"From my early-to-mid adolescence," I wrote years ago in a reassessment of this period in my music-obsessed life, "I listened almost exclusively to music made by sad boys." And it wasn't just that girls' perspectives were absent from this music that I loved so passionately during this confusing and hormonally tumultuous time: The Girl was always the reason the boys were sad. In these songs, she was often actively vilified, blamed for the Lead Singer Boy's every earthly woe—and not infrequently the star of his violent revenge fantasies. "Even if her plane crashes tonight she'll find some way to disappoint me," went a song I can still sing by heart as an adult, "by not burning in the wreckage, or drowning at the bottom of the sea." This was, to me, romantic, melodramatic, deep. I doodled lyrics like those on the backs of worksheets, in the margins of my diary. I played guitar—much better than I ever gave myself credit for then—but was too shy to be in a band, so I resorted to playing covers of those sorts of songs alone in my bedroom. Maybe I would have uploaded them to YouTube if it had existed.
I gravitated toward emo and punk music because I was seeking out some sort of alternative to life as I knew it, so I think if Olivia Rodrigo had existed when I was a teen I would have at first been a little skeptical of her mainstream popularity, her preternatural poise, her Disney past. But in the end I have to think I would have been pulled in by the oceanic undertow of her music's subjectivity, an exquisitely detailed, deeply felt, young girl's perspective that was woefully lacking in the music I listened to when I myself was learning how to parallel park.
Nigro's production style for Rodrigo is both playful and atmospheric, conjuring a kind of dreamy internal space in which it seems like the listener is eavesdropping on the singer's thoughts and impressions. Seemingly small, intimate moments—an ex sharing a Billy Joel song with his new flame, say, in "deja vu"—are underscored with operatic flair. Though updated for this world of social media surveillance and stream-of-consciousness text messages, this approach isn't exactly new. It's basically the foundation of modern pop music as we know it, dating back to the youth-oriented concerns of Brill Building songwriters in the 1950s and the early 1960s girl groups whose adolescent experiences were dramatized into three-minute symphonies thanks to Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound."
But also: No thanks to Phil Spector. Because his unavoidable centrality in the story of modern pop music also reminds us that it is an industry with a long, troubling history of exploiting—or worse—the affective labor of teenage girls. Accusations of abuse now also loom over the previous generation's most influential pop hitmaker, Dr. Luke—ironically the architect of so-called "empowering" female-driven millennial pop anthems like "Roar," "Since U Been Gone" and, yep, f-ing "Teenage Dream."
Rodrigo's creative partnership with Nigro, though, seems to fit within a newer paradigm of pop star/producer power dynamics. Much like Antonoff's pairings with some of the artists who have most directly inspired Rodrigo (Swift, Lorde, Lana Del Rey), and even a little like the intimate workings of Eilish's bedroom pop laboratory with her brother Finneas, Rodrigo and Nigro present their work to the world as the result of a genuine, non-hierarchical collaboration. "I realize I'm okay at navigating my job because I played in a band for 10 years with three other very emotional, crazy people—myself probably being the most emotional crazy of the four of us," Nigro told Vice earlier this year. "Having those experiences with my bandmates has really helped me work with so many different artists, because I'm able to understand what they're going through and get them to feel open enough to be who they actually are."
But maybe that supposedly "new" paradigm also has crucial antecedents scattered throughout musical history, too. Nigro's language there bears a striking resemblance to the way Alanis Morissette has described her creative partnership with producer Glen Ballard, with whom she first worked on another album with which Sour finds cross-generational echoes: Jagged Little Pill. "glen's presence with me had no agenda," Morissette reflected in a 2015 essay commemorating the 20th anniversary of that landmark album and written—it must be said—all in lowercase letters. "this presence and this lack of projecting onto me 'what i should be' was the ultimate freedom and support i needed to crack open."
In that essay, Morissette acknowledges that part of her success was lucky timing: In the mid-'90s there was suddenly, she writes, "a readiness, perhaps, for people to hear about the underbelly, the true experience of being a young, sensitive, and brave person in a patriarchal world." That moment proved to be fleeting, though, and by the early aughts and my early teens the mainstream culture had shifted back to its norm of only caring about macho, masculine angst. Any girl trying to use the idioms of punk or emo to express herself—like, say, Avril Lavigne—was immediately regarded as an intruder, a poser or a sell-out until proven otherwise.
What I realize when I reflect back on the silent voices of my youth, though, is that we girls had so much to rage and yell and be sad about—maybe even more than the boys ever did. Because for all the sense of community it gave me in connecting with like-minded friends, the punk and emo scene often still replicated the most misogynistic impulses of the broader culture. Something I have been sitting with for the past few years, and which I have not even known how to begin to process, is that the songwriter and frontman of my favorite emo band—the one who wrote those plane-crash lyrics I sang along to endlessly—was accused of sexual misconduct by girls who, at the time, were about the same age that I was when I idolized him. When I think too hard about that, I want to scream until my lungs explode.
Rodrigo and her peers have come of age at a time when a lot of the gender norms that reinforce those exploitative power dynamics are breaking down, in part because most of them grow up with an awareness and acceptance of gender fluidity. Terms like "lowercase girl," or just "girl," are more pliable, inviting and optional than they used to be. Some very popular, very emotional musicians have also paved certain paths, whether that's Swift, Lorde, or Paramore's Hayley Williams. Even if I didn't always hear it affirmed in my own adolescence, it's heartening to now hear Rodrigo asserting, from the top of the charts, that girls have plenty to be emo about.
As Sour progresses, the ability to feel deeply and express herself becomes Rodrigo's superpower. "Maybe I'm too emotional, or maybe you never cared at all," she sings on the searing bridge of "good 4 u." It's not her, it's him, she concludes, diagnosing an unfeeling ex as acting "like a damn sociopath." Rodrigo refracts the shattering experience of first heartbreak through a multitude of different moods and genres, and it's a testament to her transfixing strengths as a songwriter and a vocal performer that it only starts to feel repetitive one song from the end.