Staff writer Ying Xi Claire Tai reviews Olivia Rodrigo’s album, ‘GUTS,’ an unapologetic yet reflective exploration of expectation, insecurity, and hypocrisy, all exacerbated by the teenage mind.
In the last three years, Olivia Rodrigo’s name has become a household staple, with her debut breakup album ‘SOUR’ topping the Billboard 200 chart upon its release. Following a brief tour stint, three Grammies, and a White House invitation, it is safe to say Rodrigo lives a life unlike most 20-year-olds. Yet, the singer-songwriter has an otherwise limited presence, shrouding her in mystery and painting her as an unattainable standard. Rodrigo completely upends this perception in ‘GUTS.’ Returning to the limelight with her sophomore album, released on September 8 2023, she combines cutthroat lyrics with piano ballads and a rock edge. In the process, Rodrigo intimately recounts her learning curves and mistakes in life but perhaps not in love.
The album opens with a softly strummed mandolin in “all-american bitch,” the first of 12 tracks, each stylised in lowercase. Contrary to the straightforward accompaniment, Rodrigo’s lyrics are anything but. “And I am built like a mother and a total machine” is one of many examples where she lists contradictory traits in succession. Embodying both the biological and the mechanical, Rodrigo foreshadows the impossible and never-ending social rules she, and women in particular, are burdened by. Abruptly but also expectedly, this facade crumbles in an explosive, drum-heavy chorus before another tongue-in-cheek reference, this time to the almost golden age of America: “I got class and integrity / Just like a goddamn Kennedy.” Far from the idealised 1960s woman, Rodrigo is defiantly foul-mouthed, carving out a space for her true, albeit messy, identity. Just as the American decade began with the election of a beloved president and ended in political turmoil, the song is an introduction to Rodrigo’s simultaneously sedated and frantic headspace, crucial to the tangled narrative she spins in the following songs.
Stepping down from her celebrity pedestal, Rodrigo presses pause on the edgier instrumentation, opting instead for a folksy fingerpicked acoustic guitar in “lacy.” In the album’s fourth song, Rodrigo emulates her parasocial audience, redirecting the expectations placed on her onto a fictitious character. Practically deifying Lacy as a “dazzling starlet, Bardot reincarnate,” the titular character emphasises Rodrigo’s self-perceived inadequacy. Her insecurity and jealousy transition cleverly into the next track, “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” an ironic moniker for a tune heavily inspired by 2000s rock. In a world where every interaction is subject to comparison, Rodrigo can seemingly do no right, screaming, “Each time I step outside, it’s social suicide. Paralleled by a cacophonous mixture of cymbals and filtered bass guitar, Rodrigo laments her many social missteps, literally sighing from exhaustion.
The sixth song and halfway point of ‘GUTS’ marks a shift in the artist’s narrative. Rodrigo acknowledges her fault for the first time, singing, “And I’m playing the victim so well in my head / But it’s me who’s been making the bed.” Childishly pulling bedsheets over her head, the still-young Rodrigo tries slowing down the tempo, weathering the stormy fame fast track where her life “feels so out of control.” As the drowsy instrumentation lags behind her vocals, Rodrigo reflects on the difference between the stardom she imagined and an often upsetting reality. After all, she is only human. Rodrigo displays a newfound maturity by embracing her mistakes, even at the risk of losing her mythicised image. She’s made the bed and must now lie in it.
Much like Rodrigo has adapted, her storytelling perspective has evolved from the heartbroken ingénue in ‘SOUR’ into the frenzied, often sardonic rogue. Though “logical” and “the grudge” bear some thematic and musical similarities to her debut, “get him back!” and “love is embarrassing” are misleadingly romantic titles. The former is a double entendre with an either wanting or vindictive tone mirrored in its lyrics (“Wanna kiss his face / With an uppercut”) that subverts meanings halfway through. Meanwhile, Rodrigo is quite obviously endeavouring to put romance behind her in the latter. With exaggerated falsetto flips over shimmering guitar, Rodrigo truly lets go in the song’s bridge, exclaiming in celebratory fashion, “I give up, I give up, I give up everything.” Rodrigo may no longer be the wide-eyed idealist, but she is going out with a bang.
As the album nears its end, ORodrigo pumps the brakes in the piano-led final track, “teenage dream.” From the song’s conception to the album’s release, Rodrigo has grown from 19 to 20. Despite spending 35 minutes and 30 seconds over the prior 11 songs reminiscing her tumultuous coming of age, Rodrigo still grapples with conflicting messages. Barely an adult, does she still have her whole life ahead of her? Or, no longer a teenager, has she already reached her full potential? Channeling the collective teenage voice, Rodrigo cries, “They all say that it gets better / It gets better, but what if I don’t?” As the strings bend down, mimicking her slow descent into madness, a soft murmuring sound pierces through right as the song fades. Therefore, rather than losing her sense of self, Rodrigo ends the album with bittersweet voice notes of her producer’s newborn daughter. Rodrigo may no longer be a child, but there is much more life to live.
In many ways, ‘GUTS’ is a confusing amalgamation of loose ends and lessons not learned. As such, the album’s incoherency defies traditional analysis, ironic from the standpoint of an album review. Yet, simultaneously, Rodrigo poses a universal question: Am I good enough? Like many her age, she balances teenage angst against an understanding that failures are necessary for growth. Hence, in her ode to awkwardness, envy, and worry, Rodrigo also asks, “What’s next?”