It takes guts to be yourself, and that’s exactly what Olivia Rodrigo does on her second studio album.
A follow-up to 2021’s SOUR, GUTS reflects on growth, celebrity, and the pressures placed upon a young female pop star by society. Rodrigo has grown since the release of SOUR, both in terms of vocal richness and lyrical themes. She keeps her signature musical style of balancing grunge, angst, and heart-wrenching ballads, but her vocals, along with the lyrics of her songs, have become deeper and more vulnerable. While SOUR beautifully lamented a lost relationship, GUTS laments an almost-lost youth.
Rodrigo has faced her fair share of controversy in recent years, covering everything from love triangles to feuds to plagiarism claims against her. Combined with her transition from Disney actress to angsty musical artist, these controversies have led to her changing reputation. This era of criticism and extreme scrutiny at the hands of the public is not unique to Rodrigo, but is experienced by many young women who have been thrust into the spotlight at a young age. Society demands perfection; like all of us, Rodrigo isn’t perfect. Instead, her perceived mistakes force her into the identity of a “mean girl” and a sex symbol, cold and beautiful, which is summed up so well in the first song from GUTS, “all american b****”: “I’m a perfect all-American b**** / with perfect all-American lips / and perfect all-American hips / I know my place / I know my place, and this is it.” These lyrics made me think about conforming to the idea of perfection in the context of the Christian community, where we are sometimes forced to wear the mask of the “all-American Christian.”
There’s a duality to GUTS that exists from song to song—not just lyrically, but also musically, as Rodrigo blames, at turns, society and herself for the demands of perfection and her feelings of inadequacy. Songs like “bad idea right?” and “get him back!” exude Rodrigo’s teenage angst style, with backing electric guitar and drums. In “get him back!,” Rodrigo almost raps certain parts of the song, while the chorus is catchy and boppy. “bad idea right?” and “get him back!” are like sister songs, united by Rodrigo’s description of past relationships. “bad idea right?” recalls a toxic relationship Rodrigo can’t help but return to, again and again. “get him back!” represents a shift, as Rodrgio describes another failed relationship but this time, her desire is to seek revenge.
On “lacy,” an emotional, soft ballad, Rodrigo shares the toll the societal pressure of comparison has taken on her: “Lacy, oh Lacy / and I despise my jealous eyes and how hard they fell for you / yeah, I despise my rotten mind and how much it worships you.” This theme continues in “making the bed,” an emotional song in which Rodrigo blames herself in part for her complicity in forming her new reputation. She croons, “I’m so tired of bein’ the girl that I am / every good thing has turned into somethin’ I dread / and I’m playin’ the victim so well in my head / but it’s been me who’s been makin’ the bed.” When Rodrigo’s voice hits the high notes, you can almost feel her pain yourself.
While SOUR beautifully lamented a lost relationship, GUTS laments an almost-lost youth.
“making the bed” is an example of how so many of us, even those of us in the Christian community, allow societal standards of perfection to guide us and change us. There’s often pressure placed upon us—by ourselves, our churches, or the larger community—to be “perfect.” In order to be “good Christians,” we need to act a certain way, pray a certain way, worship a certain way. We can become pigeonholed into certain stereotypes; instead of being vulnerable, we can choose to fit those stereotypes out of desire for acceptance.
During a difficult season of life, my relationship with God was tumultuous. In admitting my vulnerabilities and my doubts, I feared judgment, that people in my Christian community would see me as broken and “un-Christian.” I blamed myself—that if I was a better or stronger person, I could weather this storm. But when I finally allowed myself to be vulnerable, I was met with reassurance and kind, supportive words from others who had felt the same way. I realized that the self-imposed and societal pressures were keeping many of us from sharing something so important in fear of being labeled a certain way. In Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church, theologian Rachel Held Evans wrote: “The church is God saying: 'I'm throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited.’” We are reminded here that Jesus accepts us as the broken, imperfect people that we are. We find our identity in Christ, not society. Recognizing this can help us to take off the mask and be vulnerable and loving to one another, just as Christ is with us.
In the penultimate song on GUTS, “pretty isn’t pretty,” Rodrigo sings: “You can win the battle, but you’ll never win the war / you fix the things you hated, and you’d still feel insecure.” We can rest assured that with our identity firmly placed in Christ, the war has already been won. We can feel secure in Christ’s love for us and start to let go of the mask we often wear. Rodrigo ends her album with “teenage dream”: “And I’m sorry that I couldn’t always be your teenage dream.” While she continues to wrestle with the pressure placed on her, the song changes from a ballad to a piece of sing-along power pop. There’s a feeling of hope and change, a sense that Rodrigo might be able to drop her mask. May we find the inspiration to do the same.