Why Olivia Rodrigo’s “Sour” is this Generation’s “The Wall”

By Nick Pierson

On November 30th, 1979, Pink Floyd released The Wall. This seminal album would be released following some of the most classic albums of all time: The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and Animals. Although sharing the spotlight with other masterpieces of brainy and progessive rock, The Wall stands out in the minds of many.

The website Stacker published a list of the 100 Greatest Rock Albums, tracking “greatness” through its placement on numerous similar lists and compiling the data. The Wall came in 24th, sharing the list with its musical siblings (Animals at 37, Wish You Were Here at 8, and The Dark Side of the Moon at 2). 

Even at the time of its release, The Wall would be regarded as a different animal as the previous projects. A 1980 Rolling Stones review would call it “a stunning synthesis of Waters’ by now familiar thematic obsessions” and makes sure to hit on the pronounced themes of children being humiliated, women’s daily oppression, and the rage stemming from those issues. This viewpoint would be shared by other contemporary reviewers including Robin Deneslow from The Guardian who stated that Pink Floyd “have dealt with such themes before… but never with such bitter passion.”

The bitter and angry messages in the album would be made personal and almost melancholic with one of the biggest hits from the album “Comfortably Numb”. Lines like the opening “Hello? Is anybody in there?” or the closing “The child is grown, The dream is gone, I have become comfortably numb” show how this societal pressure and anger turn into a personal sense of alienation and loss of emotion.

This melancholy and sedated nature of those society has beaten and held down still holds up for many, but there is another ever more prevalent emotion exists: anger. Now more than ever western society’s youth is angry. See the massive, nationwide protests for Black Lives Matter following the murder of George Floyd, which saw millions of young people flocking to the streets in anger over society’s oppression. Or see Gen Z’s eagerness to engage in what’s often called “cancel culture”, pushing for correct behavior of those in the spotlight with gusto. Enter Olivia Rodrigo and her debut album, Sour.

The same emotions that led to the placid nature of “Comfortably Numb” now led to new emotions and avenues. The first song released from the album “driver’s license” would see Rodrigo upset, crushed by patriarchal structure as shown by her relationship by a man who cares more for the new and superficial beauty of a “blonde girl” than the person he claimed to love with authentic original emotions (see “deja vu”). “drivers license” would be released well before the album, spending weeks at the number 1 of the Billboard charts.

While “drivers license” seems to lead to the same resignation to sadness that would lead to feeling comfortable in her numbness, Rodrigo was not content letting the sedated feelings of “deja vu”, “traitor”,  or “happier” define the album. Rodrigo would notch another Billboard number 1 debut with “good 4 u”. This song would not be another slow burn ballad where Rodrigo sits in sadness but instead full of the rage of Gen Z. Pulling, maybe a little bit too much, from the Anger seen in the angst “Misery Business” by Paramore, Olivia is no longer content with sitting in sadness. This is even more true for the modern classic, “brutal”, where Rodrigo would take her anger away from relationship issues and put it towards the broader society. Rodrigo’s anger goes largely towards the patriarchal structure of our society. Lines like “cause who am I if not exploited” show the nature of someone who grew prominence as a Disney star, which often exploits young people, especially young women. Her section stating “I’m not cool and I’m not smart, and I can’t even parallel park” goes towards showing the oppressive reality that Pink Floyd would point out for women back in the late 1970’s. Women are often judged for their social standing, which is often defined by their looks, or their ability to perform, and often ridiculed for their imperfections (especially with stereotypes like women not being able to drive or being treated as not capable of jobs in the workplace).

After the album, Rodrigo would continue this theme of extending her sadness to anger. The song “jealousy, jealousy” has more edge and rage than “1 step forward, 3 steps back” from the same album, but would ultimately sit in the tonal range of brooding in sadness. This would change in the documentary driving home 2 u which spends a significant portion of its run time with music videos reimagining the songs from Sour in new styles. “jealousy, jealousy” would receive one of the biggest transformations, no longer sitting in the ultimately sedated range of the album version but instead hammering on the emotions of rage that Rodrigo had been developing throughout this process. The driving home 2 u version is explosive. Her delivery and the instrumentals now sit confidently in the range of anger drawing even more inspiration from the long tradition of female punk singers that inspired her like Hayley Williams from Paramore instead of the passive, commercial female pop singers that have been used, abused, and discarded once they age by the music industry in the past.

The overall youth and diversity of Olivia’s listeners show the final noticeable change that represents this new generation. While Pink Floyd’s stereotypical listener is a middle aged white dad, Olivia Rodrigo’s core demographic is young women but does little to exclude potential listeners from other genders or age groups.

The Wall was a bitter and angry display for those in the late 1970’s and focused on the issues with society. Swinging between those core emotions and the sedated nature of sadness/ alienation, The Wall encapsulated a then young generation’s feeling towards society. Sour by Olivia Rodrigo accomplishes the same goal for the newer, more diverse, and increasingly angry generation of listeners. The sadness but also dripping anger of Sour is set to make it a classic remembered as what defined our generation when we are parents to our own children. One thing is for sure: it’s brutal out here.

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