Olivia Rodrigo’s Guts Doesn’t Have to Be a Classic, She Already Made One

The biggest pop star of the 2020s shows off her intestinal fortitude

Olivia Rodrigo (Image: Instagram)

Quick, what’s your favorite sophomore slump that everyone else loves?

Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange comes to mind, which — aside from his extraordinary coming-out announcement and “Pyramids”’ ten minutes of darkwave disco — was hemmed in by convention where the illicit Nostalgia, Ultra felt limitless.

On paper, everything I can describe makes Guts sound more attractive: down to the cover art it reprises much of the astonishing Sour, with fewer ballads (even “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl” rocks out). It’s still just under 40 minutes. Olivia Rodrigo is still the Disney alumnus most interested in rock, even Bikini Kill, though God knows the 2022 Demi Lovato album was underrated and Miley kicked ass in her mall phase (not just “7 Things” but yes, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” played faster).


VIDEO: Olivia Rodrigo “All-American Bitch”

The Avrilian blare of “All-American Bitch” (“I know my age I act like it”) abruptly cutting off its own twinkly Taylorisms, for instance, is at least much of a shot fired as its spicy meatball number-one hit “Vampire.” But to take a cue from “Homeschooled,” she wishes this album veered closer to “social suicide.” 

The denser production bodes better for getting honest-to-Dio bass and live drums into the Top 40, but worse for those of us trying to make out exactly what she’s speed-reading half the time. She piles on the sprechgesang, turning every rocker this time out into an internal monologue fest that’s far more Nickelodeon than Disney Channel. Sophomore albums that proffer more and faster are my whole thing: Franz Ferdinand’s You Could Have It So Much Better, yes, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, fuck yeah. So I can’t believe I’m saying this but she’s wound a little tight and I miss the breathing room.

Olivia Rodrigo Guts, Geffen Records 2023

Rodrigo’s debut wasn’t the most specific record in the world — after all, the tabloids were left to fill in some blanks — but “drivers license” exploded on impact because its most unusual bits (“red lights, green lights”) became its memes. Rodrigo may be terribly young but Guts does not have the memes; her now-I-miss-him-now-I-don’t feels less original and less distinct than on Sour, which actually had other song topics. Try “Hope Ur Ok,” about losing touch with a childhood friend who was abused. 

So I fear for her supremacy over the snakier, Drakier Ms. Swift, whom even this Oliviaholic has to admit is placating her foaming megacult with sentiments more complex than “Love Is Embarrassing” and “Get Him Back!” (It chagrins me to report that Swift knows more about plotting revenge, though she owes Paramore royalties for “Better Than Revenge” at least as much as “Good 4 U.”) Rodrigo’s musical breadth lets so much more air and dynamics in, though, and those tunes rock.

Maybe that’s why it feels a little disappointing that other than the astonishing “Vampire” and addictive nuevo wavo “Bad Idea Right?” she could’ve spent a little more time on these songs, and the former is the most Sour-flavored thing here. The piano-led “The Grudge” feels like another recut from the first record stuffed with twice as many words, which underscores another problem: the theater-kid affect is overweening just a bit. (I should note, though: this is a fantastic year for theater-kid music, from Sarah Mary Chadwick’s fairly epic “Shitty Town” to Joanna Sternberg’s painfully earnest dioramas tacked to your brain-meat by three-chord simplicity to song-of-the-year candidate “Vampire” itself.)


VIDEO: Olivia Rodrigo “Vampire”

One of the best tunes here is “Pretty Isn’t Pretty,” a new-wave stunner that’s neither overflowing with verbiage nor trying to prove its decibels. It is, however, a chip off of Pistol Annies’ “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty” just like Guts’ opening lines rip the guts out of Liz Phair’s similarly Top 40-feminist “My Bionic Eyes.” I’m not at all sad that one of my favorite pop phenoms is cribbing from possibly my two favorite songwriters ever (well, “Being Pretty” was Angaleena Presley, not Miranda Lambert, but I quibbled before you could). But it does leave me with fewer quotable quotes on maybe my most anticipated album of 2023. One exception, “I am my father’s daughter / So maybe I could fix him,” inhabits a song where the exclamation point in “Get Him Back!” doesn’t prevent her from wielding the title both ways.

Surely any RNRG reader has felt the unique pain of a great new album turning out to merely be very good, and Guts exceeds all sane expectations and rocks out while showing off its wordplay and intellect. It also tryhards shamelessly to balance out the scarcity of rockers like “Brutal” on Sour by stuffing it with less distinguished xeroxes. For an alternate take on what should’ve come after Rodrigo’s instant 2021 classic, dare I suggest you check out the other woman in her alleged love triangle. Sabrina Carpenter’s vibrant Emails I Can’t Send even more shamelessly ran with this new lane carved for teenpop-rock in 2022, suggesting more disco, folk-rock, and a vocabulary I unfairly expected Rodrigo to top — Carpenter massaged goddamn “catastrophizing” into a lyric.

Of course, she couldn’t rock harder than Olivia; no one can. She deserves to be celebrated for her imperfect album just as much as her perfect one.


Ted Miller

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Ted Miller

Ted Miller is trying to collect the head of every Guns ‘n Roses’ guitarist for his rec room. He currently has three.

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