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“GUTS”: Pop Genius or Pop Plagiarism?

By: Lauren Johns



She writes lyrical ballads like Taylor Swift, incorporates 90’s grunge like Avril Lavigne and Paramore, has dabbled in folk like Noah Kahan, and belts boastful choruses like Adele. Olivia Rodrigo is the human equivalent of a jukebox. Along with her dazzling vocals and stellar acting skills on shows like Disney’s “High School Musical the Musical the Series” and “Bizaardvark”,  her discography has broken records. Her debut album “Sour”, released in 2021, broke the record for the highest number of streams in a week: 385 million times if you were wondering. The album was the second best of the year, trailing “30” by Adele, (numero.com). “Sour” would eventually swap places with Adele. 


Image taken from "Pitchfork"


The saga continues. Her highly anticipated second record, “GUTS”, released on September 8 of this year avoided the sophomore slump by a landslide. A few days after its release, the album hit No. 40 on the Billboard Hot 100 for songs and sold 302,000 units compared to the 295,000 of “Sour” in the first week, according to Billboard.com. This slight one-upping is even more surprising considering the fact that she didn’t have an eight-week chart-topping single aka “Drivers License '' this time around. 


As of September 23, “GUTS” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 for albums, making it her second No. 1 album, (NewYorkTimes). The only disappointing part about this record was that it wasn’t named “Sweet” to complete the Sour Patch Kids slogan. 


Despite her prolific success rate, Olivia’s music seems to make up the bulk of every copyright debate. 


Firstly, she struggled with copyright claims on her debut album. The hit single “Good 4 U” was deemed too similar to Paramore’s “Misery Business”, so Olivia added songwriting credits. To analyze this from a music theory perspective, despite Olivia's song leading in with a jazzy bass line, they are both in the key of A major, with very similar chord progressions and overall song structure. But when you explore this from a legal perspective, chords can’t be copyrighted because there are only so many chord variations you can create (George Washington University). Therefore, using this argument, Paramore has most likely taken influence from several chord progressions prior to their song and so forth. One “copier” to another. Olivia agreed with this statement in an interview with Teen Vogue in October of 2021, saying: “Every single artist is inspired by artists who come before them. Nothing in music is ever new,”(Papermagazine). 


Despite this fact, the hits on “Sour” kept coming. She was accused of copying Elvis Costello’s 1978 “Pump it Up” guitar riff in her song “Brutal”. Elvis could not have cared less. To paraphrase, he said he had no problems with it because of the same reasons mentioned earlier. Chord sequences cannot be copyrighted. To further prove his point, Elvis informally gave Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry influence credits for the “Pump it Up” track. 


The battle didn’t end there. Olivia presumably copied Taylor Swift because her speak-singing bridge in “Deja Vu” was similar to Taylor’s speak-singing bridge in “Cruel Summer”. I will refrain from analyzing this track because it’s a bit more obvious. Overall, despite the rumor mill claiming there is beef between them, Olivia stated in September (of this year) refuting this, and credit was given where credit was due (even if it wasn’t entirely necessary). Critics need to build a “bridge" and get over it. 


If people want to cry wolf over copyright, they can totally do it with Olivia’s song, “1 Step Forward and 3 Steps Back”, because it was. It’s not shocking news that Olivia is a huge fan of Taylor and her music. With this in mind, the song included an interpolation of Swift’s “New Year's Day '' piano riff. For those unfamiliar, interpolating is repurposing a section of a song instead of taking the section directly from the source (which is sampling). In this case, she or someone else re-recorded the piano section and then created lyrics over the top. Interpolation requires credit from the songwriter and not the purchasing owner (the record company), so Taylor Swift was credited and paid, as well as anyone else who contributed to the making of the song, (Insider.com). 


Due to all this nonsensical drama, “GUTS” was critiqued with even more precision, as if people had nothing better to do with their lives (says the one writing this review). 

In other words, people were even more nitpicky, looking for comparisons as if their lives depended on it.


Based on their findings, “bad idea, right?” sounds like Wet Leg’s song “chaise lounge”, (I haven’t heard of them so I’m sure Olivia hasn’t either). And “Pretty isn’t Pretty” sounds like The Cure, with no specific song provided. 


However, the biggest most agreeable claim is that “all-American bitch” sounds like “Start All Over” by Miley Cyrus in her Disney days. While the chords are similar, the melodies vary and you almost have to modify the track to really hear it (raise the pitch or slow it down, etc.). 

But the Miley train doesn’t stop there. The bridge of “Vampire” supposedly sounds like another one of Miley’s old songs, “See You Again”. I listened, and it’s the largest stretch out of everything mentioned. They are such vastly different songs. 

Nothing ever came of any of these, so I meant what I said before, nonsense. 


As the cherry on top, people have also come to a consensus (with poor evidence) that Taylor Swift inspired the songs “Grudge”, “Vampire” and “Lacy”. I can kind of get behind the song comparison thing, (I do it instinctively), but everything else is MYOB. Let Olivia have her “feuds” in private. 


As far as her actual songs go, “GUTS” is the most memorable of her two albums. I felt that “Sour” was composed of a lot of filler tracks that didn’t really drive the supposed narrative along. These songs seemingly blended together from being overly repetitive: “happier”, “enough for you” “1 Step Forward…” and “Favorite Crime” in particular. Not to say I didn’t enjoy them, but when listening to the album in order, it’s easy to lose interest. 


“GUTS '' is the epitome of versatility, with fewer similarities between songs.



Image taken from "The Guardian"


Looking at the songs more closely, I loved “the grudge,” mostly for the irony. If you look at the album by names alone, you assume “ballad of a homeschool girl” will be slow and melancholic, a ballad. You might also assume that “the grudge” would have some punk rock influence because we associate holding grudges with unresolved angst, but take your expectations and reverse them. Regardless, even with “the grudge” sounding similar to “Drivers License” (off of her debut), the song miraculously manages a fresh take, with an ethereal sounding buildup and a heavenly falsetto. Her vocals radiate warmth despite the cooler tone of the song, like a blasting heater on a bitter, snowy evening. 


As a complete juxtaposition, “pretty isn’t pretty” has an eternally summer vibe, which makes a lot of sense considering it being “swimsuit season” and people typically having higher bouts of self-consciousness. It’s catchy and unique.


Another favorite of mine is “lacy” because it reminds me of Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” era. Before you say anything, this one was not accused of copyright (as far as I know). She tells a lovely story about someone she admires or is potentially jealous of. When she sings the lyric, “it’s like you’re made of angel dust”, the accompaniment hits a weird dissonant (lacking harmony, unresolved) sound, adding a subtle eeriness to the track, as if the subject is not of this world. She’s never ventured into the folksy indie style before and I demand more of this (I say as politely as possible). 


As far as the big-name tracks go, Olivia’s talent shines through with everything she sings and creates but these are semi-skippable. “Vampire” was too much like the filler tracks from her debut and solidified this sort of formula she has for creating cookie-cutter ballads. “bad idea right?” was so strikingly different from anything else she’s created but I found the chorus to be a bit underwhelming and the flow was a bit fragmented, (it felt as though it jumped too abruptly from one thing to the next). “Get him back!” has very distinct similarities to “bad idea…”, the almost entirely spoken verses and the big bold choruses, although this one was slightly catchier and felt more put together somehow. 


Speaking of big bold choruses, “love is embarrassing” is the love child of punk and 80s retro. If I were to pick any song to blast in my car on a sunny day, it would be this one. It lacks the usual synth/electronic undertones of most 80s-inspired tunes, for good reason. The quickness and vibrancy of the guitar accompaniment perfectly embody the mix of frustration and adrenaline spikes you get from being crazy in love, even as you hit your downfall. 


Overall, Olivia’s “GUTS” album acts as a charismatic predecessor to the coming-of-age story that was “Sour”. She deserves the acclaim.


Despite the fact that Olivia ended up losing around 1 million dollars in royalties from both Paramore and Taylor, there are no legitimate reasons to push so much judgment toward a 20-year-old female. I think by now she’s learned that to sorta copyright is a “bad idea, right?” 


It’s so disappointing that she hasn’t yet figured out how to memorize every song that’s ever existed and will exist. 


I’d like to end with a quote by Ed Sheeran, who’s had his fair share of copyright battles.


We have become a culture where a claim is made with the idea that settlement will be cheaper than taking it to court even if there is no basis for the claim,” Sheeran said in a video on X (formally Twitter). “It’s really damaging to the songwriting industry. Coincidences are bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify, (22 million songs a year) and there are only 12 notes available [in the musical language]”, (CBS News).


Given everything mentioned, if I had the choice between calling her a "pop genius" or "pop plagiarist", I’d choose the latter, every time.

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