Music

Sour Prom — Olivia Rodrigo’s Rapid-Onset Petulance

Olivia Rodrigo in the music video for Sour Prom. (Olivia Rodrigo/YouTube)
An ‘album movie’ that snarks about Our/Sour America

Pop neophyte Olivia Rodrigo “doesn’t know what she’s saying, she’s just saying what somebody told her.” That’s the spanking Candace Owens gave to rapper-stripper Cardi B and athlete Gwen Berry when they stepped out of their respective career lanes to make political commentary. I paraphrase Owens to explain singer-actress Rodrigo’s fame — from her derivative, chart-topping songs and their Instagramable cynicism.

Yet, in Sour Prom, the half-hour promotional film that markets Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, her jaded cuteness — characteristic of too-smart, easily indoctrinated Millennial youth — is smoothly, almost perfectly visualized.

That “almost perfectly” owes to Sour Prom’s credited directorial team: social-activist film producer Kimberly Stuckwisch and music-video professional Toby L. In this “album movie,” both adepts show off the self-delusions sold to American teens about social and sexual relations. It starts with Rodrigo reluctantly boarding a rented limo to attend her high-school prom; then a medley of cleverly choreographed musical numbers expresses her brashness and anxiety. The video borrows imagery from Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (where Rodrigo made her breakout) and the song-form that has become the standard of subjective Millennial dread.

At first, I balked at Rodrigo’s sudden-onset petulance (the sociologists’ term), but once she entered the prom and found community among other teenage cynics, I realized that something unique was going on here — a brazen, celebratory social cynicism. Rodrigo’s fellow high-school nihilists prance about the gym (then a darkroom and a football field), on the verge of graduating into either academic indoctrination or Big Tech, Fake News social authority. They’ve been weaned on “hope and change” nostrums that were merely the beginning of disillusion and misery.

In pop-culture terms, Sour Prom updates Sam Bayer’s 1991 Nirvana video Smells Like Teen Spirit (remember those black-garbed cheerleaders with the anarchy symbol over their breasts?) — replacing Bayer’s smoky gymnasium haze with acrid 4K clarity, courtesy of Boomer-parent, PTA-CRT sponsorship.

Sour Prom’s teenage jingoism means one thing: hegemony. The title, heard as a slangy contraction, proclaims It’s our prom, sour America, sour embittered national reset. Rodrigo, Stuckwisch, and Toby L. sum up the shared narcissism of Gen Z brats.

It’s no coincidence that Rodrigo is signed to the same label as Billie Eilish, mixing teen-pop cuteness with self-pity. This sullen act landed her in the top spot of the Spotify and Billboard charts. But “Good 4 U,” “Déjà Vu,” “Traitor,” and “Brutal” merely mimic the lane-jumpers who came before her — from Lorde to Taylor Swift and Brynn Elliott’s annoying 2018 hit “Might Not Like Me.” (Elliott’s snarling “If you don’t like girls that are stronger/faster/smarter than you . . . ” makes dating impossible.) Rodrigo caters to girls too young to understand their power over boys and indoctrinated into divisive whimpering.

Each song in Sour Prom professes the scared egotism developed generation to generation — from the Clintons, Bushes and Obamas (whose daughters all became cultural players) to today’s youth, who pretend to venerate the unrelatable Biden-Harris regime. Rodrigo’s appearance last week at the White House joining the Biden-Harris vaccine push confirmed her puppet politics no different from those Parkland media puppets David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez. (It’s significant that her song “Traitor” ignores the term’s political meaning to accost her boyfriend in a solipsistic whine.)

Rodrigo personifies Millennial youth’s vanity, using self-awareness only for blame. Sour Prom’s concept (a girl’s prom-night despair) is obviously borrowed from the 1992 album Live Through This, by Courtney Love’s group, Hole. It also copies the hysteria of Brian De Palma’s 1976 horror film Carrie, then, in “Good 4 U,” mimics Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, but this number’s marching-band motif is not avant-garde. Unlike the revolution in Spike Jonze’s 1997 high-school video It’s All About the Benjamins (Rock Remix) for P. Diddy, this is Disney-slick and insincere.

None of Rodrigo’s whimpering matches Hole’s “Softer, Softest” where the line “Your milk is so sour” refers to mother’s milk and possibly some other glandular secretion. Rodrigo never goes where audacious Courtney Love dared in renouncing both self-appetite and motherhood.

Love was 30, Rodrigo is 18; her appeal to younger, naïve, pre-menarche listeners neglects such specific female complaints as Hole’s abortion song “I Think That I Will Die,” in which Love lamented, “She lost all her innocence / She gave it to an abscess / She lost all her innocence / She said, ‘I am not a feminist.’”

Rodrigo links Teen Vogue–style feminism to rapid-onset petulance. And nothing on Sour matches the self-deprecating honesty of Hole’s cry “We look the same / We even f*** the same.” This is corporate angst — an ethical disaster. Sour Prom raises the question: Do girls confess to diaries anymore, or do they just show up at the White House making bubble-gum political-pop gestures?

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles. His new book, Make Spielberg Great Again: The Steven Spielberg Chronicles, is available at Amazon.

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