Olivia Rodrigo’s rise to fame in 2021 was a sight, and a joy, to behold. Before January of that year, she was known only as an up-and-coming teenage Disney star with her role in the ridiculously-titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Then along came driver’s license, the song that nobody predicted would turn her into a household name overnight. Its record-breaking chart success was followed by an onslaught of award nominations after her debut album SOUR was released that summer. Now, two years on, we have GUTS , an equally impressive, perfectly-pitched, coming-of-age collection on which the 20-year-old shows she isn’t afraid to explore her rougher, pop-punk edges or deliver her most intimate and open songs yet.
With its nods to Avril Lavigne and Paramore, SOUR sat comfortably in the pop-punk revival that stormed the charts back in 2021, but on GUTS, Rodrigo ventures further out of the mainstream comfort zone. That much is immediately evident in the messy, layered guitars and venomous vocals on Joan Didion-referencing album opener all-american bitch that break her out of the Disney star mould once and for all. Later she’s in slacker-pop territory in the sarcastic get him back!, a tongue-in-cheek laugh at the delusions that manifest in a love/hate relationship and the scenarios we play out in our heads but never act upon: lyrics such as “I wanna kiss his face with an uppercut, I wanna meet his mom, and tell her her son sucks” are deliciously withering.
The album’s second single bad idea, right? is already established as one of the songs of the year, moving past the devastating heartbreaks that inspired SOUR to embrace the chaos. Rodrigo promised it would show a “side of GUTS that’s a little more fun & playful”, and it’s a raucous, punky and horny celebration of drunken bad decisions, specifically those made late at night while craving the most inappropriate of guilty pleasures, hooking up with an ex. Love is embarrassing, with its similarly massive chorus and cleverly layered guitars continues to openly embrace stupid decisions in a way that you can’t help but admire – even if Rodrigo is tearing herself apart for a “loser who’s not worth mentioning”. Who among us hasn’t? Another win is ballad of a homeschooled girl, a new hangxiety anthem for anyone who can’t quite remember how they humiliated themselves last night, and for poor souls who wish they could forget.
These moments give Rodrigo’s second album a relatability that’s surprising for someone who’s experienced viral fame in its most potent form. In the end, she’s going through all the same things as her teenage fans, who will see their own lives reflected in these songs. One key moment of this is pretty isn’t pretty, which begins with Cure-esque dreampop guitars and opens up about the immense pressure that society places on young women with its body dysmorphia-inducing beauty standards. Rodrigo is extremely vulnerable, without coming across as preachy or resorting to clichéd lyricism. Then there’s the grudge, a low-key reflection on a break-up, with striking tear-stained teenage diary lyrics: “I’m so tough when I’m alone, and I make you feel so guilty, and I fantasise about a time you’re a little fucking sorry.”
The only mis-steps arise in some of GUTS‘ softer moments. Two of the piano-led ballads are magnificent: the album’s stunning first single vampire, a masterclass in creating a hard-hitting, atmospheric hit and lacy, a Gen-Z take on Jolene which is sure to be a fan favourite. However, making the bed and logical fall short with lyrics that are just a little too simplistic and on-the-nose, though many young women will wince in painful recognition of the latter’s description of being manipulated and gaslit by an older man.
Rodrigo, though, is nobody’s fool, and GUTS delivers emphatic proof that she isn’t just the voice of Gen Z, but a superstar for the ages, with a grasp of songwriting. dynamics and musicianship far beyond her years. Whatever else may lie ahead on her journey, one thing is certain: she’s going to have to make space at home for more awards.