Review: ‘GUTS’ Tackles the Intricacies of Girlhood, Heartbreak and Fame
Olivia Rodrigo's second album elevates her previous work, offering a poignant exploration of emotional complexity from an angst-ridden lens.
“I am light as a feather and as stiff as a board,” sings 20-year old Olivia Rodrigo in the first line of her long-anticipated sophomore album, “GUTS,” released on Sept. 8. This familiar phrase serves as a fitting introduction to the album’s primary themes: grappling with one’s own sense of self while dealing with society’s relentless expectations. “GUTS” tells the story of a teenage girl on the brink of adulthood uncovering the distinct realities of girlhood and womanhood through the lenses of heartbreak, fame and self-doubt.
As a fan of Rodrigo since her Disney Channel days and a devoted listener of her debut album “SOUR,” I thought I knew what I was getting myself into when the first single from “GUTS,” “vampire,” was released in June. The song takes on an edge in its pop-production and certain lyrical choices, notably “fame-fucker,” but is ultimately reminescent of the heartwrenching ballads of “SOUR.” However, when the second single “bad idea right?” came out in August, it became clear from the song’s snarky, half-spoken, half-sung lyrics and electric guitar solo that “GUTS” would not be just a more-angsty “SOUR,” but something else entirely.
The selection of these starkly different songs as the album’s singles reflects its deliberate sonic dissonance and Rodrigo’s evolution as a musician and a person. 12 songs, not including bonus tracks, comprise the tracklist. Each can be categorized as either a melancholy, reflective ballad akin to “vampire” or as a punk-rock, Paramore-esque song comparable to “bad idea right?” The songs of these two sub-categories are scattered through the tracklist — listeners of the full album risk a serious case of emotional whiplash.
For those interested in an upbeat song to which they can angry-dance in their room, “GUTS” offers no shortage of options, but I would most recommend “get him back!” All of the album’s grunge-rock tracks contain mature content expressed in a vindictive, jaded manner through which Rodrigo redefines her persona, effectively cutting ties with her Disney Channel days. “get him back!” encapsulates this musical tone shift that represents a loss of innocence. Repeatedly wronged by a former love interest, Rodrigo sings about becoming the manipulator in order to put herself on an even playing field with her ex, belting, “I want sweet revenge, and I want him again.” This song is both a fun listen and a testament to her personal and musical development; Rodrigo not only writes sad ballads about the people and institutions that have wronged her — she is also vengeful and capable of retaliation.
On ballads, my favorites are “lacy” and “teenage dream.”In the former, Rodrigo’s wistful vocals tell a story of jealousy intertwined with romantic obsession over the song’s namesake. “lacy” builds on themes previously touched on her previous album in “jealousy, jealousy.” “lacy” blurs the line between envy and romantic interest as Rodrigo mourns, “I despise my jealous eyes and how hard they fell for you / I despise my rotten mind and how much it worships you.” The intermingling of jealousy and homoeroticism adds a layer of complexity to the ballad as Rodrigo explores the nuance of emotion. The closing track, “teenage dream,” also exhibits a realization of the ephemeral nature of the ideal she yearned for in the opening track of “SOUR,” “brutal,” when she asks, “where’s my fucking teenage dream?” Now, she laments, “And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream,” alluding to novelty and youth’s temporary natures.
The one song that can neither be categorized as a ballad nor rage-fueled pop-rock — which also happens to be my favorite — is the album’s opening track, “all-american bitch.” Full of contradictions in both the lyrics and the sound, which alternates between soft melancholia in the verses and grunge-angst in the chorus, this song serves as a microcosm of the album and introduces its prominent themes. “all-american bitch” highlights the antithetical expectations placed upon young women by society, exemplified byRodrigo’s experiences of being both infantilized and sexualized as a teenage girl in the spotlight. She rejects these expectations of being simultaneously “light as a feather” — fun, unobtrusive and youthful — and “stiff as a board” — cool, mature and unaffected — in the chorus, singing, “I know my age, and I act like it.” The genre-shift as she sings this line demonstrates her frustration with the fragmented identity imposed upon her by the public. Instead of catering to how society says she should act, Rodrigo is unapologetic in her actions and asserts that no one else can define what behavior is appropriate for her other than herself.
Nevertheless, the conflicting musical tones within this song portray a lack of reconciliation between manufactured persona and true self. Though acutely-aware of the impossibility of meeting contradicting expectations, Rodrigo still works to create an album that has something for everyone. In depicting varying versions of herself, it could be argued that she participates in the same thankless crowd-pleasing that she speaks against. That being said, rarely is such a high-profile record released that doesn’t bend its integrity in some way to the public's desire. Is “GUTS” an exhibition of Rodrigo’s versatility as an artist or of her susceptibility to societal pressures, despite her distaste for them? I think it’s a little bit of both.
Rodrigo delivers a successful genre-bending collection of songs with “GUTS” that shows emotional and artistic growth from her earlier works. The common themes embedded through the tracklist allow the album to tell a cohesive story, while the musical heterogeneity contributes nuance by revealing the tension and hypocrisy within it. Accompanying all of this, Rodrigo has made an album that is honest and vulnerable, but most impressively, fun. “GUTS” is an album that people will want to listen to because its crushing relatability will make them feel profoundly, but not at the expense of catchy melodies and powerful instrumentals. This is only the beginning for Rodrigo, and I am excited to see how she continues to invent and reinvent herself and her sound.