The Sophomore: Examining GUTS and Olivia Rodrigo  

By Katie Lawson

I’ve been thinking about the idea of “the sophomore”. Partly because the second week of school has gone by and it’s always my favorite week of the year (you’ve settled back into the routine but lack responsibility which will pile on for the rest of the year). Partly because I’m a senior and am feeling nostalgic. And partly because of a kid named Olivia Rodrigo. 

Sophomore has historically been a demeaning term used by upperclassmen in the beginnings of higher education. To be sophomoric is to be “‘lacking in maturity, taste, or judgment,’” and derives “from the wise-and-foolish term for a student for whom a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”.

Sophomore is a particularly American term in undergraduate education. Most universities and high schools abroad call their sophomore equivalents “second-year students”. Law schools have the term 2L. I’m not sure what medical school has and don’t particularly want to look it up—this is an anti-pre-med safe space. 

The “sophomore slump” is often used in sports for players who have lost that special touch they had only a season ago in their rookie year. I can remember my old volleyball coach saying to me as we watched a film during practice, “They’ve gotten comfortable.” He had an Oklahoma accent, only five teeth, and terrible eyesight despite the fact he could always see me across the gym doing something wrong. 

In musical history, the second album serves as a point of contention in many musicians’ careers. The sophomore albums of artists like Bob Dylan, Kendrick Lamar, and Madonna marked the beginning of their careers in certain respects: each of these artists became household names not from their first releases, but from the second. From their second attempts, they built legacies. Other artists like Amy Winehouse and Carol King’s most memorable work was from their second album. Of course in Winehouse’s case, she would pass before she could ever produce something as perfectly poignant as Back to Black. For King, her work in Tapestry is a masterpiece that ushered other female singer-songwriters into the industry’s arms. Her work granted legitimacy to those who had been in the genre since the start and never received their flowers. King could never seem to reach the same heights in her other projects. Still, it’s possible without this sophomore album, we would have never had Kate Bush, Mariah Carey, or Lauryn Hill. For Van Morrison, the second album served as a place to experiment with genre and style, at a price. Astral Weeks received lukewarm reviews from critics then, and it’s certainly not a standout in his discography today. 

So yes. “The sophomore” as a concept in and outside of music served as context for what some might consider the next bold move in a young starlet’s career. Olivia Rodrigo’s highly anticipated second album, GUTS has dropped just in time for the start of the school year and KWUR DJ’s to play ad nauseam. Of course, only a few KWUR DJs will be broadcasting the 20-year-old’s angst: the diehards are already obsessed with Rodrigo’s sophomore season, but even some of her dedicated fans felt that she missed the mark. A predicament by, for, and of the music industry lies in Rodrigo’s GUTS. We will have to spill in order to understand further what is going on. 

Music industry insiders chipped away on how she could possibly top her success. SOUR had that rookie touch for producers and executives. They weren’t wrong. Rodrigo displayed some serious lyricism in her debut. Even the simpler tracts held the vivid imagery of a teenage girl’s emotions. Her specificity and situational awareness is where she shines through in that album. Deja Vu in particular stands out for its sweetness in the beginning; simple and nostalgic scenes are complemented by her vocal deep range. But what elevated Sour from being a cute album to a smashing success was Rodrigo’s musicality and edge. Without fully going into any particular genre, she echoed emotional musical-theater ballads and the pop-punk scenes.  

So, this brings us to the question of GUTS and the conundrum of the second album of OR. Should we consider GUTS the college years of her career? Because that’s all college is, truly; the second step taken in a fully functional brain. Yes, college is the sophomore point in life. That secondary phase where responsibility loads itself onto the back of someone who barely brushes their teeth in the morning. All at once, the college kid has the ability to do taxes, get married, and possess the buzzing voices of barely dropped balls and post-accutane treatment. It would make sense to consider this a moment of college euphoria. GUTS continues her journey into adulthood, and men, and the music industry. bad idea right? is all about the messiness of post-breakup sex. In all american bitch, the instrumentals collide and cascade over her in ways that a good drive to Ted Drewes makes me feel after a bad day.

 Frequently, GUTS highlights her misadventures at the bars; her awkward encounters at the clubs; and how she’s drinking after growing up in a homeschool environment (scandalous, Miss Rodrigo!). Her rage at people who take advantage of her and the desire to feel seen is felt in every song, which ranges in genre but overall maintains deep angst. At times, it feels that is all the album is saying, “life sucks, I wish all I had to worry about was strawberry ice cream and pixelated montages of kids my age in Cancun”. But that’s in the past and so is SOUR. 

GUTS spills on Olivia’s frustrations. It sits uneasily at some points, especially in the middle when it turns towards a more balladic style. Some feel this is her best work. Dear reader, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but her poetry is much better in SOUR’s ballads. Lacy especially feels a little too simplistic. But like us, Olivia is going through her twenties. The twenties are messy and sucky, like a goddamn vampire (cringe, I know. I just had to, ok?).  

Yes, I will say, her more punk-inspired songs get her point across in a much more nuanced way. It’s because they allow for more play in the instrumentation, which compliments her voice’s power. The head-voice is pretty but she can be much more messy, much more stylistic than the typical TikTok-Soundclouder. Her lyricism in ballad of a homeschool girl is much more yummy than anything in SOUR. It has the feeling of taking a big chunk of birthday cake by the fist, smearing it on one’s face, and then throwing it at the wall. Very satisfying; very Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. 

But then again, she is just a twenty-year-old girl. Her music just wants to make you sit with her on Mudd field. This is both her strength and her weakness. At times, it’s almost too relatable because it feels too simplistic. Specifically, a shot for the middle range of actors and consumers. They understand style and appreciate it. Aesthetic! one might say in a voice from the ether of 2010 vine culture. 

Yet, as a dear boy of mine said while listening, “why are all her songs titles in lower case?” And to that I did not have an answer. It’s a choice that feels like a very explicit choice. Still, it doesn’t mean it has purpose. Yet again, the kid can write and create in ways that I think deserve applause. She sticks with you because you are her and she is you. This is especially true now that many pop cultural icons are seen with a much-needed critical lens, as they fall from their rise in wealth and status to cancel-hood and whitegirl tears (or at least a digital slap on the wrist on what used to be Twitter). I will not get into the Taylor Swift comparison DRAMA, but it looms over Olivia for a reason. She is what Taylor was before, and that’s a price she continues to pay, both spiritually and fiscally.  

In conclusion, the consensus must be that the sophomore can graduate. Would Rodrigo be more successful if she copied and pasted SOUR beat for beat? No, but some argue she did end up doing that anyway. Again, the conundrum of the secondary is comparison. Did GUTS accomplish all that Rodrigo intended for it? Most likely not. And that’s why I’m excited. I believe her sophomoric quality is what makes her more exciting than the establishment or her previous newcomer status. She has skin in the game for a reason: she’s talented and has something to say. As she develops, she’ll shake off some of the varsity blues and inspire us with something completely different. For now, we sit in her GUTS and she in ours. 

Thanks for the spill. 

-K and KWUR