On her excellent debut album, “Sour,” the 18-year-old singer and actress expresses just how challenging it is to arrive at who you are.
For the last few months, Olivia Rodrigo has been chiseling out a story about young love turned sour. Between the undulating ballad “Drivers License” — her huge debut single, which opened at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for eight weeks — and the wistfully aggrieved (and perhaps even better) “Deja Vu,” she’s nailed the agony of collapse, and the anxiety of watching your old partner rebuild. It’s a phenomenon as awful as it is familiar.
Like those songs, “Enough for You” — from her nuanced and often exceptional debut album, “Sour” — seems like it’s about the contest between the narrator and the woman who replaced her in her ex’s eyes and arms. But really it’s about a different sort of competition: the one between the versions of the self we cycle through, depending on who’s around.
Rodrigo starts off with a rearview confession: “I wore makeup when we dated ’cause I thought you’d like me more/if I looked like the other prom queens I know that you loved before.” From there, the song plays like an elegy for a persona that no longer fits, Rodrigo singing with a quaver over a steady but reluctant acoustic guitar. “I don’t want your sympathy,” she concludes. “I just want myself back.”
On “Sour,” which deploys sweet pop and tart punk equally well, Rodrigo’s real study is of the unsteady self, the way in which people — young people, especially, but by no means exclusively — contort themselves into the shapes laid out before them. It is about the wages of being clay, not the mold.
For Rodrigo, 18, who’s been playing alternate versions of herself in public at least as far back as the first season of the Disney Channel’s “Bizaardvark,” in 2016, it is a natural subject. She is an optimal pop star for the era of personalities, subpersonalities and metapersonalities; of finstas and spams; of trying on new identities and discarding as you go. “Sour” is an album about accepting alternate endings, and embracing who you become when you have to hot swap one idea about yourself for another all while keeping up a smile, or a career, or several.
Rodrigo has had to do all of this under an unusually sudden and intense spotlight. Even though she’s been a Disney mainstay for years, most recently as Nini Salazar-Roberts, the coming-into-herself female lead on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” the success of “Drivers License” has occasioned exponential growth, and a juggling of Rodrigo’s many selves. In addition to the true and immutable inner personality, there is Rodrigo the musical performer, and Rodrigo the public spectacle, a subject of increasing tabloid interest. Then there is Rodrigo as Nini, and Rodrigo as Nini as Gabriela (the “High School Musical” character she plays in the musical within the show). Each of these has a distinct narrative. Each comprises a part of how Rodrigo navigates — and is seen by — the world.
This is now the stuff of everyone, though — on social media, teenagers often have multiple accounts, playing different versions of themselves for different sets of people. To constantly modulate one’s identity is the norm; the idea of the fully-centered and fixed self might be done for good.
On “Sour,” Rodrigo is working through this evolution in real time. On “Drivers License,” she’s still unsteady about who she might become. “Today I drove through the suburbs/and pictured I was driving home to you,” she sings, not quite able to let go. On “Deja Vu” — and especially in its video, which features Rodrigo spying on her doppelgänger replacement — Rodrigo is frantic with stress about how her ex’s new relationship parallels their own: “When you gonna tell her that we did that too?” And by the end of the song, she begins to succumb to the idea that perhaps her experience wasn’t so original to begin with: “I hate to think that I was just your type.”
Her paramours are playing these sorts of games, too. “Which lover will I get today?/Will you walk me to the door or send me home crying?” she sighs over the dampened piano of “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back.” And it’s on “Drivers License” where that realization fully crystallizes: “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me,” she gasps. There are few colder jolts than learning someone you loved was simply playing a role.
Rodrigo’s juggle is also embedded in her musical choices on “Sour,” which is written almost wholly by Rodrigo and produced almost wholly by Dan Nigro, formerly of the band As Tall as Lions (who also contributed songwriting). She plants a flag for the divided self right at the top of the album, on the spectacular “Brutal,” which begins with a few seconds of sober strings before she declares, “I want it to be, like, messy,” which it then becomes. That tug of war persists throughout the album: more polished songs like the singles and the rousing, Paramore-esque “Good 4 U” jostling with rawer ones like “Enough for You” and “Jealousy, Jealousy.”
“Traitor,” one of the album’s highlights, is a stark song masquerading as a bombastic one. “I kept quiet so I could keep you,” Rodrigo confesses, before arriving at an elegant way of understanding, if not quite accepting, how someone who loved you has moved on: “Guess you didn’t cheat/but you’re still a traitor.”
That songwriting flourish is emblematic of what Rodrigo has learned from Taylor Swift on this album (which, in shorthand, is Swift’s debut refracted through “Red”): nailing the precise language for an imprecise, complex emotional situation; and working through private stories in public fashion. There is residue of Swift throughout “Sour” — whether the way that “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” interpolates “New Year’s Day,” or the “Cruel Summer”-esque chants on “Deja Vu.”
But really, Swift persists in the lens, which is relentlessly internal — Rodrigo only breaks out of it in a couple of places on the album, like on “Jealousy, Jealousy,” where she pulls back to assess the self-image damage that social media inflicts (“I wanna be you so bad, and I don’t even know you/All I see is what I should be”) and on the final track, “Hope Ur OK,” a melancholy turn that’s thoughtfully compassionate, but thematically out of step with the rest of the album.
On the first season of “HSMTMTS,” Rodrigo had a safe platform to play out her creative development as Nini. (Nini’s lament “All I Want” could have been a trial balloon for a solo Rodrigo career.) At the end of those episodes, which aired in late 2019 and early 2020, Nini aced the role in the school musical and finally settled into a relationship with her longtime friend Ricky (Joshua Bassett). (Rodrigo’s early singles were dissected for signs pointing to her rumored real-life relationship with Bassett, another conflation of selves.)
“HSMTMTS,” which is partly framed as a mockumentary, is a charmingly winking exploration of teenage metamorphosis. Like “Hannah Montana” before it, it is knowing about the ways in which teenagers are constantly improvising, both for better and worse. But during the prime Disney Channel era, the “Hannah Montana” star Miley Cyrus had far less direct access to her fan base, and therefore far less of a public self than Rodrigo, who has been able to commune directly on TikTok and Instagram.
That’s meant that Rodrigo’s public and performing life are beginning to outpace her old television life. (Also, Rodrigo curses on her songs, speeding up the Disney molting process.) Last season, when Nini was struggling with confidence, her best friend Kourtney (Dara Renee) told her, “Ever since you discovered boys, you’ve spent way too much time trying to see yourself through their eyes.” But Rodrigo herself is balancing several lives at once now — new celebrity, new pop superstar, holdover child actress, and more. And “Sour” is the first step toward insisting that the gaze that matters most is the one in the mirror, no matter who else is looking.