An illustration of young musician Olivia Rodrigo in an article about her debut album, "Sour."

‘Sour’: A Guide to the Musical Influences That Helped Shape Olivia Rodrigo’s Hit Record

This rising star's debut album leaves behind a genealogy of all the other artists who influenced it, ranging from Paramore to Taylor Swift.
June 15, 2021
11 mins read

Throughout the past year, Disney star Olivia Rodrigo has booked her one-way ticket to the top of the music industry — and it looks like she plans on staying there. Within the first week of its release, her debut album “Sour” settled into No. 1 on the Billboard 200 Chart. Rodrigo has managed to craft a collection of Gen Z heartbreak anthems that has taken the world by storm.

“Sour” is a brutally honest (forgive the pun) depiction of the insecurity, bitterness and lost sense of self that stems from the demise of a relationship. Her album appears to go through the stages of grief — a release of anger, sadness and jealousy. Some fans have theorized that “Sour” is actually an acronym for Stages Of Unofficial Relationships, though Rodrigo insists that it’s simply a word she feels captures her sound well. Regardless of what the naming procedure may have been, the subject of the album is no mystery among Olivia Rodrigo’s fan base. There is a general consensus that all of these ballads are an allusion to her “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” co-star, Joshua Bassett, and that the heartbreak of their relationship has built the album.

As a project, “Sour” has an incredible arrangement and wonderful versatility, both lyrically and sonically. It has an extremely cohesive theme and accurately portrays the dynamic but volatile nature of a relationship gone astray. To capture this, one of the artists Rodrigo seems to have taken inspiration from is the 2000s rock band Paramore.

To start the album, “Brutal” takes on a late ‘90s to early 2000s pop-punk sound filled with anger and frustration. Slightly distorted vocals, harsh guitar and lyrics that convey quintessential teenage angst all fuse together to create a sound of rage and betrayal that Paramore has flawlessly cultivated in the past two decades. Rodrigo sings about the complications that accompany teendom, whether they are a product of insecurity, social pressure or even just not knowing how to parallel park. This is also reminiscent of Paramore lyrically, bringing a degree of nostalgia to the opening of the album.

This influence is further seen in Rodrigo’s hit song “Good 4 U.” When overlaid with Paramore’s “Misery Business,” the similarities are impossible to ignore. They both have a “bordering-on-rock” sound that encourages unending singing and rave-adjacent dancing, both of which have been listeners’ preferred streaming rituals for the songs. There would be no surprise if Rodrigo claimed inspiration from Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams herself. But, in a true testament to the record’s versatility, rock bands don’t seem to be the only influences on “Sour.”

The most distinguishable and frequent influence that can be seen in Rodrigo’s album is that of Taylor Swift. Since the album is a raw account of losing someone you love, many people compare Rodrigo’s lifestyle and songwriting process with Swift’s. The Grammy Award winner was well known for airing her grievances with her public relationships through her songs. Swift has never shied away from putting her most vulnerable thoughts into her music, and Rodrigo is following in her footsteps. This is evident in several songs throughout the album.

“Traitor” is an accusatory ballad seeping with tones of betrayal. It discusses the uncertainty and unofficial nature of the relationship, seeds of doubt that existed throughout their shared time and lies told to Rodrigo by her partner. It parallels many of Taylor Swift’s themes in its relatability and unguarded simplicity. “Enough For You” is a narration of insecurity within a relationship and how it can lead to a loss of self-assurance and identity. In “Happier,” Rodrigo seems to have decided that the high road has too much traffic and has taken a new path. Although she recognizes that she wants her partner to be happy, she remains cognizant of her natural human selfishness that accompanies feelings of romantic loss. All of these are subjects that are prominent in Swift’s older bodies of work, such as “Red” and “Speak Now.”

Lyrics from “Enough For You” such as “Don’t you think I loved you too much to be used and discarded?” show interesting parallels to lyrics like “Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?” from Swift’s “Dear John.” There is also an interesting correlation between Rodrigo’s “Happier” and Swift’s “Happiness” from the album “Folklore.” Both songs carry a heavy irony in their titles, being two of the saddest songs on their respective albums. They are also almost thematically identical, dealing with the idea of finding happiness after losing someone you cared about and training that happiness to exist outside of being with that person.

There is also a notable Taylor Swift effect on Rodrigo’s chosen vocabulary. Swift has long been known for her songwriting skills that manifest in narrative-based writing, abstract vernacular and poetic phrasing.  Her songs contain phrases and lyrical techniques that would not be found on mainstream channels such as the radio. For example, lines from Swift’s “Ivy,” such as “Your touch brought forth an incandescent glow / Tarnished but so grand,” are not common lyrical choices. Rodrigo mirrors this in songs such as “Hope Ur OK,” using phrases like “A tow-head blond with eyes of salt.” Both songs carry a lexicon that consists of intangible, descriptive concepts rather than common diction.

Perhaps the most obvious evidence of Taylor Swift’s influence in “Sour” is the interpolation of “New Year’s Day” into “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back.” Since Swift still does not own her masters, Rodrigo decided to play the recording herself on the piano and interpolate it into the song. This was done in place of sampling so that no copyright grant would have to be requested from Scooter Braun — an act of support for Swift.

It’s these influences — the versatility, heartbreak, honesty and lyricism — that have catapulted Rodrigo into the spotlight. The fame she gained through “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” was not insignificant, but the realism and sincerity of her music is what has propelled her career, particularly through TikTok. On a platform that chooses its artists based on their ability to make a relatable, dance-worthy song, Rodrigo fits the bill to a tee. Her song “Driver’s License,” which was released long before the album, set a foundation for her, as users created video transitions with the song as the background. After “Sour” was released, TikTok took her songs and made a trend of each one, boosting their popularity and creating a brand among the platform’s audience. After all, what speaks more to the zeitgeist of 2021 than teenage heartbreak?

Some listeners have taken issue with “Sour,” giving it the same treatment that was given to Swift’s “Red” and critiquing its lack of sonic cohesiveness. This is understandable to some extent, but life isn’t cohesive. Relationships in their true form are often disjointed, and what is an album to be if not a testament to that? Rodrigo started her album saying, “I want it to be, like, messy,” and she followed through, capturing a diverse and striking arrangement of sounds and lyrics that encapsulates the chaos of a relationship.

It is honestly beautiful to see this road map that Rodrigo has left in her album — a sort of scavenger hunt that not only tells us who she is now but also who she was growing up. It’s both wistful and refreshing to imagine a young Olivia Rodrigo jamming out to Taylor Swift and Paramore songs in her living room, being raised on the same music that most of her audience was. Rodrigo’s musical persona exists at the nexus of sentimentality and relatability, and it is these hallmarks that give Rodrigo the charm and charisma that it gave her idols — a charm that will follow her deep into her career.

Mariam Nasief, Columbia University

Writer Profile

Mariam Nasief

Columbia University
Biomedical Engineering

Mariam Nasief, originally from New Jersey, is currently a rising sophomore and self-proclaimed pop-culture connoisseur. Although she’s studying engineering, she loves to stimulate her creative side in whatever way that she can.

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