Picture credit: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

Retro Rodrigo is primo

A new nostalgia listening to GUTS

On Pop

You can stick your little biscuits, Proust: music is how I travel in time. Family Sunday lunch, mid-1980s? That’s a double bill of Love’s Forever Changes and Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark (thanks, Dad).

Swapping my Co-Op tabard for my Miss Selfridge finest to go clubbing in 1998? “Music Sounds Better” by Stardust. First year of university? Kaleidoscope by Kelis throws me straight back to my dismal Manchester halls.

So here’s a weird thing. I put on the new Olivia Rodrigo album, GUTS, and suddenly it was 1995 again. The crunchy grunge-pop riffs on “all-american bitch”. The old-school feminist beauty standard critique of “pretty isn’t pretty”.

Most of all, the droll Valley-girl delivery on “get him back!” — because everything is so excruciating when you’re a teenager, it’s necessary to hold a little self-aware distance between yourself and your feelings.

GUTS sounds so disconcertingly like something I would have been listening to when I was 14

GUTS sounds a bit like Hole, Courtney Love’s band. A bit like the Breeders, Kim Deal’s post-Pixie’s project (there’s a moment of distortion on Rodrigo’s “bad idea right?” that could be a straight-up echo of the Breeder’s “Cannonball”). Mostimportantly to me, a bit like singer-songwriter Juliana Hatfield, whose 1992 debut solo album Hey Babe soundtracked my early experiments in crushing on boys.

But Rodrigo wasn’t crushing on anyone in the nineties. She wasn’t even thought of, never mind born. She’s 20 — meaning she was 19 when she was making the album, making her at least two decades too young to have heard this music first time around.

Yet GUTS sounds so disconcertingly like something I would have been listening to when I was 14, I swear I started to have the unpleasant feeling that I was neglecting my history coursework.

Once I’d got over the nostalgia ambush (and the weirdness of music made in 2023 provoking that kind of nostalgia), I fell for GUTS hard. Because it isn’t just like those bands I used to listen to: it’s the best imaginable version of those bands.
Every song on Rodrigo’s album would be the standout single from a nineties guitar band — the one that got them on Top of the Pops and to an audience that didn’t wear excess eyeliner and ironic fishnets (guilty).

Rodrigo herself, though, is not a retro figure. She’s a very modern kind of pop star, starting with the fact that she’s sceptical of the whole concept of being a pop star. “There’s such an archetype of what a ‘pop star’ should be,” she told one interviewer. “I never really thought of myself as that.” There’s a certain detachment to her that feels very characteristic of the generation that was born on the internet.

You can see this attitude in Billie Eilish, too: these are girls who grew up being looked at, whether they were famous or not, and they mourn their condition while being too smart to think they can change it. The song “jealousy, jealousy”, from Rodrigo’s first album SOUR, kicks against the mirrored prison of social media — “com-comparison is killing me slowly,” she laments. Of course she’s still on Instagram.

The nineties styling of GUTS might be part Luddite resistance, a return to the last decade before smartphones. But the uncanny familiarity of Rodrigo’s sound suggests the internet in another way.

For me in the nineties, finding music was a question of crate-digging, and a lot of my taste was formed by happenstance. (That Hatfield album? I found it second hand in a shop in Peterborough, and bought it because she’d sung backing vocals on another record I liked.)

In the streaming world, there’s no such thing as scarcity. A song simply exists, or it doesn’t. And so rather than coming to like what’s available, you can simply avail yourself of whatever you like — which in Rodrigo’s case clearly means lots and lots of nineties alternative guitar pop. The internet creates a perpetual present.

Everything, everywhere, all at once. A recent New York Times article argued that we are living through “the least innovative, least transformative, least pioneering century for culture since the invention of the printing press”. When nothing can ever be truly lost, you can never start from scratch — and music copyright lawyers hunting out similarities between songs have exacerbated the perception of sameness.

The past dogged Rodrigo on her first album. Taylor Swift and the emo band Paramore both received retrospective credits for songs on SOUR that wore their influences close to the surface.

Courtney Love also had a pop at Rodrigo, complaining that the mascara-stained prom queen image on the cover of sour was a rip-off of Hole’s artwork for Live Through This (tactfully, Rodrigo didn’t respond with a still from the 1976 movie Carrie).

But not everyone takes their intellectual property so seriously. When a Twitter user pointed out similarities between Rodrigo’s “Brutal” and Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up”, Costello replied: “Fine by me … It’s how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did.”

It’s hard to make anything brand new when history refuses to recede. Rodrigo is brave to try: even if originality is impossible, honesty is still something to shoot for. If the truth of being a teenage girl hasn’t changed so much between 1995 and now, maybe Rodrigo doesn’t need a different sound to describe it.

This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

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