Olivia Rodrigo’s GUTS: Sophomore Slump or Smash?

By Lennox Reeder

GUTS, the sophomore album from pop’s hottest rising star, is Olivia Rodrigo’s greatest chance yet to snatch Taylor Swift’s queen of pop crown. The purple cover evokes Rodrigo’s first album, Sour, perhaps indicating that the two are from a similar artistic period. In interviews, Olivia Rodrigo has intimated that GUTS is something of a time capsule from about a year ago. The sonic impression of this album goes far deeper than her earlier work, expanding Rodrigo’s career past the Disney icon sphere, putting her into a sphere of multi talented performers like Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez. It features a familiar dynamic range, sparse instrumentation, characteristic modulation of her iconic vocal, and rare rapping from a post-Katy Perry California girl.

GUTS continues Olivia Rodrigo’s developing style of post-pop punk balladry with such bangers as “lacy” and lead single “vampire.” Producer Dan Nigro is back, his Jeff Buckley inspired fingerprint obvious on tracks like “Making the Bed” which plays on stripped strings and the sort of cursive singing popularised by the newest generation of pop starlet. The limitations of his production style are obvious on tracks like “all-american bitch” which fails to fully encapsulate the range of emotion and dichotomy of lyricality Rodrigo is known for due to its sparse production and underappreciation of dynamic range. 

What’s most remarkable about this album is how it wears its influences on its shoulder. I happen to think that Rodrigo’s audio project makes a clever pastiche of contemporary pop influences, the elephant in that room being the songwriting credits for Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff on 2021s “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” and knods to 90s punk. A clever pick for a West Coast artist, it allows her discography to dance across harsh strings, roaring solos, and minimalistic piano, often all within the same track. Where most contemporary pop engages with the legacies of hip hop, R&B, or other mid 20th century stylings, GUTS is revolutionary in that it recognises that music is a conversation best had in the contemporary moment. It’s an album that seems to really understand being 20-something in the 2020-somethings and expresses that by referencing something much closer to the Talking Heads many of her fans grew up with than the “Gin and Juice” of previous pop. 

“get him back!” and “ballad of a homeschooled girl” are two soft spots on the record, and both are worth investigating. “get him back!” features a raprock sound familiar to fans of JNCOs and Faygo, perhaps the most flyover state sound to come out of a star since Taylor dropped her folksy Pennsyltucky “accent” for a pop sound on 2014’s 1989

I for the record do not want to just compare Olivia Rodrigo to Taylor Swift, I happen to think these two artists are pursuing somewhat different projects. Rodrigo got her start on children’s television through the failing Disney Channel, in Highschool Musical: The Musical: The Series (double colon not my idea). Where artists like Miley Cyrus had a difficult time breaking out of the Disney child star bubble, Olivia Rodrigo has always flirted with sex and relationships in a way Taylor Swift intentionally never has (fans of the Eras Tour can readily call to mind Taylor’s attempts at sensual dancing; it created a cognitive dissonance that put certain elements of her performance at odds with her broader characterisation). 

What makes Rodrigo special is where her influence comes from, even when she’s all but rapping on “get him back!”, there’s nothing hiphop to her sound. Tight guitar licks, clean percussion, and bottomless void production puts her voice and it’s myriad effects centre stage on tracks like “pretty isn’t pretty.”  There’s nothing to reference classic pop music like the Beach Boys, no wall of sound to immerse listeners in a sonic bath, the obvious draw of Olivia Rodrigo is, well, Olivia Rodrigo. It’s a radical departure from the character driven personas of the last generation of pop-rockstars like Bowie. In terms of escaping the child star ecosystem, few have managed to leave that orbit as effortlessly as Rodrigo, and much of her stardom should be understood in that context.

The intimate image on tracks like “ballad of a homeschooled girl ” is, I gather, meant to show off what a songwriter Rodrigo is. We know from interviews that being seen as a songwriter is important to her, although “ballad” shows that to be a skill she is still very much learning. 

I’m choosing to overlook the maladroit implications of a cishet woman finding all of her male love interests to be gay men — a feature I happen to think she left in the track hoping to create some controversy. Even so, what seems to be an investigation of the anxieties of maladjustment due to wasted childhood becomes a sonic crime scene around the 67 second mark, as a barely present droning guitar soars to life alongside underwhelming images of “it’s social suicide” before being replaced by the passive “ah” groans that preoccupy the back half of the track. 

It’s a song that shows a certain overreliance on the current pop single three act show, while forgetting the transitions that made Sour a top album for its year. Talking about transitions, the track to track moves on GUTS reveal the raw edge of this particular producer’s talents. Some tracks open with muttered studio chatter, a bit more of which has been the style since the mid 2010s. But minimal atmosphere, gratuitous moments of silence at finale of tracks like “making the bed” don’t offer an appreciation for Rodrigo’s vocals, a la Adele, an obvious vocal point of comparison for a singer who relies so heavily on belting, but actually offer a certain sonic crib death for immersion within her sonic persona.

“logical” is a possible high point for the record. It features some of Olivia Rodrigo’s signature yodels, and builds the kind of sonic atmosphere that rewards fans of albums like 2020’s evermore. Of real note is the use of dynamic range despite the under the breath delivery that defines about a fifth of this album. I personally read “logical” as a send up of “ivy” — possibly one of the best Taylor tracks of this decade. Where Taylor’s track leans into the sound of stars and obvious career inspirations like Joni Mitchell, Oliva Rodrigo takes “logical” through water imagery and Queen-esque piano dramatics. 

The imagery falls apart, however — the songwriting not yet the intricate spider web that Rodrigo’s core demographic obsesses over, with obvious comparisons to Boygenius and P!nk. It’s one of my favourites on the album for the cascading piano and clever playground chorus construction, but it’s also a bald spot where Rodrigo’s influences shine through in a rough way. We’re seeing a lot of the same silly rock influences of Sour without much reference to a broader swath of punk from the same era. Where is the Sinead influence, the Britney? We’ve heard Olivia do Taylor, we’ve heard her do ICP on “get him back!” but we have yet to see her interpolate Paramore for the tiktok girlies. These aren’t meant to be negs, but looking at artistic legacy and sonic delivery, it’s time for her to step beyond the purple era and embrace a sound that shows off more of that voice and lyrical originality.

The most impressive part of GUTS is its topical vibrance. Alongside referencing Taylor deliberately and regularly in her sonic profile, Olivia Rodrigo has followed the trend of opening her balladry on tracks like “pretty isn’t pretty” to intimate gazes inward. She can muster, as with tracks like “lacy,” a more explicit expression of sultriness than we’ve ever seen from Taylor Swift, pushing more towards the Miley Cyrus territory of embracing and exploring the audacious. 

I rate this album an 8 out of possible 10 points. It’s the best album Olivia Rodrigo has produced – but there is a long way to go from where her career will peak. I think that expanding the range of her pastiche styles would go a long way to showing off the depths of her excellent voice and vivid understanding of the Zoomer imagination. As with most things in music these days, the most revealing moment of success for this stage of Rodrigo’s artistry will come from the tour/live performance elements related to this album. So much of her artistry is tied up, HAIM-like, in the persona and vivacity of her performance, something many former child-stars have reckoned with, and increasingly so as artists make more and more money from performance and less and less from inconceivably high streaming numbers. Olivia Rodrigo happens to be, I believe, the voice of a generation of young people facing not only the climate crisis but a growing crisis around state level abuses of Queer teens across America, and I hope that tracks like “ballad of a homeschooled girl” represent brief stumbling blocks in what ought to be a long and illustrious songwriting career.

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