Olivia Rodrigo cares about what other people think. It’s one of the common threads that runs through her sophomore album, “Guts,” which was released on Sept. 8.
Her candor about the agony of constantly comparing herself to others is part of what makes the album so relatable. In an era where tallies of likes, streams, views, and shares are constantly broadcast and women, in particular, are bombarded with messaging that tells them they must have perfect looks, minds, and relationships while also being completely confident and loving themselves, it’s hard to fully avoid feeling less than.
That tangle of contradictions is the heart of the opening track, “All-American B*tch,” which explores the myriad contradictions women are faced with — be demure yet confident, humble yet fearless, sexy yet sweet. “I don’t get angry when I’m pissed, I’m the eternal optimist / I scream inside to deal with it,” Rodrigo sings, setting the tone for the album.
Of course, in addition to screaming internally, she also makes music about it all. “Guts” is an angry, tightly wound album that builds on Rodrigo’s penchant for channeling righteous, relatable rage into bold, salty power ballads. On the album, the main source of Rodrigo’s anger appears to be an irresponsible, older ex who keeps her caught in a loop of breaking up and getting back together. That ex seems to be the subject of “Bad Idea Right?,” “Get Him Back!,” and a number of other tracks.
Rodrigo captures the pain of being in an on-and-off-again relationship with a manipulative person well. But while the songs that seem to be overtly about an ex-partner are vitriolic, they’re also often more tongue-in-cheek and full of light humor than some of the album’s more serious and expansive tracks. The album’s ballads and heart-wrenchers mostly seem to be about something that’s even more challenging for Rodrigo than the crappy older men she sings about: the scrutiny she feels from others about her own worthiness. That theme is consistent on the album’s most heart-wrenching track, the one that gets closest to “Drivers License” in terms of the tidal waves of emotion it pulls together: the album’s closer, “Teenage Dream.”
“I fear that they already got all the best parts of me,” Rodrigo sings in the chorus. “And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream.” Here, Rodrigo seems to hint at a fear that she’s already produced her best work — perhaps in the form of “Drivers License” — and she worries about not being able to live up to the standards she set for herself so early on.
It’s just one of the many anxious tracks on “Guts.” She worries about comparing herself to another girl in the delicate, dreamy “Lacy.” She worries about her appearance on “Pretty Isn’t Pretty.” She worries about the consequences of her own actions and losing control in “Making the Bed,” turning all of her rage right back on herself.
Ultimately, “Guts” is an album about social paranoia and insecurity. These are, of course, cornerstones of most teenage experiences, and they also do tend to find ways to stick around long after. Rodrigo might deal with these insecurities on a larger scale than most, having been lauded as the music industry’s next megastar at the age of 18.
It’s never been hard to see why Rodrigo soared to fame so early on. She has an exceptional, uncannily athletic voice and uses it well on “Guts.” It soars to extreme heights and then fades to a breathy whisper in an instant, all while somehow sounding less than effortless. The music, too, is a reliably catchy blend of time-tested pop and pop-punk recipes — which can feel formulaic at times, but an occasional bit of psychedelia makes it more unique, layering everything with a sheen of glitter.
Musically and thematically, “Guts” is not necessarily a step up from “Sour.” Of course, it never necessarily had to be. Instead, it’s a worthy follow-up that reminds us that Rodrigo is just as scared that she’s not good enough as the rest of us. In a world that constantly conspires to make us feel like we’re less than — usually in order to sell more products — that’s more than enough.