Dialectical Materialism and the Aesthetic Theory with Olivia Rodrigo
Olivia Rodrigo's album SOUR (2021) is, on the surface, when listened to as a concept album, perhaps, the ultimate breakup record from the perspective of someone with a complex relationship to not only their own sense of self worth, but their value in a social entertainment economy as well, while navigating what is depicted as a very out and out case of a callous romantic partner. It has other levels, most prominently, that the record is about sublimation; the idea that the byproduct of your life's experiences, friends you've made that supported you, the pain you experience, the conceptual happinesses you might accrue, can be the artifact of cultural output. I want to talk about this last one most, through the context of the other more prominent aspects because, I believe, this is what makes this record one that has become so well-loved.
I won't posture that this album is radical in any significant political way (it's again, a very human record, solidarity building but in a way that is political in the empathetic sense, rather than partisan or revolutionary sense), but I'm reminded of the Fanon quote, “Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.” I, likewise, don't want to spend a lot of time talking about the individual tracks, but it's important to understanding the thematic significance of the album that some parts be highlighted– let's start in the middle, because this is where the point made by the album as narrative is most accessible and most direct and viscerally about itself. The three track arc of "deja vu", "good 4 u", and "enough for you" is emblematic of the dynamic I'm talking about– the first track is about recognizing exploitation, that the narrator sees she has been strip-mined by her ex for a personality to use on new women; this is distinct from simply rubbing off on each other, it was a wholesale theft of her contribution to the relationship, something she realizes he did not reciprocate. In "good 4 u" she feels the resentment at this theft benefitting him as his life improves via the value extracted from her full-bodied participation in their relationship, she feels less bitter than she does cynical, that this would be inciting if she were not the mature party, as the revenge fantasy aspect of the video presupposes. "enough for you" is where she recognizes that while she wasn't at fault, she knew she was making certain compromises to be accepted by someone not only incapable of reciprocating emotionally, but that she was being gaslit about her expectations.
I jump to the middle of the album, the emotional core of the record's inciting incidents, but it's really about what you do with this, and why you played the game at all. The album's opening, "brutal", I think sets this up very succinctly. It should not be lost on anyone that Rodrigo was a child star, a profession that forces many to sacrifice their childhoods, sometimes by choice and sometimes not, for the role, but in either case, the effect is often an adolescent's judgement on adult affairs of human relationships. Rodrigo presupposes this is now the condition of society as a whole, not just show business, in a world where everyone is a content platform. She laments that after being exploited socially, being told to enjoy her youth is ultimately the sort of crazy-making that encourages people retreat from any genuine version of human interaction at all. She feels her value is what others can take, or else why do they like you. She ultimately concludes, however, that this results in a condition of low self-worth but also a sense that even being functional at quotidian activities can take a hit in the service of being forced to compete in social economy: "and I'm not cool, and I'm not smart, and I can't even parallel park." The chorus sums it up the way only an exhausted person experiencing the full crush of late capitalism as someone expected to be optimistic about a future that has already been stolen from them possibly can, "god, it's brutal out here."
In the record's narrative, this is the abstraction layer of personality that finds many, not just Rodrigo, doing things they might not ordinarily tolerate from others, especially romantic partners, believing the social mirage that you can engineer being well-liked and cared about in place of true self-worth. This is compelling and refreshing to multiple generations of people who grew up fully saturated by exactly this social state, even in the rebuke of Olivia Rodrigo as the avatar for this sentiment.
I want to stress again what this is all building towards; well, you're listening to an album about something many have experienced, can relate to, are moved by in one way or another. By way of explaining the phenomenon Rodrigo describes in "brutal" that goes on to influence the truthseeking process of self-discovery later in the record, Theodor Adorno wrote in Aesthetic Theory, “Ever since Plato, bourgeois consciousness has deceived itself that objective antinomies could be mastered by steering a middle course between them, whereas the sought-out mean always conceals the antinomy and is torn apart by it.”– however, he also says this, of what the function of art is in a materialist schema: “Art respects the masses, by confronting them as that which they could be, rather than conforming to them in their degraded state.” It's this former quote that I believe assesses the symptoms as Olivia Rodrigo sees it, and the latter that informs the production of art as a sublimating reaction to the hardships, emotional or otherwise, in one's life, if one can.
This is where I think the record truly solidifies as something special.
Rather than take the position that there were people who had to sacrifice to help her make it through tough times, the album's final track, "hope ur ok" takes a different one– solidarity. It goes through the hardships of people she's known, and a nearly spiritual pleading that while the world has been wildly, to varying degrees, unkind to all people in many different ways that are unjust, an empathy for others, a basic understanding of their humanity, absent the social calculus that varies from bad relationships to abusive home lives to bigotries micro and macrocosmic.
It's an idealism ("...Hope he took his bad deal and made a royal flush"), to be certain, but it's one that is fundamental to the notion of solidarity, and it is that unless all of us are free, are "okay", none of us are– she takes a very materialist position to what this means, which gives this ideal a moral and material character. This takes the form of understanding the source of hatred, unlearning how it manifests in your own behavior once you're free of an oppressive circumstance (variously, in this track, a religious extremist household, a bigoted absentee parent leaving a parentified child responsible for their siblings, for example). Her desire in this track, is one of recognizing that becoming, as David Foster Wallace once put it in an interview, "uncommonly, unprecedentedly willing to examine other ways to live":
Address the letters to the holes in my butterfly wings
Nothing's forever, nothing is as good as it seems
And when the clouds won't iron out
And the monsters creep into your house
And every door is hard to close
You can do as Rodrigo did, turn this sensitivity into art to reach out to others, you can practice a kind of empathy in connecting with others (which this album certain has inspired in many), but above all, realizing that your conditions may be bad, but you're not alone, in a cosmic sense in that we all experience hardships, but in the material one where if you make it through, there are others who understand and can be collaborators in addressing the social symptoms of why these hardships happen, how they perpetuate, how you succeed despite them.
This success that "you" experience is the byproduct the dialectic has on society, not you personally, but you the citizen, and that byproduct, again, is art. In a kind of social variety engineering (the set of all inputs becoming outputs, to be made inputs again in reconciling contradiction), art serves the function of scratch paper for the equations of life, and as Adorno sees it, it is meant to be progressive, but ultimately, “Art is the social antithesis of society, not directly deducible from it.”– you are meant to fight with its ideas, you are meant to consume it as productive, not feel represented by it as you are, but how you could be.
I'll leave you with a final thought from the Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky: "Our planet is poorly equipped for delight. One must snatch gladness from the days that are." – this is less a statement on having to simply have a better attitude, than it is a social incitement if you recognize your exploitation is driven by a false scarcity in a counterfeit economy that exists at your expense. As I said, I don't believe this record is inherently revolutionary or radical in any real or material sense, but I believe it contains some radical ideas about how art, conceptually, should be accessible, but ultimately be relatable in its aspirations, rather than reflective of a degraded state; even the saddest music makes you feel something, that at least one other person feels the way you do while you're listening to it. You feel bad in the moment, but you're, by definition of consuming art, no longer alone.