Why ‘Sour’ is More Than an Album About Teenage Heartbreak

Read why Olivia Rodrigo's debut album 'Sour' is more than just an album about teenage heartbreak.
(Photo credit: David M. Benett / Getty Images)

After the year we’ve had, we could all use a good scream. And Olivia Rodrigo’s song, “good 4 U,” provides the perfect, socially-acceptable opportunity.

Chances are good that you’ve already heard Rodrigo’s chart-topping song “Driver’s License” on the radio or streaming from someone’s Spotify at some point. Whether or not you’re familiar with her breakout album, Sour, you should know this: she is quickly becoming a household name, and not just for the teenage girls among her own age group.

A quick Google search of “Olivia Rodrigo” and “millennials” will bring up dozens of articles about how the 18-year-old rising popstar has captured the attention of our generation. My teenage years are in my rearview mirror, so I feel like a bit of a phony for listening to her belt out her adolescent woes. Still, I can’t stop listening because I have a feeling there’s more to her music than that familiar angst and awkwardness. 

Usually, we connect with an artist because we find something about their work relatable, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with millennials and Rodrigo. After all, we’ve had our driver’s licenses for quite some time now. But for me, and many others of us hooked on the album, it’s not the exact situations or experiences that are especially compelling. It’s a combination of things: the magnetic pull of nostalgia, the thrill of shouting along to the pop-punk tunes after a rough 2020, the universality of a broken heart. All of these things resonate with an audience beyond the teenage crowd. But I’d argue that what attracts people to it most of all is its shameless display of emotion — and the way it invites listeners to step into that vulnerability.

Take the first song on the album, “brutal,” for example. The lyrics are essentially a roll call of Rodrigo’s insecurities, from age-old aches of the heart — “I feel like no one wants me” — to relatable phrases such as “I’m not cool and I’m not smart and I can’t even parallel park” (girl, SAME). With her lyrics, Rodrigo paints a picture of a frustrated, defeated young person who is sick of how “brutal” it is out in the world. And as many of us are still clawing and scraping our way out of a pandemic that still isn’t over yet, that resonates *just* a tad.

But this album isn’t just a venting session. It’s not only about sharing feelings — it’s about sorting through them, deciphering what they mean, learning from them. When our lives feel messy and complicated and maybe even a little bit doomed, it’s hard to know where to start to find our way back. But we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t first recognize what’s holding us back. We have to be honest with ourselves to have growth. We have to be vulnerable. And to me, that’s what Rodrigo’s album is about: unloading and examining those feelings to make some room for clearer thoughts and a new path forward.

Look at the title itself — Sour. The album showcases the often pent-up feelings of annoyance, fury, frustration, despair, and spitefulness that come after being “betrayed,” as she puts it in “traitor.” But in “enough for you,” we see a shift when Rodrigo sings, “I don’t want your sympathy / I just want myself back.” It’s not about getting the boy back. It’s not about revenge or fixing broken things. It’s about mourning the versions of ourselves that crack and crumble and fall away after a heartbreak.

But in choosing vulnerability, we also step into an opportunity for growth. When we shift our focus from the parts of us that we’ve lost, we can look to the new parts we uncover when we’re forced to pivot, to change, to start over. Vulnerability is not weakness — it’s strength. There is power in laying our fears on the table and letting the world see what has scared and shamed and hurt us. Rodrigo is laying claim to her painful experiences and all the feelings that come with them.

And that’s enticing. As someone who keeps things bottled up pretty tightly, singing along to this album is straight-up therapeutic. Sharing what’s on my heart, particularly those things that are weighing it down, has always been like pulling teeth for me — and I know I’m not alone in that. That’s why I’m attracted to this album’s vulnerability. Not only that, but when I listen, I feel united with the countless other people who have also been streaming these songs (if we were to put a number on it, she’s at roughly 300 million Spotify streams).

When we sing along, we’re admitting that we’ve all been there. We’ve all been hurt, angry, disappointed, ashamed. We’ve felt like we were moving “1 step forward, 3 steps back” at some point in our lives. We’ve felt the crushing weight of comparison and jealousy. And so we put down our car windows and scream every word because it feels good to be vulnerable, even if we’re using someone else’s story to get the feelings out.

I’m not like Rodrigo in many ways. I never experienced teenage heartbreak. I’m not a (good) singer or an actress or in a budding friendship with Taylor Swift. But somehow she got a message out with her album that is resonating on a bone-deep level with people like me everywhere. We feel for her. We respect her. We get her. In deciding to listen, again and again and again, we are choosing to be vulnerable together. And there is a beauty in that that makes me unashamed of listening to an 18-year-old’s album on repeat. 

The album itself is both melodramatic and self-aware. It’s gratifying and tragic. It’s a bit petty at times and also shows maturity. Despite these contradictions, it’s a point of connection among lost and broken people looking for a space to unload the weight on our shoulders and let our walls down together.

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