STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
When this year began, Olivia Rodrigo hadn't even released a single as a recording artist. But by mid-January, she was setting streaming records and sitting atop the Billboard Hot 100.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRIVERS LICENSE")
OLIVIA RODRIGO: (Singing) I guess you didn't mean what you wrote in that song about me. You said forever, now I drive alone past your street.
THOMPSON: "Drivers License" was an instant sensation and one of this year's biggest songs. And now Olivia Rodrigo has her first full-length album called "Sour." I'm Stephen Thompson. And today we are talking about Olivia Rodrigo on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DRIVERS LICENSE")
RODRIGO: (Singing) ...Go to 'cause you know I still love you, babe. Ooh.
THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining us today for the very first time is my NPR Music colleague Alex Ramos. Welcome to the show, Alex.
ALEX RAMOS, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen. So happy to be here.
THOMPSON: It is great to have you. So while Olivia Rodrigo has had a really quick rise to pop stardom, we should note that she's been working as an actress for years. She starred on the Disney Channel series "Bizaardvark" and is now part of the main cast in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" on Disney+. But it took that song, "Drivers License," aided by the star-making power of TikTok, to make Olivia Rodrigo a household name. She's had success with her follow-up singles, "Deja Vu" and "Good 4 U." Earlier this month, she made her "Saturday Night Live" debut. But "Sour" is her biggest moment yet and a chance to kind of establish herself as a full-fledged pop star.
Now, Alex, you have been following Olivia Rodrigo's career. What do you think of "Sour"?
RAMOS: Well, for one, I - when I was listening to the album for the first time and I heard "Good 4 U," I was like - I heard something that was sort of missing from "Drivers License" and "Deja Vu" that you hear sprinkled throughout the album. And I think that sort of standout pop rock sound is what's going to take her really far for this album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD 4 U")
RODRIGO: (Singing) Maybe I'm too emotional, but your apathy is like a wound in salt. Maybe I'm too emotional, or maybe you never cared at all. Well, good for you. You look happy and healthy. Not me, if you ever cared to ask. Good for you. You're doing great out there without me, baby, like a damn sociopath. I've lost my mind. I've spent the night...
THOMPSON: Yeah. I think it's worth talking about "Good 4 U." "Good 4 U" has this really kind of spiky, almost kind of pop punky feel to it that, as you said, really injects a different kind of energy into this record.
RAMOS: I really love the energy on it. And I think if Olivia Rodrigo can sing a little louder and, like, bang her head a little harder, she can go really far with that sound. I hear a lot of comparisons to, like, Paramore's "Misery Business."
But honestly, my first thought was - I hate to make this comparison because they're both Disney stars, but, like, Miley Cyrus' "7 Things," the sort of, like, pop rock heartbreak anthem for, like, young women. That has the same kind of snark, which you don't really get from a lot of artists who are coming up her age. It sort of mixes the heartbreak with the anger in a way that's really honestly kind of funny and charming.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "7 THINGS")
MILEY CYRUS: (Singing) The seven things I hate about you. The seven things I hate about you - oh, you. You're vain, your games, you're insecure. You love me, you like her. You made me laugh. You made me cry. I don't know which side to buy. Your friends - they're jerks. When you act like them, just know it hurts.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, those comparisons are somewhat inevitable. I mean, anytime you're coming up as a new pop star, people are going to throw comparisons around.
It is - I mean, it is worth noting. Like, she has spoken in interviews a lot about being a huge, huge, huge Taylor Swift fan. I think the Taylor Swiftiness pops up in a lot of ballads on this record. I think the kind of specificity around heartbreak, specificity around singing about relationships feels very much like a descendent of what Taylor Swift has been doing for years now. But I think you also have to throw out a comparison to Lorde. Lorde definitely - her spirit hovers over this record.
But I do think on this record, having some of those kind of spikier influences really helps kind of break it out kind of beyond that comparison. This album opens with a song called "Brutal." And when I was listening to this record for the first time, the first moments you get right out of the gate are just these big guitars. And I think that really helps make this record stand out. Let's actually hear a little bit of "Brutal."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRUTAL")
RODRIGO: (Singing) And I wish I'd done this before, and I wish people liked me more. All I did was try my best. This the kind of thanks I get? I'm relentlessly upset. They say these are the golden years, but I wish I could disappear. Ego crush is so severe. God, it's brutal out here.
THOMPSON: First of all, I love the guitars. I hear notes of bands from the '90s like Elastica and Veruca Salt in those guitars. I think that's a really welcome injection of energy into what she's doing. But also, lyrically, it is a dark song. It is a sour - appropriately enough, it is a sour song lyrically. But it's not just kind of fixated on this one heartbreak, or it's not fixated on a relationship. And I see a real way forward for her in this song given how many other songs in this record are about jealousy and the aftermath of a breakup.
RAMOS: Yeah. I totally hear that. I think it's all about this self-awareness that she has that's kind of present in my generation where we're obsessed with making things about, like, our psyche, about our mental health and, like, completely deconstructing our own emotions. Doing that through art has been, like, a really huge way to, like, express yourself and bond with other people. I relate to her so much because of these things that she notices about herself because I notice them about myself, too.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I think that hyper-self-awareness really does come through without getting too bogged down in it. She manages to capture a lot of, like, very pure teenage feelings. And many of those teenage feelings, while specific to a 17-, 18-year-old in 2021, are also universal. And I can listen to it - as a parent of kids roughly that age, I can relate not only to what they're going through, but also kind of remember my own teenage feelings and kind of my own feelings of self-doubt and stuff that are very much of that age but also still of this time.
RAMOS: I'm partial to a lot of her references. I think if we want to move to "Deja Vu," I love the references on that song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEJA VU")
RODRIGO: (Singing) Car rides to Malibu. Strawberry ice cream - one spoon for two. And trading jackets - laughing about how small it looks on you. Watching reruns of "Glee," being annoying...
RAMOS: Watching reruns of "Glee" is an extremely funny reference to me. I think, obviously, she's in "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series." That show is essentially what "Glee" wishes it was.
RAMOS: And, like, the strawberry ice cream with one spoon - I think that's just, like, sweet, like, poignant little details that she adds to her music that makes it a bit more grounded in reality. And maybe that's what's universal about it.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Like you said, Alex, that specificity not only of, like, pop cultural references, but just little, kind of mundane details of relationships that get really blown up when you're looking back on them - I think the song does a really nice job of capturing that.
RAMOS: Yeah. I love how her voice just kind of floats on the drums. It's very nostalgic. You're torn between the heartbreak but also the nostalgia of the relationship. And you really hear it with, like, how sort of somber her voice is, but how it sort of rises when she starts to really feel that sourness.
THOMPSON: We mentioned Taylor Swift. And one thing that Olivia Rodrigo's songwriting has in common with Taylor Swift - because she writes with such specificity and seems to be writing with specificity about her own life, it's easy for listeners to not only superimpose their own experiences onto it, but to superimpose what they know or think they know of Olivia Rodrigo's life onto it. And that's a really tricky thing for a young pop star to feel they have to do because all of a sudden, the audience listening feels some semblance of ownership over Olivia Rodrigo's personal life or Taylor Swift's personal life. And that can be a tricky box to break out of.
RAMOS: As much as I have, like, found so much fun in sort of, like, the public life of a teenage girl when I was younger, I think that practice has kind of, like, toned down a bit in the last few years. And I think this album proves that we're already cognizant of a lot of the experiences that come with being famous but also having, like, public relationships that sort of pan into your work. And I think that "Sour" is a great album because it is specific, but the focus is kind of blurry because the writing - it's well-written, and the writing sort of, like, overshadows all of the personal details that we would want to excavate from her life.
To that end, I think she kind of does this through the song "Favorite Crime."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAVORITE CRIME")
RODRIGO: (Singing) You crossed the line, and I defended you to all my friends. And now every time a siren sounds, I wonder if you're around 'cause you know that I'd do it all again. Oh, the things I did just so I could call you mine.
THOMPSON: You definitely hear the Taylor Swift, but it's also just a beautiful and very kind of purely sung song. She is a terrific singer.
RAMOS: I agree. I think it's really cool that she's very openly into her contemporaries. She has expressed, like, a lot of love for Lorde, for Taylor Swift, for Billie Eilish. And even for Billie, like, you kind of hear inflections of sort of the more R&B-type style in other songs on this album, primarily on "Jealousy, Jealousy."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JEALOUSY, JEALOUSY")
RODRIGO: (Singing) With paper-white teeth and perfect bodies - wish I didn't care. I know their beauty's not my lack, but it feels like that weight is on my back, and I can't let it go. Comparison is killing me slowly.
RAMOS: And I just think it's cool that she's inspired by people her age and not just, like, music that her parents put on in the background when she was growing up.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I think one thing that really jumps out listening to this record - you know, every generation that comes up, the generations before will be like, oh, this just sounds like so-and-so, or this is - why are you into this? You should be into the stuff that I'm into 'cause what I'm into is authentic. And it's like each generation, first of all, is going to pick whatever music it wants to pick. And second of all, each generation deserves its own songwriters. Each generation deserves its own perspectives and talents to be expressed on new records. And so it makes all the sense in the world that she would have come up listening to Billie Eilish, come up listening to Taylor Swift and Lorde and to, you know, synthesize some of that into her own music but also maintain a real appreciation for it.
I also - I don't mean this to sound as cynical as it sounds. It's also strategically very, very smart. You know, this pop landscape is such that the whole business of stan culture where, like, people decide they need to pick just one artist and view that artist as kind of in competition with all other artists, it's very easy for fans to kind of beef with other fans in ways that really doesn't do anybody any favors. And so I think it's really smart of her. I think it's completely sincere, but I think it's very smart of her to embrace Taylor Swift and to embrace Lorde and to embrace Billie Eilish, in part so that their fans can kind of commune together and enjoy. Like, you're allowed to be a big fan of more than one pop star.
RAMOS: That's really funny 'cause what I'm imagining right now is just kind of, like, Olivia Rodrigo's fans, who are obviously, like, very in love with her because she's, like, a cool girl who is really nice and makes really good music and also just, like, hates on boys in her music - I think that's really funny and not something that's really common. But, yeah, I feel like if I had to choose a songwriter right now for my generation, it's her. Taylor has had a great ride, and she kind of sees almost like a protege in Olivia Rodrigo. I've seen them interact a bit online, and they're kind of, like, showing that mutual respect to each other. And I think that's just nice to see.
THOMPSON: Well, and let's put out there Taylor Swift's ride is not over. Nobody's burying Taylor Swift.
THOMPSON: Taylor Swift will bury us all.
Well, Alex, I think you and I are in agreement that "Sour" is a terrific record. I was really just taken with "Drivers License" when it came out. It kind of put me in my 48-year-old teenage feelings. But then hearing a full record, you really have a sense like this is not a one-trick pony. This is somebody who's going to be around for a long time. We're going to be talking about this record at Grammy season when we're having the best new artist conversation. And I just - I really like this record. I'm going to keep coming back to it.
Alex, why don't you pick a song from "Sour" to take us out on?
RAMOS: Sure. Let's go with a nice, quiet, sad song called "Hope Ur OK."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE UR OK")
RODRIGO: (Singing) We fell out of touch. Hope he took his bad deal and made a royal flush. Don't know if I'll see you again someday. But if you're out there, I hope that you're OK.
THOMPSON: Well, we want to know what you think about Olivia Rodrigo's new album. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Alex, thanks so much for being here.
RAMOS: Thank you for having me.
THOMPSON: And one last thing before we go. We've got an episode coming up about the TV series "Friends," and we want to know who you think was the best friend and who was the worst friend. We also want to know about your favorite secondary or tertiary characters from the "Friends" cinematic universe - you know, your Gunther, your Ursula, your ugly naked guy and so on. You can vote now at npr.org/friends. Again, you can vote at npr.org/friends.
And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all tomorrow, when we'll be talking about the return of the Netflix series "Master Of None."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOPE UR OK")
RODRIGO: (Singing) I miss you. I hope that you're OK. Address the letters to the holes in my butterfly wings. Nothing's forever.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.