Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album GUTS is image- and feeling-driven and shies away from story. The aesthetic cohesion across her album cover art, music videos, and live performances is committed but simplistic. The music video for “get him back!” exemplifies Rodrigo’s approach, which calls out for the Internet-accented praise “iconiccccc.” Rodrigo gloms onto particular icons she’s claimed, such as the dark lavender color from the new album’s cover and the name, GUTS, itself, as well as clichés of English speech about love.
In the music video of “get him back!”, during the bridge, Rodrigo is shown picking petals off of a purple rose, surrounded by piles upon piles of purple petals. She evokes the classic he loves me/he loves me not game. The twist is that the flower is tinted with her signature color, a bluish lavender. The other twist is the piles of petals; Rodrigo sits atop and among the result of her obsession. In poetry, it’s general practice not to use cliché without sufficient subversion. Rodrigo does not meet the mark. She uses the game that wonders about “his” desire, but the question of the song is actually whether or not she wants him back. Instead of a nod to this subversion in the situation of the song, Rodrigo chooses to use the cliché to the point of absurdity: where are the stems of all the flowers those petals came from?
Before blaming Rodrigo, though, we should pause and look at the other major artmaker of this video. A later scene in the video features cars’ windows spontaneously exploding as several images of Rodrigo walk past them. It’s sort of a classic image, too, the man cares so much for his car that when it comes time for revenge, that will be the target. Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats” is the prime example, with its famous chorus focusing on the destruction of the car, “I dug my key into the side / of his pretty little souped-up four-wheel drive.” One would think the windows might go inward, if they were being bashed by a “Louisville slugger” as in Underwood. But then Apple’s commercial featuring “get him back!” and boasting “Shot on iPhone 15 Pro” would lack a wow factor, wouldn’t it? Yes, this is a brand partnership. When Rodrigo’s avatars are not harmed by the shattering glass, it’s not clear if this and the implosion is an artistic choice or a result of the limits of shot on iPhone, edited on a Mac.
This simplicity and lack of radicality in this video may be owed to this very partnership: Jack Begert directed this video, as opposed to Rodrigo’s usual, Petra Collins. Collins’ work explicitly draws on the female gaze; she has a whole photography project called The Teenage Gaze that consists of portraits of teenage girlhood from the early 2010s.
The man who represents the titular “him” is blurred and made up of static, keeping the focus on Rodrigo, her rose, and the windows she destroys merely by vibe; no actual slugger or similar implement appears. Her license plate, as she drives away, says GUTSY with a heart emoji as punctuation.
Rodrigo attempts to evoke an language of icons that she has not yet uniquely established as her own — like this lovely lavender color, or the name GUTS, which is too new to be a callback or assertion of artistic identity — so she ends up drawing on clichés, using iconic phrases of the English language, rather than from the Rodrigo canon.
Rodrigo’s subversion-lite is not quite her trademark, but it is present in her other work. On Sour, “1 step forward, 3 steps back” takes the phrase “one step forward, two steps back” and asks: what if it was slightly worse? In the new album, in “the grudge,” Rodrigo sings, “It takes strength to forgive, but I don’t feel strong.” Her play with clichés are not refuting or creating new messages. She accepts them and insists that the life of a teenage girl really can seem cliché, but when it comes to expressing the rich inner life of a woman coming of age, there just. needs. to. be. more. As Rodrigo pushes toward pop punk she keeps pushing cliché, saying, I see you, I believe you, I know what it is like. This is not so bad. But her faux-alternative style in this video with Apple and Begert cheapens the message. I look forward to her next drop with Collins.