After over two years since the release of her staggeringly successful debut album, SOUR, pop megastar Olivia Rodrigo has finally given the people what they want: her highly anticipated sophomore album, GUTS, released on September 8, 2023.
Make no mistake, I am a huge Olivia Rodrigo fan. As a fellow musician and melodramatic, overthinking, obsessive romantic, I highly admire Rodrigo’s ability to spin messy, seemingly trivial feelings into pop anthem perfection. However, in the lead up to GUTS’ release, its two preceding singles, “vampire” and “bad idea right”, had left me feeling underwhelmed. “vampire” felt like a “drivers license” remake, while the slightly annoying, mind-numbing lyrics of “bad idea right” toe the line between campy and cringe (for me, falling into the latter category). With these singles as the forebearers of the album that I had so eagerly waited two years for, I was worried that I wouldn’t love it as much as I did SOUR. Now having listened to GUTS on repeat for the last couple weeks, I have found that I actually prefer it to its predecessor, so much so that I was compelled to do a track-by-track analysis.
As implied by its title, GUTS is a deeper, grittier take on Rodrigo’s world. Her first album provided our initial glimpse into Rodrigo’s world as a 17-year-old, exploring themes of failed relationships, insecurities, and the challenges of fame. However, with GUTS, we witness a kaleidoscopic evolution of these themes as she navigates the transition from adolescence to young adulthood: “This album is about growing pains and trying to figure out who I am at this point in my life … I feel like I grew 10 years between the ages of 18 and 20,” said Rodrigo in a press release. This album unveils a more complex, world-weary young adult, brimming with a desire for freedom and growth, while carrying the weight of painful memories and persistent self-doubt.
With new lyrical topics, Rodrigo has sought out new genres with which to musically illustrate her narratives. Where SOUR showed glimpses of retro references with tracks like “brutal”, GUTS packs heavier hits of nostalgia, filled with 90s and early 2000’s pop-punk, pop-rock, indie-rock, and grunge influences. Of course, it’s still a mainstream pop album, which will inevitably draw criticism from purists who argue that Rodrigo’s interpretation of these genres isn’t entirely faithful. I, however, am just excited to see her venture into new territory with a sound distinct from the rest of the Hot 100.
The album kicks off with what is arguably Rodrigo’s best song to date: “all-american bitch.” It cathartically chronicles the dichotomies and pressures of being a woman in society, especially as a female popstar. Delicate folk verses abruptly switch up for head-banging pop-punk choruses, perfectly synthesizing Rodrigo’s wide vocal delivery range. She pulls off mellifluous melodies, “I make light of the darkness / I’ve got sun in my motherfucking pocket,” just as effortlessly as she belts explosive refrains, “Forgive and I forget / I know my age and I act like it.” It packs a powerful punch of snarky, feminine, pop-punk angst that we haven’t heard in mainstream pop since the days of Avril Lavigne, much to the joy of us late 90s and early 2000s kids who get to hear our childhoods again. It’s Rodrigo at the peak of her songwriting prowess: it’s clever, complex, and catchy, and in my opinion, should have been GUTS’ lead single.
bad idea right / vampire
Selecting “all-american bitch” GUTS’ opening track poses a challenge, as it sets a remarkably high bar for the rest of the album to match. The good news, however, is that wild-card single “bad idea right” finds its place effectively as a B-side to “all-american bitch.” Both songs take the pop-punk route, which sonically ties them together and makes for a smooth track-to-track transition. “vampire”, though, still feels like a wet blanket for me. I love a good traditional singer-songwriter ballad as much as the next person, but “vampire” was formulaic to the point of sounding uninspired. Conan Gray shares Rodrigo’s producer Dan Nigro, and as a fan of both artists, I’m familiar with Nigro’s signature pop-ballad sound and structure, and was hoping for something a little different.
Fortunately, fourth track “lacy” refreshes our palate as Rodrigo’s potential first love song written to a girl. The gentle acoustic track details Rodrigo’s obsession over a female rival that blurs the boundary between love and jealousy: “I despise my jealous eyes and how hard they fell for you.” Although Rodrigo’s sexuality is unknown, “lacy” epitomizes the “do I want her or do I want to be her?” dilemma common for girls attracted to other girls. Fans have speculated that the song could be about fellow popstar Gracie Abrams, pointing out the similarity between their names. They also noticed Rodrigo’s vocal style markedly differs from her usual timbre, sounding more akin to Abrams’ subdued, husky voice. Celebrity allusions aside, “lacy” is a personal favorite and a compelling development upon the themes explored in “jealousy, jealousy” from Rodrigo’s first album.
ballad of a homeschooled girl
Rodrigo dives deeper into her insecurities with “ballad of a homeschooled girl”. Where youthful success is often glamorized and placed on a pedestal, Rodrigo pulls back the curtain on the uncomfortable process that she – and dozens of other homeschooled starlets – endured to achieve that goal. The song’s title might make it seem alien to the non-homeschooled listener; however, the lyrics touch on deeply relatable experiences for many teenage girls, like tripping up over your words, hating your clothes, FOMO, and finding out the guy you like is gay. Fueled by its high-energy garage rock sound and chaotic lyrics like “Thought your mom was your wife”, this track is poised to become a favorite for fans to scream on the GUTS tour. Ironically, the song’s outcast-main-character narrative feels right out of the Disney productions that prompted Rodrigo to take up homeschooling in the first place.
making the bed
Even with her homeschooling days behind her and the world in the palm of her hand, Rodrigo experiences increasing regret and loss as a popstar that she reflects upon in the slow-burning pop ballad “making the bed”. Its lyrics describe a “recurring dream” where she’s driving and the brakes go out, preventing her from stopping or swerving off the road. The imagery is strongly connotative of her hit song “drivers license” that skyrocketed her to fame, perhaps marking the song as the catalyst that set her on an irreversible path. With GUTS only being Rodrigo’s second album, and Rodrigo presumably having a long career ahead of her, it raises the question of whether her relationship with fame will improve or deteriorate over the years to come.
“logical”, GUTS’ seventh track, might sound like a forgotten track off SOUR with its gentle piano instrumentals, but don’t be fooled — its lyrics are much darker than that of any SOUR track, and they draw blood. Encapsulating the consuming pain of dating a gaslighting older man — “Said I was too young, I was too soft / Can’t take a joke, can’t get you off” — “logical” shows how the ultimate burden of a toxic relationship is blaming yourself for what happened. In the aftermath, Rodrigo becomes her own worst enemy: “I know I’m half responsible and that makes me feel horrible … God, why didn’t I stop it all?”
get him back!
The following rap-pop-rock track, “get him back!”, has an opposite musical and lyrical affect to “logical”, although seemingly describing the same relationship. Where Rodrigo laments her mistakes in “logical”, she uses “get him back!” to brattily indulge her twisted, double-sided feelings towards her ex. The title “get him back” makes for the perfect double-entendre: one implication being revenge on her ex, the other, rekindling her relationship with him. Even though GUTS is a testament to Rodrigo’s maturation since SOUR, delirious, spunky lyrics like “I want to meet his mom just to tell her her son sucks” remind us that she is still a 20-year-old. One could argue that “get him back!” is a better version of “bad idea right”, but maybe fans of the latter song aren’t ready for that.
love is embarrassing
Where some songs on GUTS show Rodrigo’s growth through profound, jaded reflection, “love is embarrassing” takes a different approach as Rodrigo pokes fun at herself. The 90’s-influenced pop-rock anthem evokes the feeling of the final song in a romcom, adding a fitting touch to the narrative. In this track, Rodrigo reaches a point where she can finally release the grip of past relationships that once tormented her. This marks a notable shift from SOUR, where she was overwhelmed with heartbreak. In GUTS, we see a more self-assured Rodrigo who can not only move on from her exes but also find humor in both her past relationships and her own quirks.
“the grudge”, another somber piano ballad about a failed relationship, is the song that made me notice that GUTS is one track longer than SOUR. By this, I mean that it feels like it could have been cut from the album. Even though it’s a good song, three factors make “the grudge” feel like deadweight in Rodrigo’s discography. Firstly, it sounds far too much like “drivers license” (same key and highly similar melodies). Secondly, GUTS already has an abundance of emotional ballads, namely “vampire”, “making the bed”, and closing track “teenage dream”; having too many blends them together and slows the album’s momentum. Thirdly, it undermines the sense of closure and development that “love is embarrassing” achieves. That being said, it’s still a well-written song, and might have worked better as a deluxe-edition track.
pretty isn’t pretty
Luckily, GUTS’ penultimate track, “pretty isn’t pretty”, brings a breath of fresh air to propel the album towards its finish. It’s Rodrigo’s first indie pop track, and she changes up her usual squeaky-clean pop production finish for a more organic sound. Once again, Rodrigo’s versatile vocals enable her to pull off new genres with ease. Is the song indie alternative in a highly curated, formulaic way? Yes. Does it sound like every song played at Urban Outfitters? Also yes. But it’s a refreshing sound for Rodrigo, and I’d be interested in hearing her explore this more in future projects. The song’s mellow instrumentals soften the blow of the heavy lyrics — “Bought a new prescription to try and stay calm / ‘Cause there’s always something missin’ / There’s always something in the mirror that I think looks wrong.”
Wrapping up GUTS is the track titled “teenage dream”. The sobering piano ballad reveals Rodrigo’s inner struggle as she grapples with her fading adolescence — the period of her life that all her success has been tied to: “Got your whole life ahead of you, you’re only 19 / But I fear that they already got all the best parts of me.” It’s a surprisingly downbeat number compared to SOUR’s final track, “hope ur ok”, a love letter to her old friends about hope and acceptance. The shift in Rodrigo’s outlook from SOUR to GUTS, as she anticipates her potential decline past the age of 19, conveys a chilling message about the profound impact of early fame. The album concludes on a haunting note with the final line: “They all say that it gets better, it gets better, but what if I don’t?”
Rodrigo might not be the perfect all-American bitch after all, but there’s no denying that GUTS is an instant all-American hit. After all, the definition of “American” is changing, with a society that increasingly values authenticity and embracing imperfections. GUTS’ combination of vulnerability and self-assuredness therefore strikes gold: it serves as both a comforting validation of our insecurities and an empowering call to embrace our idiosyncrasies and revel in our dramatic selves — good and “bad ideas” alike.