Books & Culture

Angry Breakup Albums: Olivia Rodrigo’s Debut Album Sour Taps into Female Rage and Vulnerability, and It Feels So Good

To call Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour an angry breakup album is to do it a disservice. There’s enough angry breakup songs here to warrant the moniker, but there’s also so much more. Rodrigohas a wide emotional and musical range. Listening to her album is like taking a tour of pop music in the last 30 years. She’s too young to be this good. She was born in 2003. I graduated from high school in 2003. I’m so fucking old.

Everyone who is anyone has been writing about Olivia Rodrigo lately and comparing her to Taylor Swift, but I have to vehemently disagree. Yes, there’s the influence of Swift in this songwriting, but there’s also something more. The angry breakup songs in Rodrigo’s Sour remind me more of Alanis Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill and Phoebe Bridgers’s Punisher than they remind me of Swift. Taylor Swift is pure pop music, Rodrigo is something else. What she is exactly is more difficult to define. She seems to have taken the pop music cannon of the last 30 years, mixed it up in her head, and put together something entirely original. This is art-making at its finest. In Rolling Stone, she’s been compared to Swift, Lorde, Billy Joel, and Billie Eilish. Others have compared her to Fiona Apple and Avril Lavigne and Hole. I haven’t seen an artist compared to such a wide range of musical influences. It’s stunning.

But there’s so much more than pop reference here. Rodrigo is a new type of feminist singer that doesn’t need to push her feminism too hard, because she embodies it so purely. She lives it. Rodrigo taps into female rage, something I’m pleased to see more often expressed in pop music. But, alongside her anger, Rodrigo is also able to express remarkable vulnerability as well. She’s heartbroken, but won’t tear another woman down in her rage and grief. Damn, she’s so much more mature than I am. I’m so fucking old.

Vulnerability is anger’s foil. We get angry to cloak our grief. Beneath the rage there’s always an exposed heart. Listening to Rodrigo’s songs feels a little like unwrapping the bandages on a wound, and finding the truest truth beneath all the scar tissue. Vulnerability seems to be in the air, and not just because Brene Brown wrote a book about it.

When Rodrigo released “Driver’s License,” it became one of the most talked-about songs of the year—and for good reason. The song is accessible and poppy, but also tips its hat to Phoebe Bridgers’s emo vibe. I have to agree with Rob Sheffield of the Rolling Stone: what’s especially stunning about this album is its command of the entire pop culture lexicon. There’s punk, there’s Billie Eilish’s alternative indie, there’s Bridgers’ emo, there’s a little of Swift’s pop—there’s everything.

In the second, and possibly best, song on the album, “traitor,” Rodrigo sings about sexual betrayal: “It took you two weeks to go off and date her, guess you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor…” While the song begins in a totally emo place (another track I thought I’d save for my “cry myself to sleep playlist,”), the song kicks into a higher gear toward the end. It gets angry, offering listeners real catharsis. Rodrigo raises the volume when she sings, “When she’s sleeping in the bed we made don’t you dare forget about the way you betrayed me.”

I couldn’t help but remember Alanis Morrisette singing: “Are you thinking of me when you f*** her,” in You Oughta Know.

Rodrigo taps deeply into teenage anger in Sour, an emotion that Swift only dabbles in. Swift gives us bubblegum with a little pop now and then for emphasis; Rodrigo puts the gum under the desk and scratches the chalkboard. So, while I understand the comparison, I think Rodrigo’s range is far wider than Swift’s.

In “traitor” Rodrigo sings about a boyfriend’s gaslighting. You could cry along, but you’ll have more fun punching a pillow while singing the song at the top of your lungs. There’s a complexity of self-analysis that that Swift and other pop stars never quite approach in their lyrics. Breakup songs are quick to blame the spurned partner (Justin Bieber, I’m looking at you), but Rodrigo is too smart for that. There’s a brilliant self-awareness in Sour. Rodrigo doesn’t choose easy anger. Rolling Stone’s Angie Martoccio writes that in songs about an ex’s new lover, Rodrigo “resists the urge to tear their new partner down.” I found myself similarly impressed by Rodrigo’s songwriting emotional maturity. Not even Alanis could pull that one off, and I love Alanis.

Rodrigo’s mom is a therapist, and that’s probably why so many of the songs have the feeling of someone who has really worked through the emotions fully by the time she’s sitting down to write the songs. In “favorite crime,” Rodrigo sings about her part of the breakdown, “I let you treat me like that. I was your willing accomplice, honey.”

Broken Up. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood. Original Art.
Broken Up. Watercolor. Janice Greenwood.

Listening to Sour is a little like looking at a piece of ore with all these different veins going through it. There’s crystal and quartz and streaks of sediment, and maybe even a fossil or two. Rodrigo draws in what is necessary to make the song work.

Perhaps what’s most remarkable of all is her ability to appeal to such a wide range of women (and men). I’ve read reviews written by women in their late twenties who love her just as much as aged music critics. Is it that Rodrigo is able to live a kind of feminism so many of us could only imagine when we were 17? Is it because she brings us back to being 17 so powerfully? Is it because she can finally say all the things we thought when we were younger, but couldn’t quite say because we didn’t have yet a language for our experience back then? Has she tapped into a particular kind of nostalgia with her ability to evoke so many influences on one album? Perhaps Rodrigo’s Sour does all these things. What I know for sure: I love it.

About the Writer

Janice Greenwood is the author of Relationship: A Poetry Book. She holds an M.F.A. in poetry and creative writing from Columbia University. She founded Sphinx Moth Press to provide more opportunities for low-income writers to have their work read and reviewed. When you buy an independently reviewed book through my Bookshop links above, you not only support local bookstores, but also this blog, a labor of love.