Olivia Rodrigo wants it to be, like, messy: How ‘Sour’ depicts Gen Z’s warped perception of self

Photo of Olivia Rodrigo's "good 4 u"
Geffen Records/Courtesy

Related Posts

Even though Olivia Rodrigo earned her driver’s license not too long ago, she already knows the hit-and-run of heartbreak all too well. On her debut album Sour, the 18-year-old pop artist drives to escape suffering — eyes stinging, tears blurring the once-familiar, now unwelcoming stretch of suburbia — only for her car to crash. Sour is peering past broken headlights, sweeping up shattered windshield glass. It’s a vulnerable, rude awakening through Rodrigo’s warped vision that scraps beauty out of blood and ruin.

Discarded on the side of the road, Rodrigo is left alone to question her worth. The crushed glass littered across the road pricks her skin, and her reflective queries bubble into doubt and self-blame, a mirrorball delusion forming from fragments of falsehoods. Pain distorts reality enough to begin impacting Rodrigo’s perception of herself, and as she bleeds out for what feels like an eternity, Sour emerges as a warped personal reflection. “I’d say you broke my heart/ But you broke much more than that,” she laments on “Enough For You,” desperately searching for who she used to be.

It’s a viable possibility, however, that her past self cannot be rediscovered or reclaimed. Sour, in a way, reflects “the looking-glass self,” a concept presented by sociologist Charles Cooley, which proposes that one’s identity develops based on social interactions and the perceptions of others. Rodrigo gazes through this distorted-looking glass on Sour, bitterly scrutinizing herself through the cynical perspectives of others — dizzying, blinding lights of cars streak past her, the traffic noise drowning out her cries. Her record exposes the disturbing struggle of her generation: Generation Z’s identity is not only shaped by others’ judgments but created by them.

Raised in the panopticon of the internet, the latest generation lives in a visceral realm of social media — a surveilled, suffocating world of self-delusion. Writer Jia Tolentino tours this gloomy world in her insightful essay “The I in the Internet,” illustrating the dangers of everyone pasting private matters across public domains. The internet thrives as a shadowy prism of illusions, and as Tolentino expresses, it perpetuates the distortion of self by thriving on the agony of comparison.

This is all too familiar to Rodrigo, having grown up in both the internet dominion and in the intense spotlight of Disney fame. She articulates on Sour how brutal it is to search for a “fucking teenage dream” that doesn’t exist. The artist sings about being crushed by comparison in “Jealousy, Jealousy,” voicing that “I think I think too much/ ‘Bout kids who don’t know me/ I’m so sick of myself/ I’d rather be, rather be/ Anyone, anyone else.” She’s similarly conscious of unhealthy tendencies on “Happier,” where she tears down her ex’s new lover “Like cuttin’ her down will make you miss my wretched heart.” Awareness of self-delusion is the paradox of Sour and the toxicity of the internet: We recognize how social media distorts our self-perception, but the more our reflections warp, the more our masochistic dependence on these networks grows.

Online life necessitates the relentless questioning of one’s identity, and on Sour, Rodrigo reveals how it forces the internalization of hatred and blame. But instead of falling victim to her resentment, she channels it into something powerful. She furiously crafts articulate assertions against a backdrop of aesthetic chaos, unleashing a tumultuous, unabashed anger directed not only at her ex-lover but at the world that has exploited her.

Rodrigo directs her bitterness at those who profit from sustaining her splintered self-perception, and this exploitation is perpetuated by the internet’s stifling induction of self-regulation, which Tolentino connects to sociologist Erving Goffman’s performance theory. Goffman argued that life is a constant performance: Everyone is an actor who, consciously or unconsciously, presents themselves in different ways to different people. This eternal show exhausts us, orbiting as an inexorable loop that synchronously crafts and splinters our self-perception.

As Tolentino puts it, the madness of the internet “positions personal identity as the center of the universe,” making this perpetual performance feel all the more important (and insufferable) online. Sour peers into this madness, with Rodrigo revealing how today’s digitalization of this infinite performance only exacerbates the pressure on youth. “I know their beauty’s not my lack,” Rodrigo says, scrolling on her phone, “But it feels like that weight is on my back.” Comparison wraps its fingers around her throat, and she gasps for breath, vision blurring. Sour gazes through her distorted ones-and-zeros lens, a shard of the broken teenage dream that has pierced Gen Z’s self-perception. Internalizing the falsehood that she’ll never be enough, Rodrigo locks herself into the internet’s inescapable hall of mirrors, inflaming her desire to give a performance that sustains the illusion of perfection.

The agony of this inevitable, everlasting performance is perhaps best captured in a song written by one of Rodrigo’s inspirations. In “Right Where You Left Me,” Taylor Swift sits in dim light after a breakup, staring at shattered glass in a state of shock. People circle her, wide-eyed. They whisper about “the girl who lives in delusion,” scoffing that “breakups happen every day, you don’t have to lose it.” The moment stretches into eternity, a loop of replayed loss and judgment that etches itself into Swift’s paralyzed heart. The song is about heartbreak, but it mirrors the enduring pain of the internet’s snare — its vision of warped reality, its ravenous sustenance of self-delusion.

But while Swift sinks into the folds of forever, Rodrigo sifts through her suffering in search of rare glimmers of hope. She wanders on the side of the road in the fluorescent night, asking herself “Did I do something wrong?” before slowly realizing that “Maybe this is all your fault instead.”

As violent daybreak pours into the street, Rodrigo watches light reflect off the shattered glass alongside the road. Prismatic shards wink at her, and a sad smile tugs at her lips. One day, she knows she’ll watch her worries fade in her rearview mirror.

Contact Taila Lee at [email protected].