Halfway through her second album, GUTS, Olivia Rodrigo describes a recurring dream in which her car’s brakes fail as she’s driving through a city. “Can’t stop at the red light, can’t swerve off the road/ It’s because my life feels so out of control”. It’s an abrupt change of pace for an artist who achieved global fame stuck at “red lights/ stop signs” on 2021’s “Drivers License”.
It’s been two years since that song made Rodrigo, then 18, the youngest person to debut atop the US Billboard 100 chart. The Disney star’s minimalist account of teenage heartbreak, suburban isolation, and stalled expectations struck a chord across the pandemic-hit globe. Its elegantly – and unexpectedly – dropped F-bomb was bang on target, seeming to explode in remote slow-motion, just as its locked-down singer watched her success erupt from her bedroom like a military drone operator. One upside of that enforced isolation, she has was that it gave her the space and confidence to complete the rest of her excellent debut album: Sour (2021).
The world has moved on since then and her follow-up, GUTS, finds Rodrigo – who has quit Disney and moved from LA to New York – revelling in an even angrier, wittier, rockier mood. I’m happy to report the whole project lives up to the punk-edged, eye-rolling promise of advance singles “Vampire” and “Bad Idea Right?”
In interviews, Rodrigo has generally dodged questions about the pressures placed on Disney’s young female stars. But the straight-A student knows her Mouse-to-MTV history, a pipeline that has seen young women from Britney Spears through to Miley Cyrus to Ariana Grande achieve increased autonomy with the passing decades. She opens this record with the gleeful thrash rant of “All-American B****”, which could be read as a comment on the corporation’s expectation for her to be “grateful all the f***ing time… sexy and kind… pretty when I cry…” – expectations, which have trickled down to all girls in the same culture. The track may open with a sweetly picked guitar and an angelic coo but from that cute egg bursts a chorus of snarling serrated guitars over which Rodrigo (raised on her parents’ White Stripes and Weezer records) sarks about having “class and integrity like a goddamn Kennedy”.
“Vampire” pulls a similar soft/hard trick. The track sees Rodrigo take delicious, sniper’s aim at a draining older lover (“girls your age know better”) over the reverb-y piano with which she made her name. Soon, the track explodes into a noisy blood-spatter of electric guitar, battered keyboards and cymbals. Rodrigo has said she worries that writing about the pitfalls of her celebrity (“blood sucker/ fame f***er”) might bore or alienate her audience, but the truth of her rage burns through. Anyone can relate to being used.
“Bad Idea Right” draws propulsive pop energy from a rubberised bass line that catapults Rodrigo back into the arms of an ex. She takes full responsibility for her stupid, masochistic behaviour and the track is a blast. The personal accountability continues on the gorgeous, hazy-scuzzy “Making the Bed” – a track whose melody recalls Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” (“It’s me, I’m Kathy/ I’ve come home…”) and whose confessional, drawling tone nods to Taylor Swift (who signed her first country music deal the year Rodrigo was born). She admits to leaving old friends behind and partying with a new crowd, sighing: “I am so tired of being the girl that I am… I’m playing the victim so well in my head/ But it’s me who’s been making the bed”.
She has fun with pogo-pop revenge anthem “Get Him Back!” on which she recaptures the rhythmic spirit of the predatory, young Debbie Harry’s “I’ll get ya!” (from Blondie’s 1978 single “One Way or Another”). Into a distorted mic, she growls: “I want to kiss his face with an uppercut/ I wanna meet his mom to say her son sucks…”
In a recent interview with Vogue, Rodrigo spoke of being obsessed with Tori Amos and there’s certainly something of Amos and the intensity with which she sings about her relationship with other women on the delicately finger-picked “Lacy”. The object of Rodrigo’s fascination is “a dazzling starlet/ Bardot reincarnate” who brings poison into her life. Trust betrayed is also pinned like a butterfly on piano-led “The Grudge” as the singer recounts the arguments she’s won only in her head.
Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl” is a solid wedge of American indie about being “on the outside of the greatest inside joke”, which features a rapid-fire rap, listing the singer’s cringeworthy social suicides. “Pretty isn’t Pretty” floats on a warm current of The Cure-indebted guitars as Rodrigo laments that she could try every lipstick in every shade and still fail to live up to the standards of “s***ty magazines”.
GUTS ends with a tender, hotel lobby piano ballad called “Teenage Dream” on which Rodrigo gives herself permission to let go of the prodigal perfectionism that has driven her career to date. She conjures the memory of blowing out candles on her 19th birthday cake while fearing “they already got all the best parts of me/ I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream”. It’s a tender evocation of the grief for childhood that is commonly experienced at her age, intensified in her case by the fact she missed out on the usual high school experience to appear in a fictional high school on the telly. GUTS sees Rodrigo smash her way out of the confines of small screen life and arrive kicking and screaming into her real life. No more red lights or stop signs in her way.
‘GUTS’ is released on 8 September via Interscope Records