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Amanda Bergeman September 22, 2023
Olivia Rodrigo performs during the MTV Video Music Awards on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Olivia Rodrigo performs during the MTV Video Music Awards on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2023, at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Olivia Rodrigo, the Disney star turned singer-songwriter, whose debut single, “Drivers License,” was one of the most popular songs of 2021, just released her sophomore album, “GUTS.” While “GUTS” explores themes similar to those of her first album, “SOUR,” her latest release is darker and less hopeful. Olivia is angry, anxious, vengeful, even hateful, but always honest. Her album channels her tumultuous coming-of-age story as her childhood naïveté meets harsh reality.

Each song on “GUTS” records the emotional fallout from her values’ failing her. Olivia enters womanhood as a rising pop star under the watchful eye of a secular, capitalist and patriarchal America. The album is a philosophical reckoning with the feminine ideals she has been taught to cling to, but that have left her feeling hollow and wanting.

Olivia Rodrigo's new album channels her tumultuous coming-of-age story as her childhood naïveté meets harsh reality.

She begins the album with a song called “all-american b—.” It mixes soft acoustic guitar with jarring punk drums and electric guitar to juxtapose the way women are expected to present themselves and the feelings they keep locked inside. She sings that she uses Coke bottles to curl her hair and acts like Jackie Kennedy—playfully illustrating the absurdity of societal expectations. Coke is a drink with too much sugar for her to drink and keep her figure, but she can use it to make her hair pretty. Jackie Kennedy was a fashion icon who looked impeccably composed while her husband openly cheated on her. In the climax of the song, she “screams inside to deal with it,” but then she flips to a soft lullaby: “I’m grateful all the time, I’m sexy and I’m kind, I’m pretty when I cry.” She feels the need to pretend to be O.K. when the behavior and attitudes around her are obviously not O.K.

In her music videos and branding, Olivia uses purple to symbolize childlike innocence and red to represent adulthood and sexuality. Her imagery is bathed in purple with red accents as she explores these new parts of herself. But where the red implies danger, the purple keeps her safe. She uses a purple Band-Aid to cover her scar on the cover of the “GUTS” single “vampire.” She feels the push and pull of an industry that both sexualizes and infantilizes women her age. Just 20 years old, she asks in the last song of the album “teenage dream,” “When am I gonna stop being wise beyond my years and just start being wise?”

“GUTS” reveals how secular ideals intentionally leave us hungry, always coming back for more. 

Her wisdom doesn’t protect her from the rash decisions of youth. The second track, “bad idea right?” is an exploration of the temptation to hook up with an ex-partner. She knows this is a “bad idea,” but the song catalogs the Screwtape letters that lead her to her own damnation. It is a romanticized joke at her own expense. Later tracks catalog the fallout of her destructive decision-making. It is a bad idea, and she faces the consequences.

“Logical” may be the most heartbreaking track on the album. She admits she is partially responsible for her own pain and that she could stop it all, but she doesn’t. She consoles herself that “love is never logical,” and that’s why she ignores all the warning signs in her relationships. “Making the bed” accepts more accountability. Making the bed has the double meaning that she is responsible for the unhappy life she is living and that she is starting to take small steps to improve.

Olivia wants love. Multiple times she alludes to her desire for a love that will last a lifetime, but instead, she falls into relationships that bleed her dry like a “vampire.” This Gen-Z ennui comes from playing the part of the sexually liberated cool girl who doesn’t care, accepting the bare minimum that is offered. This passionate half-love feels safer than the risk of waiting for a true love. Track 8, “get him back!,” also carries a double meaning. She doesn’t know if she wants love or vengeance. It’s an honest portrayal of the anger, confusion and betrayal that results from engaging in a sexual relationship without love or commitment. She is angry at the way she has been used and misses the comfort and connection that intimate relationship gave her.

“GUTS” reveals how secular ideals intentionally leave us hungry, always coming back for more.

Olivia craves this kind of commitment, but “love is embarrassing.” These very normal desires for love, connection and marriage make her cringe. A pop star must be edgy, sexy and cool; earnest authentic love does not fit the bill. In “ballad of a homeschooled girl” she is plagued with worries about how she is being perceived: “When pretty isn’t pretty enough, what do you do?” Olivia laments that she tries not to care about keeping up with all the latest beauty trends, but the impossible standards feel inescapable. “It’s in my phone, it’s in my head, it’s in the boys I bring to bed. It’s all around, it’s all the time, I don’t know why I even try.... I chased some dumb ideal my whole f— life.” The more she changes to fit the mold, the worse she feels.

By the end of the album, I just want to give Olivia a hug. It’s clear the voice in her head is plaguing her with fear and dread. Vanity, jealousy, lust and pride have left her in pain, panic and confusion. She has been able to channel that pain into a pitch-perfect pop album that will resonate with many, a scathing indictment of the lies we are fed to keep the status quo.

“GUTS” reveals how secular ideals intentionally leave us hungry, always coming back for more. Hopefully, she can leave her “teenage dream” behind and step into the truth of her inherent value, discovering the love and connection she is seeking in adulthood. God bless her for the GUTS to pen her cautionary parable.

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