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The Triumph of GUTS, Turning 20, and the Future of Pop Music

Best new artist curse be damned.

As I type this, I will still be a teenage girl for one more month. The home stretch of my teenagehood has been one of whiplash between euphoric highs (literal and figurative) and treacherous lows, and that feeling hasn’t been captured in pop music like this since Lorde’s indomitable Melodrama in 2017. My birthday cake last year read “I’m 19 and I’m on fire” in reference to Melodrama’s closer “Perfect Places.” That lyric feels as if it ties perfectly into the thesis of GUTS. Whether that fire be representative of rage, frustration, envy, carelessness, or some combination thereof, the flame feels eternal. The moment that flame ceases to exist is something I’ve yet to experience, but I imagine it’ll be potent and unsettlingly confusing.

In contrast to the rushed nature of SOUR, it’s evident that GUTS was given much more time to create a fleshed out artistic vision. It felt like Rodrigo had unlocked the option to heat up her food in the oven instead of the microwave. The songwriting on GUTS is noticeably more nuanced, clever, and unique; the songs hold much more of an individual identity than their predecessors, whose achilles heel was some songs feeling indistinguishable from one another on a passive listen. I expressed in my review of SOUR that Olivia shines the most on her louder, punk rock influenced tracks, and boy am I thrilled that she doubled down. Taking influence from Avril Lavigne (in her heyday, at least), Paramore, and even Hole, Rodrigo’s infectious charisma bleeds through undeniable bangers like “love is embarrassing,” the hilarious “get him back!” and the instant-hit second single “bad idea right?” The night the latter released last month prompted several of my friends to text and/or call me following their first listen. However, it wasn’t just because I am my friend groups’ token pop music pundit, but instead because of the song’s lyrical content. Many of my questionable decisions and lapses in judgment over the past year are laid out on the table of “bad idea right?” Rodrigo retorts, “I just tripped and fell into his bed” in tune with the song’s panicked nonchalance.

As I mentioned in my retrospective of SOUR, what really crosses Rodrigo over the line of excellence is her vocal delivery. Her 6 years of consistently acting in Disney productions has given her the unique skill set of making any bout of teen melodrama convincing for her younger audiences, and charmingly nostalgic for her older listeners. Take the satirical centerpiece, “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” Rodrigo’s lament on her social ineptitude caused by being homeschooled from 7th grade onward. Filled with absolutes, cliche metaphors, and plenty of tongue-in-cheek quips, Olivia makes a line like “Everything I do is tragic// Every guy I like is gay” something that raises no eyebrows both in the context of the song, but as well as in the context of the brand and persona that she’s cultivated over these past few years.

That brand and that persona is something that is truly a key factor of Rodrigo’s continued success. Olivia and the team surrounding her are magna cum laude scholars of the Taylor Swift School of Marketing and Parasociality (I will not be addressing the alleged feud between the two, go outside). In addition to the music being great on its own, the authenticity and spunky youthfulness that defines the Olivia Rodrigo brand is what allows her to reach the attention of her target demographics in a way that her contemporaries have been seemingly unable to. Other budding pop stars like Gracie Abrams or Tate McCrae ( McCrae being the cover of the Spotify “Pop Rising” editorial playlist as of writing this) are simply lacking the ethos that Rodrigo has built that allows her to both connect deeply with other young women and with music fans in general regardless of demographic. As someone who is both, Abrams and McCrae have still given me no reason to believe they are worth paying attention to.

But what does it mean to be a star in today’s world? When I say “They really don’t make ‘em like this anymore” in the car when my friend turns on Olivia’s music, what do I mean? The market is seemingly as oversaturated as ever, and that’s both a blessing and a curse. Where the competition is steeper, listeners are able to discover great new artists easier than ever before. The way that Olivia and her team have tackled her social media presence is a truly masterful strategy of walking the tightrope of curation and authenticity. The glamor is certainly there, but not without sprinkles of what is at the very least a façade of authenticity. Between red carpet looks and editorial photoshoots are pictures with her friends on a night out or a photo dump with a meme at the end. She’s the Cool Girl you have the pleasure of being friends with; you want to hear about her boy problems and nod along saying, “girl, you’re so right, he’s such a dick.”

Even with her newfound superstardom, Rodrigo’s experiences recounted on GUTS still seldom deviate from those of a typical 19 year old girl (it’s me, I’m talking about myself). Whether it’s struggling with self esteem, comparing yourself to other women, or bending over backwards for “some second-string loser who’s not worth mentioning,” Rodrigo hits all the main targets. The parts of these songs that remind you that Olivia is in fact a super famous pop star are subtle, but in a way that these stories are unique to her experiences. It never takes away from the catharsis it can provide to the listener (again, I am mostly speaking for myself). No amount of fame, success, or praise can bypass the growing pains of womanhood. The naïvite and insecurity fostered by society’s failures towards women is what Rodrigo is chronicling firsthand, and it really does feel good to be heard and feel less alone in those hyper-specific experiences.

The closer “teenage dream” ties the album up in a thorny, blistering bow. The final minute-and-a-half of the record features a theatrical crescendo and release as Rodrigo repeats the lyric, “They all say that it gets better, it gets better the more you grow // Yeah, they all say that it gets better, it gets better, but what if I don’t?” Leaving the record to end on a question mark epitomizes the uncertainty and turbulence of young adulthood. Navigating adult life around a bunch of people also navigating adult life is what produces these troubling novel experiences. I’m still very much in the thick of it, and I’ve certainly spent several nights spiraling from insecurities and doubts in every facet of my life. And sure, it does get better, but whatever “it” is changes on a dime, and that “it” could have me spilling my guts in a public bathroom mid-day. That’s what albums like this are for. Allowing those feelings to be felt, as much as they make you feel like the annoying older sister caricature from every movie. I will not magically have my shit together when I turn 20 this coming October 15th, but I now sure as hell feel better about it as long as this album is in rotation.

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