a hidden gem or a top 40 platinum seller, but I find that chart-topping albums don’t usually evoke that “wow” reaction for me. I really appreciate artists such as Lorde and Billie Eilish, for instance, for subverting cultural expectations about pop music and pop stars, selling a ton of records, and making really good music in the process. In a way, making artistically impressive pop music that ALSO sells a ton is the most amazing trick to me.

One of my favorite pop albums ever is one that didn’t really sell a ton of copies: The Format “Dog Problems” is a masterfully written break-up album that also happens to be a pitch-perfect collection of pop rock gems. Lead singer Nate Ruess went on to form the band fun. and sold a lot of records with them, so at least his genius was eventually appreciated on a wider scale. But to me, the work he did with The Format felt more raw, more emotional, more evocative of real pain and the kind of mental gymnastics we humans do when our heart’s been broken (or we’ve played the fool and broken someone else’s heart).

That’s exactly the same ground Olivia Rodrigo covers. Yes, a lot of musicians have written break-up albums and break-up songs, so it’s not like the concept is itself original, but that’s what makes it all the more amazing that she’s created something that hits home in a way that all but a handful of the others can’t.

If this was easy, everybody’s break-up songs would be classics. I have a feeling Olivia Rodrigo has done something quite difficult with “Sour,” and has created a work of meaningful, emotionally resonant pop art that will stand the test of time, the way titanic pop break-up albums like Alanis Morissette’s 1995 classic debut “Jagged Little Pill” still stand out all these years later. Or at least it should! If nothing else, please check out her Tiny Desk concert to get a full view of this young woman’s immense talent.

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