In the early days of 2021, a 17-year-old Disney actress shared a song about a breakup that would, no exaggeration, change everything. On “drivers license,” Olivia Rodrigo introduced herself as a self-possessed storyteller who could transform a symbol of young adulthood into an anthem of heartbreak and lost innocence. The world quickly took notice. Four days after its release, “drivers license” broke Spotify’s record for most one-day streams for a non-holiday song. It debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for eight weeks.
If anyone thought that the success of “drivers license” was a fluke, Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, proved that she was more than a happy accident. She became the first artist in history to have her first three singles in the top 10 of the Hot 100, and took home three Grammys including Best New Artist. So what’s a girl to do when her music career starts at the top of the charts? Spill her Guts.
Now 20, Rodrigo described her sophomore album Guts as one of growing pains. “I feel like I grew 10 years between the ages of 18 and 20—it was such an intense period of awkwardness and change,” she wrote in a statement. She chronicled all the messy ups-and-downs across 12 songs that range from key-his-car pop-punk to chipper new-wave kiss-offs to Lorde-ish ballads for the young and wistful.
When Rodrigo sat down at her piano to write new music last year, she spent several months overwhelmed by the aforementioned pressures. “On the last album, I was so fucking inspired. I was going through this heartbreak, excavating so much shit from my brain,” she told Phoebe Bridgers in Interview. “I had so much to say, and this time I was like, ‘Huh, I don’t really feel as inspired. I’m not crying on the guitar anymore.’ And so it was kind of a lesson in having to think of it more as a craft.” Along the way, she took a poetry class at the University of South California and received guidance from two of her musical heroes, St. Vincent and Jack White. The latter wrote her a letter saying that Rodrigo’s “only job is to write music that [she] would want to hear on the radio.” It’s solid advice from a guy who maybe knows a thing or two about making records, but as Rodrigo later noted, actually doing that “is in fact very hard.”
So how does someone who found astronomical fame writing songs about her authentic teenage experiences continue to do so while acknowledging the surreal turn her life has taken? “I really boiled my problems down and I’m like, ‘Oh, they’re just 19-year-old, 20-year-old problems in a different environment,’” Rodrigo said. References to fame are few and far between; Guts instead focuses on good old-fashioned emotional turmoil. When Rodrigo sings of a “Bloodsucker/Fame fucker” while channeling her inner Gerard Way on the lead single “vampire,” she’s taking aim at an older ex who capitalized on her success while also extending a hand to anyone who has felt taken advantage of in a relationship. “I know my age and I act like it,” Rodrigo declares on the delicious opener “all-american bitch,” which begins as a folksy satire about double standards before turning up the volume and unleashing a rager complete with a long scream. It also invokes two of the cultiest American women writers: Joan Didion, whose essay collection The White Album inspired the title, and Lana Del Rey in the line “I’m pretty when I cry.”
A natural-born performer, Rodrigo delivers plenty of playful or funny moments, including a brilliantly blasé explanation for reconnecting with an ex on “bad idea right?”: “I only see him as a friend/I just tripped and fell into his bed!” But Guts’ bubbliest moments are countered by songs that capture a heavier reality: exploitative relationships built on inherent power differences; impossible beauty ideals; social awkwardness; and elegies for a fulfilling yet isolating adolescence. She’s still chafing against expectations and the romanticization of her own youth, but Guts shows that living a messy, present life is the only path through. A guitar solo or two never hurt, either.
In August 2022, Rodrigo and producer Daniel Nigro settled into the latter’s garage studio, the same cozy space where they made Sour. Like its predecessor, Guts is filled with bratty pop-punk bangers, hooky alt-rock homages, and introspective piano ballads with room for belting. Rodrigo and Nigro build on Sour’s ’90s nostalgia but take bigger leaps, embellishing tracks like “bad idea right?” with a “Cannonball”-esque guitar freakout. Several songs were recorded live alongside a full band, including the kooky rap-rock revenge number “get him back!” (a highlight). The pair invited a few new faces into their bubble for a song here and there, including pop producers Alexander 23 and Ian Kirkpatrick; rising star Chappell Roan on backing vocals; and top songwriters like Julia Michaels and Amy Allen. But the core of Guts is once again Rodrigo and Nigro working their magic together.
When Rodrigo first announced Guts’ tracklist, some fans were upset by the album’s 39-minute runtime, complaining that she was fleecing her audience. Though overstuffed records have become the unfortunate norm due to streaming, any longer would be unnecessary. Even at 39 minutes, there are clear highlights (the rock-influenced tracks) and sleepier moments (some of the ballads). But the backlash may lead to what fans ultimately want, which is more music: Rodrigo has been hinting at four original bonus tracks on the deluxe edition, in a Swiftian manner via clues in a faux infomercial.
- “Said I was too young/I was too soft/Can’t take a joke/Can’t get you off” - “logical”
- “Everything I do is tragic/Every guy I like is gay” - “ballad of a homeschooled girl”
- “He said he's six foot two and I’m like, ‘Dude, nice try’” - “get him back!”
- “When am I gonna stop being wise beyond my years/And just start being wise?” - “teenage dream”
- “I’m planning out my wedding with some guy I’m never marrying” - “love is embarrassing”