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Olivia Rodrigo promises resuscitation for a dying pop ecosystem with GUTS

Release date: 08 September 2023
Olivia Rodrigo GUTS cover
08 September 2023, 05:00 Written by Matthew Kim

One of the greatest tragedies in recent pop music history is the death of the electric guitar.

Searching through the pop charts for the last ten years, you’d be hard-pressed to find genuine rock anthems – maybe a tepid Imagine Dragons single, at best, or a Miley Cyrus song swimming at the bottom of the charts. Olivia Rodrigo seems dead set on changing that.

Rodrigo is one of the most fascinating stories of pop stardom in recent memory. Starting at the margins of fame with a couple of Disney Channel roles in the late 2010s, her big break came in 2021 with the release of the inescapably popular power ballad “drivers license”. Just five months later, she released her debut album, SOUR – a stunning pop album overflowing with boy troubles and teenage angst – and was rewarded for it with Grammys and critical acclaim alike.

But SOUR, as great as it was, feels in hindsight like it was only a blueprint. GUTS, her sophomore effort, takes the best things about Rodrigo’s past work – the emotional potency, the confessional lyricism, the pivots into alt-rock – and cranks it up. The pop-rock tracks on GUTS are stronger, more raw, more unfiltered; the ballads are more ambitious and well-written. The result is a raw, confessional album more interested in telling Rodrigo’s story than conforming to the standards of popular music.

Rodrigo – who was born in the early 2000s and grew up listening to her parents’ alt-rock – takes frequent musical inspiration from the turn-of-the-decade pop punk and garage rock revival. But Rodrigo takes her influences and spins them into something entirely new, often reflecting on the complexities of being a young woman thrust instantaneously into the limelight. Opener “all-american bitch” begins with pleasant fingerpicked guitar before launching into fuzzy electric guitars, all paired with a list of one-liner stereotypes about how women in the public sphere are expected to act: letting crude jokes slip by without a fight, empathetic but not enough to ever become unpleasant, knowing your age and acting like it. It’s a powerful piece of social commentary with an instrumental punch to back it up. But not all the songs have – nor do they need – that much meaning. “ballad of a homeschooled girl” reads less like a well-thought-out political critique and more like the stream-of-consciousness journal entry written the morning after after a particularly embarrassing party, replete with raw power chords, immaculate tempo changes and half-rapped verses.

But not all of the album is forceful pop-rock – far from it. About half of the tracks are slower, and more reflective, but just as angsty. And, like the rest of GUTS, they aspire to much more than her previous work; they’re ambitious and multifaceted. “lacy” is an airy, tender-yet-cutting acoustic piece about envying someone else’s perceived perfection; the plucked guitars and soaring vocals make the song feel more intimate than anything she’s released before. “making the bed” starts as a standard piece of melancholy pop, but is overtaken by synth drones and washes of soft guitars more reminiscent of dream pop. Lead single “vampire” doesn’t take long to evolve from a subtle singer-songwriter ballad into a propulsive piano-rock tune with synth stabs and a surprisingly dynamic rhythm section.

The fact that Rodrigo can pen both types of songs – everything from gut-wrenching breakup tunes to sardonic social commentary – is a testament to how well she can sell an emotion through her music. Down to the smallest vocal inflections – from the apathetic, tossed-off “fuck it, it’s fine” in the prechorus of “bad idea right?” to the self-judging “Jesus, what was I even doing?” on “love is embarrassing” – Rodrigo’s performances elevate and complement the eclectic range of emotions on GUTS. But perhaps the most surprising part is just how funny she is. “Laughed at the wrong time, sat with the wrong guy / Searched up how to start a conversation on a website,” she laments about a bad social experience on “ballad of a homeschooled girl”. And on “get him back!”, when describing her desire to enact revenge on a particularly-inept boyfriend, she declares that she wants to “meet his mom and tell her her son sucks”.

However, the main pitfall of Rodrigo’s album isn’t her, or her vocals, or her production, or anything related to her music – it’s that listening to GUTS front-to-back feels like a playlist on shuffle; like two half-albums spliced together. Rodrigo lurches through emotions without warning: she speeds back and forth between impassioned ballads and driving guitar tunes, between teasing sarcasm and devastating heartbreak. On the other hand, though, GUTS wouldn’t feel complete without both halves – even though I tended to enjoy the rock tunes more, the album would feel like it was missing something if it didn’t take the time to slow down and reflect on the same themes with a more personal, pensive tone.

No matter how it’s assembled, GUTS promises resuscitation for a dying pop ecosystem. 2023 has been one of the slowest years in recent memory for big pop-music moments: releases so big that they're events on their own. In the United States, country music rules the charts; even in the UK, where the Top 40 is still dominated by pop music, few albums have caught a foothold at the top for more than a couple of weeks. Even in September, GUTS has a veritable claim on being one of mainstream pop music’s first massive releases of the year – but, evidently, Rodrigo has bigger aspirations than just being big. GUTS doesn’t sound like anything any major pop star has released in decades – or ever, to an extent. And that’s a good thing.

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