Listen, I get it. I get the temptation to fall under the trance of a few catchy power chords and lilting vocals and jump to the conclusion that the person you’re listening to is a fully realized musician deserving of accolades and superstardom.
But Olivia Rodrigo is not that pop star yet, and the raves for her freshly released sophomore album, Guts, are both overblown and oddly suspect in their uniformity.
“Olivia Rodrigo knocked it out of the park on her first try, with her instant classic of a debut, Sour,” Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield writes. “Her excellent new Guts is another instant classic, with her most ambitious, intimate and messy songs yet.”
As a voracious consumer of pop music and criticism, I’ve read enough of Sheffield’s reviews to know that he’s a staunch Taylor Swift devotee who fawns over every one of her new albums within five seconds of its release, so I’m inclined to take his instant appraisal with a grain of salt, despite my own love of Swift. Still, it fascinates me that the critic has now given the “instant classic” treatment to Rodrigo, who, when she broke big in 2021, was cast as Swift’s devotee, potential heir apparent, and budding friend.
That is, until the ultimate clash of the creatives that, by now, has been so tirelessly documented. To refresh your memory: After openly gushing about how she was inspired by Swift’s “Cruel Summer” bridge while writing her hit “Deja Vu,” Rodrigo ended up adding a co-writing credit for Swift and Jack Antonoff to the track.
Rodrigo hasn’t just openly admitted to directly borrowing from Swift: She’s been called out for lifting melodies from other artists, and has reportedly paid the price to the tune of millions of dollars in royalties. When her hit single “Good 4 U” came out, fans pointed out the sonic similarities to the iconic Paramore hit “Misery Business,” and original Paramore songwriters Hayley Williams and Joshua Farro ended up retroactively getting songwriting credits.
As a great many Rodrigo defenders have accurately pointed out, the history of pop music is essentially hinged upon outright theft, whether it be lyrical, conceptual, or melodic. There are only so many notes and riffs that exist, and just because one song borrows from another doesn’t mean the song doing the borrowing doesn’t have value.
Having to concede several co-writing credits to hugely popular artists on your debut album is a red flag for me as a listener looking for originality, but not an insurmountable one. It’s only over time that I’ve decided I truly can’t get on board with Rodrigo. And Guts, by sounding like a teenage-angst mood board instead of the lived experience of an individual human being, has cemented that for me.
Olivia Rodrigo’s “all-american bitch” is going viral due to its similarity to Miley Cyrus’ “Start All Over.”
— Miley Cyrus Charts (@CyrusOnStats) September 8, 2023
If Rodrigo was a savvier operator, she would have learned from the many “stealing” accusations she faced on Sour and taken pains to avoid those traps going forward. But already, there’s a viral tweet going around comparing the melody of Guts’ opening track, “All-American Bitch,” to “Start All Over” by Miley Cyrus.
If I was just disappointed that the sounds on Guts were those I’d heard before, that would be one thing. But on her sophomore album, Rodrigo shows us no musical identity that isn’t either referential to other pop music or based on feelings of self-inadequacy.
There were warning signs of these deficiencies on Sour, like when she sang on “Brutal,” “I hate every song I write / And I’m not cool and I’m not smart.” Perhaps she meant that literally, and that’s why she’s singing other people’s songs. Maybe Rodrigo is telling us the truth, which is that she really does not want to be doing this.
To be fair, you can go far as a musician by being inspired by others and hating yourself—just look at known trend-chaser Drake’s career. The difference is, Drake’s lyrics are actually good, especially the early ones. (“I know way too many people here right now that I didn’t know last year / Who the fuck are y’all?” Now that’s a killer fame-makes-me-anxious bar.)
Rodrigo’s writing tends to be choppy and disjointed. One line rarely flows into the next, and when they do, they’re sappy. “I have nightmares each week ‘bout that Friday in May / One phone call from you and my entire world was changed,” she sings on “The Grudge,” which some have speculated is about Swift calling her to let her know she wanted songwriting credits on Sour. If so: hilarious.
There are two songs on Guts, “Bad Idea Right?” and “Get Him Back!,” about wanting to get back with a no-good ex, but they’re both written monosyllabically and sung-chanted by Rodrigo like a petulant cheerleader who isn’t in the mood to get her spirits up. Dispassionate young women writing about choosing the wrong men is incredibly rich, punk territory within pop music, and there’s so much Rodrigo could have done with these songs that she, disappointingly, didn’t. Instead, on “Bad Idea Right?,” she repeats the chorus, “Seeing you tonight / It’s a bad idea, right?” over and over, louder and louder, until she sort of screams. It’s a song about an addictive ex that ends up tasting more like oatmeal.
What it comes down to is that Guts is a tepid album with a hollow center. I think the void is coming from Rodrigo’s melancholic imposter syndrome, which, to her credit, she is able to articulate explicitly in her music: “Master manipulator / God, you’re so good at what you do / Come for me like a savior / And I’d put myself through hell for you,” she sings plaintively on “Logical.” Why’d she stick her neck out so far just to be accepted?
The fact that the Grammy winner is being honest about not feeling like she belongs should translate to genuine vulnerability, yet somehow, in her music, it doesn’t. Instead, in a kind of awful self-fulfilling prophecy, Rodrigo’s seeming lack of self-worth creates a vacuum at the center of the songs, like air hissing out of a balloon. The result is frictionless, impersonal pop music that’s a bummer to listen to.