Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal” Is The Perfect Pandemic Summer Song

It IS brutal out here!!!

Early this morning, noted lowercase girl Olivia Rodrigo released her debut album, Sour. Hot off the successes of her singles “Drivers License,” “Deja Vu,” and “Good 4 U,” which are all perfect pop canticles for teenage girls (and adults regressing into pubescence), the record is similarly excellent: It’s moody, poppy, punky, bratty, funny, sweet, sad, and speaks to the crushing feelings of being alive and being in unrequited love.

But the first song, “Brutal,” is a perfect anthem for what’s shaping up to be a very strange summer. It’s only around two and a half minutes long, and there are only two verses, in which Rodrigo isn’t so much singing as she is screaming a stream-of-consciousness rant about her lack of self-esteem. A fair chunk of Sour is ballads and breakup songs, but “Brutal” is completely internal, an heir apparent to the emo pop-punk I listened to in high school. It’s also jagged, a little silly, and probably the least interesting song on the record in terms of lyrical value or delightful voyeurism into a teenage girl’s life. But it reminds me of how Avril Lavigne made me feel when I was 15, largely because of the lyrics: “I’m so sick of 17 / Where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream?”

So now, it’s the only song I will be listening to for the rest of the year. I’ve already streamed it so many times that I’m confident it’ll end up in my Spotify year in review. It makes me want to return to my high school with a baseball bat and fuck up some lockers. It makes me want to start wearing ties and tank tops and Chuck Taylors again. It makes me want to call my mom, whom I love very much and haven’t seen in more than a year, and scream, “YOU JUST DON’T UNDERSTAND.”

It’s a fun song, but the real appeal is that it hits at the right time. A lot of us are starting to crawl out of our hovels, shaggy, disoriented, having not seen the sun in so many months, to reintegrate into a society that we’re not all necessarily happy to take part in again. The social anxiety for many of us — even as we enjoy our newfound immunity — is sky-high; after spending more than a year avoiding each other because of the risk of possibly dying, or maybe worse, killing each other, we’re expected to return to prepandemic day-to-day interactions in a snap, as if there’s even a “normal” to return to. I haven’t worked in an office since March 2020, and now you want me to go dancing? In public? You want people to look at my BODY while it WIGGLES in front of OTHER PEOPLE who ALSO HAVE BODIES??? I would sincerely rather be pulverized into a very fine powder.

Finally, a song that speaks back to me the words that crawl through my brain every minute that I am alive.

I listened to “Brutal” at 1 in the morning, unable to sleep, feeling jittery about the dinner conversation I had earlier that night: Was I interesting? Was I funny? Does my friend still like me? Would she hang out with me again? Did I talk too much, as I am wont to do, about the Challenger explosion?

As I lay in bed, Rodrigo’s reverb filled my ears with a list of insecurities that I, too, have in spades: “I feel like no one wants me / And I hate the way I’m perceived / I only have two real friends / And lately I’m a nervous wreck,” she sings. “And I’m not cool, and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park.” I sat up straight in my bed, my skin on fire: I can’t parallel park! Finally, a song that speaks back to me the words that crawl through my brain every minute that I am alive.

“If someone tells me one more time,” she sings, “‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry.” You’re telling me, sister — imagine going into a pandemic at 28 and leaving it at 30, with so many wiry gray hairs sticking out of my topknot that I look like I’m doing ethnic Ms. Frizzle cosplay.

The entirety of Sour is great, complete with some Taylor Swift–esque songwriting (she samples Swift in “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back”), plenty of ‘00s pop-punk rage, and a number of tracks that make me want to break up with someone, anyone, so I can sing-cry “Good 4 U” in the shower. But if Rodrigo’s greatest gift is her ability to make, as Variety said, “unabashedly teenage” records, then “Brutal” is the most teenage anthem among them. And what is our collective reentry into society after a year of recoiling from one another if not a second, awkward puberty?

The last time I felt this insecure, this unmoored, this much “ego crush,” as Rodrigo puts it, I too was in high school. Rodrigo’s songs would hit you no matter what the state of the world, but “Brutal” now feels utterly universal. “I’m anxious and nothing can help,” Rodrigo sings, and I’m off to refill my Clonazepam prescription because in three days I have to go to a party with people I’ve never met and I know — I know — they’re going to ask me if I have any siblings, and I’ll say, “no” with the confidence of someone who doesn’t have a brother. Except that I do have a brother, and 10 minutes later I’ll have to find them at the bar and say, “Sorry, actually, I have a brother,” and then I’ll have to go into witness protection for the rest of my life.

“All I did was try my best,” Rodrigo belts in the chorus. “This the kind of thanks I get?”

You know what? It is brutal out there. Everywhere. It’s brutal at work, it’s brutal at home, it’s brutal on the internet, it’s brutal to have survived all your worst days, even if you’re grateful, even if you did indeed survive. It’s nice to hear someone just come out and say it, and in the kind of pop song that you can, indeed, dance to, your wretched, ashen body wiggling its way back to some kind of new normal. ●

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