Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” Plays Games with Pop Song Tropes

I know what you’re thinking.

The world doesn’t need to hear from a fat, bald 45-year-old guy about Olivia Rodrigo’s killer debut album Sour.

And you’re right.

This is an album that is clearly and cleverly written for my teen daughters, not for me.

The thing is, this album haunts the dark, quiet hours of my nights. Instead of sleeping, I think about the lyrics, the hooks, and how the whole album is put together.

For weeks I’ve tried to avoid this project. But the ideas won’t leave me alone.

I’m putting my thoughts out into the world about the first track, Brutal, in the hopes that I will be able to sleep again at night.

Sour is one of those albums that was designed to be a cohesive whole. Many artists, especially young artists, release albums that are really just playlists. The only thing that ties the songs together is the artist performing them.

But from the jump, Sour is more than the sum of its parts.

The first track, Brutal, is more than just a song.

If Sour were a book, Brutal would be the prologue. It sets everything up.

Another way to look it is to imagine that Sour is a Broadway musical.

Brutal is the high-energy opening number that pulls the audience into the world of the show by introducing the main characters and setting up the framing for the story that follows.

In Brutal, we meet the protagonist. She’s honest, seventeen, single, and pissed.

It’s the perfect introduction to the rest of the album. After two minutes and twenty-four seconds, we are invested in the character Rodrigo is playing and hopelessly lost in her world.

Brutal, and the entire album, is written for teens, especially teenage girls who have felt heartbreak.

But if you spend any time on social media, you will see that Rodrigo’s songs don’t just hit the Gen Z set; they are also crushing their Gen X parents.

What sorcery is this? How can an album as hip as Sour resonate with teens and their parents and still be so authentic and raw?

One lyric from Brutal reveals the magic behind the monster success of this album. Rodrigo sings:

And I’m so sick of seventeen
Where’s my fucking teenage dream?

This is a perfect pop song lyric. Of course, seventeen and teenage dream aren’t perfect rhymes—but this isn’t a poem—it’s an angry, powerful pop song.

Like a master magician, Rodrigo is performing her tricks in plain sight. But the audience is too spellbound to notice the sleight of hand.

This lyric is perfect and powerful not because of the close rhyme but because of the epic pop-culture resonance of seventeen and teenage dream.

If you have been on planet Earth at any point since 2010, the simple phrase teenage dream will remind you of the ubiquitous Katy Perry song Teenage Dream. You, me, and Rodrigo have heard that song a million times.

By using teenage dream, Rodrigo is tying into an older pop phenomenon. The words sound like the greeting of an old friend.

But Rodrigo isn’t quoting Perry’s song, or even necessarily pay homage to it. She is tapping into something more profound.

While Perry uses Teenage Dream to reflect on the passion and sexuality of being young, Rodrigo is doing something different.

She’s talking about a teenage dream like it’s a version of the American Dream, and it’s gone. She’s aging out of being a teenager, and everything she was promised about youth is proving to be a lie.

But that’s not all.

This lyric is packed with even more resonance. The use of seventeen as an age for female characters in songs has deep roots in pop songs. Seventeen is often musical and pop-culture shorthand for sexual temptation and overpowering naivete. The girl who is almost a woman.

When many Gen Xers hear I’m so sick of seventeen, the chances are good that part of their brain remembers two very old song lyrics. One of them is ABBA’s 1976 hit Dancing Queen.

In this song, the Swedish quartet sings the line:

You are the dancing queen
Young and sweet
Only seventeen

Dancing Queen was not only a hit in the 70s, but it had a long second-life as part of the Broadway musical and later Hollywood movie musical Mamma Mia!

It’s interesting that the Mamma Mia! movie came out in 2008, within Rodrigo’s lifetime, and not long before Perry’s Teenage Dream was released.

What’s the second song that many people might subconsciously think of when they hear Rodrigo sing:

And I’m so sick of seventeen
Where’s my fucking teenage dream?

It’s the Beatles I Saw Her Standing There from 1963. The title of the song might not mean anything to you unless you are a huge Beatles fan.

But, you have no doubt heard at least the opening lyric from that song:

Well she was just seventeen
And you know what I mean

This Lennon/McCartney song has a raw sexuality hidden behind tight harmonies and a perfect melody. You don’t need any context to understand what this Beatles lyric is saying. We all literally do know what Lennon means when he sings this.

However, like with teenage dream, Rodrigo is doing something completely different than ABBA or the Beatles. Her lyric is not sexual or about being naïve.

Rodrigo is singing about being young, old, and jaded in a way that you only feel when you are a teenager on the verge of becoming an adult. Brutal is about how brutal it is to see that everything you’ve been told about being young is empty and that you have to find your own way.

Brutal is a brilliant setup for the rest of a killer album. She plugs into the feelings of power and powerlessness that all teens feel. She also uses language that resonates with people far outside her target demographic and her Gen Z fans but twists the meaning and usage of words to move beyond tropes and crafts something that feels familiar but us uniquely Rodrigo’s.

Brutal is a unique song written for teenagers that hits hard with anyone who remembers what being a teenager was like.

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