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Dissecting Olivia Rodrigo’s GUTS


Heaven and Hell. Coca-Cola and America. Sweet and sour. Just because we get one, doesn’t mean we get the other. Olivia Rodrigo gave us SOUR, her hit debut album, in 2021, but sweet is still nowhere in sight. Instead, she makes deep cuts. Instead, she opens her heart. Instead, she spills her guts. Rodrigo leaves it all on the table in her sophomore studio album, GUTS, that was released earlier this September. In this review, I pick apart the themes, writing, and sounds that make this album what it is. 

GUTS is full of dichotomies. By genre, Rodrigo has mastered quaint piano ballads as well as rough around the edges alt pop. Thematically, Rodrigo is well versed in love songs and hate songs. The subject of her songs alternate between the elusive “you” and the self-deprecating “I.” Mix and match these pairs as you’d like and you’ve made an Olivia Rodrigo original song. By no means is this assessment made to minimize the successes Rodrigo has achieved. As someone who recently turned twenty, I can confirm that my teenage years were what Rodrigo makes them out to be. It is embarrassing to be perceived, hard to live up to expectations, and heartbreaking to see the rose-colored glasses fade. Ultimately, this emotionally charged and earnest album fully narrates the tragedy of adolescence while paying tribute to popular works and genres. 

Rodrigo’s lyrics are from the heart or even, seemingly, from her diary. I’d admit her more enticing lines are the ones that resemble the raw aesthetics of diary entries. The tracks that bring out specific interactions, pointed depictions, and a narrative through lines feel more grounded. As smart as Rodrigo’s similes, trick lines, and turns of phrases are, they feel like hoops I have to jump through to enjoy the song. I think the song “lacy” is the biggest victim of this. It has earnest vocals and a brilliant melody, but feels convoluted among all the similes. I know there is nuance and a theme somewhere in the song if I read and annotate the lyrics like a textbook. But, it’s more confusing than it’s worth. However, as she mirrors more punk and alt genres, there is less of a need to bring in any complicated lyricism. In this vein, I thoroughly enjoyed the lyrics of “get him back!” She is not vague about situations or what she’s experiencing. Rodrigo sings, “He said he’s 6’2 and I’m, like, ‘Dude, nice try’,” “Oh, I want sweet revenge and I want him again,” and “Oh, I wanna key his car, I wanna make him lunch.” The lines are simple, but still narrate the complexity of feeling two contradictory emotions at once. Furthermore, they match Rodrigo’s dismissive tone and poppy beat. And, maybe most importantly, the lyrics are relatable and actually tangible. 

After SOUR, there was no doubt that Rodrigo had great vocals. In GUTS, her prowess as a vocalist is even greater and stronger. Rodrigo’s loud and harsh as well as her light and soft vocals are leveraged. To a further extent, I largely enjoyed how Rodrigo sang her lyrics more so than the lyrics themselves. The expansive range of emotions that comes across in her voice is impressive. I’d even say the entire emotional spectrum of being a teenage girl is expressed. She emotes anger, exasperation, sass, deprecation, wryness, sadness, and humor throughout the album. Every song’s tone is special. For a song about the unreachable standards of being a woman, “pretty isn’t pretty,” she earnestly sings the lines “You can win the battle/but you’ll never win the war” with a harsh exhaustion. On the other hand, the final lines of “ballad of a homeschooled girl” express the maximum angst, screw-the-consequences recklessness, and sass that match the maxed out hormone levels of being an adolescent. She screams “Thought your mom was your wife/Called you the wrong name twice/Can’t think of a third line/La-la-la-la-la-la/La-la-la-la-la-la/ugh.” Rodrigo gives good lines and a great delivery. At her most unhinged, Rodrigo’s voice is unmatched. Her rage is moving, her wit is funny, and her lightness is honest. 

When it comes to the longevity of these songs, I think the sound is what will keep fans coming back. Simply put, it is really well produced. Every genre and sound Rodrigo and Dan Nigro, GUTS producer, set out to create, they succeeded with flying colors. The songs and artists they paid homage to underlie and uplift every song. It was clear from the start that, with the early single release of “bad idea right?,” Rodrigo was taking inspiration from 90s to early 2000s alt genres. Rodrigo and her producer brought in the fuzz, grit, and distortion that was so popular in that era. Further, riot grrrl music, a genre of punk rock that featured women yelling about an unfair patriarchal society, inspired songs like “all-american bitch.” She makes playful mockery of beauty standards until the bridge devolves into unattractive screaming showing how much she’s stopped caring about being, or sounding, attractive. This track alternates between soulful strumming and a full band of a dirtied guitar tone, a driving snare, and compressed accusatory vocals. This back and forth resembles much of “Calypso” by Spiderbait. So many other production decisions remind me of some truly great songs and artists. I hear Chappell Roan (who has also notably worked with Nigro) and Orla Gartland’s “Codependency” in the fast disco pop of “get him back.” Pretty much all of Wet Leg’s bored wryness and alternative sounds match, beat for beat, any of Rodrigo’s high tempo tracks. As for the slower ballads, Lorde’s Melodrama and Taylor Swift’s piano led songs are highly comparable. Rodrigo, impressively but not surprisingly, holds her own against high caliber musicians. 

GUTS is thematically relatable, lyrically emotive, and fantastically produced. Rodrigo has proved that she’s at her best in her most unpredictable songs. She strives in the intersection of angsty rock and narrative writing. It’s hard for her slower tracks to hold up against more exciting ones, but they still have great quality and content. Rodrigo has been on an upward trajectory since being catapulted into the public eye as a young adult. And, with the talent she demonstrates in GUTS, there is no limit in sight. 

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