Analysis: her new album GUTS is full of fierce songs which insist that teen girl feelings are not just legitimate, but also necessary

By Emily Gale, University of Lethbridge

Last month singer-songwriter and pop musician Olivia Rodrigo released her second album, GUTS. From the first line of the opening track, Rodrigo claims her identity as a teen girl and GUTS as a powerful teen-girl album: "I am light as a feather and as stiff as a board" (all-american bitch). Rodrigo utters the incantation of a game familiar to slumber party attendees as a teenage rite of passage; in so doing, she affirms her sense of self and place within the world. Indeed, is there a more powerful subjective statement than "I am"?

Conventionally, however, young people tend to be characterised as lacking in life experience, emotional maturity, and fully developed personhood. So at 20 years of age, with two full-length albums behind her and years of experience inside Disney's star machine, this might seem a curious stance for Rodrigo: by now she is no longer a teen and no stranger to the music industry. To insist on her status as teen then is to assert the knowledge, wisdom, and power of youth.

Youth has long been an interest and subject for thinkers in British and US pop cultural studies. Sociologists in the post-war era focused on generational shifts and rifts wherein newly independent young people had access to disposable income. They articulated differences from their parents in terms of war and peace; sex and gender; race and capitalism. The interrelated social movements of the 1950s and 60s were often youth-led—from desegregation and Civil Rights to women's and gay liberation. And yet the interests and investments of young girls specifically have continued to receive less attention, dismissed as insignificant, superficial, or even melodramatic.

But what does it mean to express feelings, melodramatically or otherwise? The cultural status of emotions, in general, remains low. Women, in particular, continue to be painted and judged as "too emotional." When teens or near-teen girls express emotions, it becomes all the easier to dismiss their feelings on the grounds of both gender and age. And for teens of colour and/or low socioeconomic status, the only recognisable or audible emotion seems to be anger—even if it is righteous anger—which then gets painted as a dangerous threat. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva refers to "racialised emotions" to describe this process and cultural phenomenon.

Listen no further than Rodrigo's love is embarrassing for a case-in-point. Like her pop teen music contemporaries, Rodrigo has been denigrated for writing soft songs about boys. But this merely reiterates familiar gendered binaries and misses the mark. On GUTS, Rodrigo offers a journey through a range of emotional expression. She covers topics including social insecurity, anxiety, and uncertainty.

The extended outro of the album's closing track, for instance, invokes the It Gets Better Project for LGBTQ+ youth by questioning the familiar—sometimes pat—cliché of adult reassurance: "They all say that it gets better, but what if I don't?" Rodrigo expresses ambivalence in teenage dream and vulnerability in the grudge and in pretty isn't pretty. Commenting on Rodrigo's songwriting pop musician Katy Perry notes she is "writing about all of our inner thoughts, outward things that we would never say."

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While Rodrigo does write slow-tempo acoustic guitar or piano ballads (lacy and logical) and sometimes sings in a soft, breathy voice, this is always mixed with punk-informed musicianship and ethos. Rodrigo grits her teeth, gets shrill, and screams—both playfully and viscerally. She writes hard-hitting, experimentally noisy, and danceable pop punk. She comfortably and confrontationally curses throughout (vampire and all-american bitch). Many of the songs on GUTS also remind us of the awkwardness, joy and funny hysteria of being young. And they feel good.

A big part of this feeling good is Rodrigo's invitation inside her songs. Multi-tracked vocals not only create the effect of many Rodrigos, but they also bring listeners into her emotional and sonic space. On tracks like bad idea right?, ballad of a homeschooled girl and get him back!, Rodrigo summons listeners to singalong, envoicing the words, the melodies, and the feelings along with her as they do so. In a recent interview between Rodrigo and Phoebe Bridgers, Bridgers describes the emotional impact of such an experience: "…you're going to weird emo church with all these kids."

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From Vogue, 73 questions with Olivia Rodrigo

Rodrigo shows that soft doesn't have to be a slur nor juxtaposed with hardened or tough. She belongs to a generation of fiercely soft youth who have chosen to speak forcefully and publicly about their experiences of violence, patriarchy, mental health, the climate crisis, global capitalism, and the connections between them.

From Autumn Peltier, Greta Thunberg, and Malala Yousafzai to Naomi Wadler, X González, and Marley Dias, young femme activists have claimed the sonic space of public discourse, leading the way with care, tenderness, and righteous anger. In the same interview, Bridgers notes: "I think the reason you speak to young people is because you fucking take them seriously. You're trusting them with your actual experience."

Pop songs often afford listeners the space to explore unvoiced feelings and to imagine other futures and possibilities; they offer assurance where it might otherwise be lacking. In my classes, students have iterated time and again what emotional expression in pop music means to them, especially relative to their mental health. Rodrigo's GUTS ultimately invites us to challenge simplistic binaries between hard and soft; age and experience; and masculine and feminine feelings. She insists that teen girl feelings are not just legitimate, they are necessary.

Dr Emily Gale is the new assistant professor of Musicology/Ethnomusicology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. She lectured in popular music studies at UCC from 2020 to 2023. Her book-in-progress is titled Sentimental Songs for Sentimental People: An Unheard History of US Popular Music.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ