Five Burning Questions: Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Sour’ Scores the Year’s Best Debut Week
How did 'Sour' score such a massive debut? And what lessons can the industry learn from it? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
It’s been the sweetest of entrances for Sour, the debut album from singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo. The set bows with 295,000 equivalent album units moved in its opening week — not just the best first-week tally for an artist’s debut album since the Billboard 200 switched from measuring direct sales to album units in 2014, but the best Week One numbers for any album by any artist in 2021 thus far.
Rodrigo’s success is nearly as resounding this week on the Billboard Hot 100. Her “Good 4 U” slips one spot from its perch at No. 1 (replaced by pop superstars BTS’ new English-language song “Butter”), but each of the 11 tracks from Sour find themselves in the chart’s top 30 — including second single “Deja Vu” hitting a new peak of No. 3, and new album track “Traitor” debuting at No. 9.
How did Sour score such a massive debut? And what lessons can the industry learn from it? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. Sour debuts at No. 1 this week with the year’s best single-week performance at 295,000 units moved. Is this officially the best debut season for a new artist that you can remember at this point? Who else from the past decade or so would you stack it up against?
Josh Glicksman: Without a doubt, yes. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t fall victim to recency bias every now and then, but Olivia Rodrigo is not just the most exciting new artist in pop so far this year – she’s perhaps the most exciting artist in pop so far this year, period. I’m always wary of looking for immediate comparisons for new artists, though. She’s the first artist to simultaneously chart three songs from a debut album in the top 10 of the Hot 100 – by definition, there’s no reference point there! But if you’re forcing my hand, I’d say Cardi B: the question of “How does she follow up ‘Bodak Yellow’?” dissipated near-instantly, thanks in large part to the massive success of Invasion of Privacy, which delivered hits in bounds.
Lyndsey Havens: To me, the obvious answer here is Billie Eilish. Her (relatively recent) debut season felt similarly larger than life — her 2019 debut album topped the Billboard 200 with 313,000 equivalent album units in the U.S. in its first week. But more important than a single-week performance or overall debut season is longevity — and while these artists did make an immediate and massive impression, it’s the lasting impact of their work that’s almost more comparable and uniting.
Jason Lipshutz: I mean… two Hot 100 No. 1 singles, huge TV performances, early Grammy buzz, A-list co-signs and now the biggest album debut of the year? I can’t remember any other new artist enjoying quite such a fruitful five-month run in terms of commercial and cultural impact; the closest analogs might be Billie Eilish in 2019, although it took her a bit longer to unlock top 40 radio success, and Lorde in 2013, although her debut album didn’t post gargantuan numbers. At the beginning of 2021, Olivia Rodrigo was an unknown to mainstream pop fans outside of her High School Musical: The Musical: The Series work. Now, she is unequivocally a superstar.
Joe Lynch: Tough to compare the 295k number to other debuts from the 2010s due to chart methodology changes. While I do think the current charts better reflect 21st century music consumption, it’s worth noting that Sour‘s total includes 218k SEA units compared to 72k album sales units (and 4k in the TEA category). All in all, it seems to be on equal footing to the first week sales of albums like One Direction’s Up All Night (176,000 album sales in 2012) and Zayn’s Mind of Mine (112,000 pure album sales in 2016), both debut pop outings boosted by a raging inferno of digitized teen interest.
Andrew Unterberger: It sorta depends on how you define rookie eligibility. Obviously Billie Eilish and Cardi B had debut albums that generated similar levels of excitement and popularity fairly recently — but those both built on major hit songs they had achieved in earlier calendar years, as well as EPs and mixtapes (respectively) that proved they were hardly flukes. But while Rodrigo had found some success with High School Musical: The Musical: The Series‘ “All I Want” in early 2020, she was still largely an unknown quantity by the time “Drivers License” dropped in January. And now, not even half a year later, she’s putting up the year’s best numbers. It’s a trajectory we haven’t seen in a long time.
2. Obviously the songs have connected with people in a real way, but the success of Sour is also a credit to the marketing plan of Rodrigo and her team at IGA. What’s something they’ve done particularly smartly in that respect that has made this triumph possible?
Josh Glicksman: They didn’t let the “drivers license” victory lap last for too long. Especially in an age when here today, gone tomorrow megahits are thriving, it would’ve been easy for Rodrigo and her team to ride the wave of that success well into the summer. The SNL skit gave it a natural boost in late February, and I can’t imagine it would’ve been difficult to find a superstar wanting to hop on a remix to the track if they wanted give the song a revitalization at some point. Instead, they didn’t let her get buried under the One Big Hit narrative and came out swinging with follow-up singles “deja vu” and “good 4 u” in April and May, respectively. Both showcased the depths of her range and reinforced her long-term, superstar potential.
Lyndsey Havens: I mean… sending a two-pound box of Sour Patch Kids to high-profile celebs is a genius move in my eyes. More seriously, though, I think the thing she and her team did best is perhaps the most subtle: timing. It’s no coincidence that “Drivers License” arrived amidst rumors of a Disney love triangle, which spawned at least two response tracks, which queued Rodrigo up for her second single that furthered the narrative, which preceded the anticipated season 2 debut of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on which she stars, which dropped just as Rodrigo conquered Saturday Night Live as musical guest, which, of course, teed up the release of Sour. It was a whirlwind schedule that from the outside seems fortuitous, but behind the scenes is all thanks to a well-oiled star-making squad that followed a strict and well-planned timeline.
Jason Lipshutz: In hindsight, the timing of the single releases from Sour was brilliantly executed: Rodrigo’s team let “Drivers License” dominate for darn near three months before finally unveiling “Deja Vu,” a close cousin to the breakthrough hit’s sound that reached the top 10 of the Hot 100 on its own accord. Then, “Good 4 U” served as a pop-punk change-up one week before Sour was released, demonstrating the unexpected breadth of Rodrigo’s sonic palette and no doubt inspiring casual fans to check out the full-length when it arrived. I wouldn’t have changed a single thing about the single releases, and I’d bet neither would Team Rodrigo.
Joe Lynch: Using the razor-sharp pages of the Swift Pop Playbook, Rodrigo successfully got the world hooked on her teenage heartbreak drama without ever addressing it too directly. Talking s–t about an ex on socials is just messy, but when it fuels your art, it allows people a sort of vicarious gossip that’s hard to resist. It’s not easy to stay tight-lipped and still fuel speculation, but they seem to have walked that line cannily.
Andrew Unterberger: I think they mostly let the songs sell themselves. Sure, Rodrigo’s done some music videos, a couple live performances, and a decent amount of press — but she and her team also understood that once the songs were out there in the culture, the best promotional tool they had was just in sitting back and letting the masses debate, cover, make videos (and SNL skits!) around and collectively flip out over them. They approached Sour with a light touch, providing just a gentle nudge in the right direction when needed, and the music has proven powerful enough to do the rest of the work for them.
3. Even though it dips to No. 2 on the Hot 100 this week after becoming her second No. 1 debut the week before, “Good 4 U” is still gaining in metrics, and posted historic numbers on Spotify beyond even what “Drivers License” accomplished. When all is said and done, which of the two songs do you think her 2021 will be better remembered for?
Josh Glicksman: Though my neck is sore from headbanging to “good 4 u” time and again since its mid-May release, I have to go with “drivers license” here. The moment was simply too big: The immaculate bridge. The (rumored) drama. The fact that a Disney star casually dropped an f-bomb in her debut single! The cocktail of it all made it destined for the hit that it immediately became. And it’s the one that people will ultimately remember, no matter how long ago they actually got their driver’s licenses. Did I already mention the bridge?!
Lyndsey Havens: I’m shocked to say this, but “Good 4 U” will be the song we remember and cherish most. We thank “Drivers License” for all it did and the doors it opened (and look, it’s still a favorite for me) but there is something absolutely undeniable about the reach of “Good 4 U.” I’ve heard it blasted by a group of boys biking by, from a golf cart on a course I walked past and of course blaring out of my own car as friends — ones who aren’t even familiar with Rodrigo or her story but know and love the hit — scream along.
Jason Lipshutz: “Drivers License,” and it’s not even close. Good for “Good 4 U” for changing up Rodrigo’s sound, bringing brash pop-punk back to the top of the Hot 100 for a new generation, and for generally ruling. But it’s not the year-defining emotional gut-punch of “Drivers License,” which will endure as Rodrigo’s stunning opening shot and follow her throughout her career thanks to its cultural impact. Put it this way: Saturday Night Live is not producing a sketch about a bar full of adult men bonding over the power of “Good 4 U.”
Joe Lynch: I still say “Drivers License” will get more miles per gallon. Short of “G4U” fueling a full-on pop-punk comeback, “License” will have longer radio legs, particularly since it fits so well into a variety of formats. Also, it had an entire SNL sketch dedicated to dissecting its lyrics, which will assuredly help its enduring pop culture visibility as the years go by.
Andrew Unterberger: It’s probably “Drivers License” — but not definitely. If the massive success of “Good 4 U,” which has really only just kicked off in earnest, does lead to a future generation of fans (or a current generation of hitmakers) being opened up to the possibilities of pop-punk/guitar-based pop in general as a form of youthful expression, then that could have an impact far wider than the short-term virality of “Drivers License.” The latter is already iconic in a way that’s pretty hard to eclipse, but the former has a chance to be a true game-changer.
4. All 11 of Sour‘s tracks land in the Hot 100’s top 30 this week — which of the other nine do you think has the best chance of following “License” and “Good” to No. 1?
Josh Glicksman: My heart says “Brutal” – fellow subpar parallel parkers unite! – but my head says “Traitor.” From its tongue-in-cheek barbs (“Remember I brought her up and you told me I was paranoid?”) to its sincere frustration (“God I wish you had thought this through before I went and fell in love with you”), Rodrigo’s songwriting prowess is on full display in the ballad. It’s tailor made for Instagram captions and sync placements alike, and I expect to see plenty of both in the coming weeks and months as it hangs around the charts.
Lyndsey Havens: Oof, I mean… “Brutal” is epic, “Traitor” is a quick fan favorite… and then of course there’s the run of “Happier” into “Jealousy, Jealousy” into “Favorite Crime” — unreal. But based on current data alone, I’ll have to say “Traitor,” though it depends on which track gets the next single-worthy push. So in short, it’s a toss up — and a good problem to have.
Jason Lipshutz: “Jealousy, Jealousy” is my favorite non-single on Sour, a muscular garage-rock riff that highlights a second half of the album full of quieter moments. Once “Good 4 U” eventually settles down at radio, “Jealousy, Jealousy” should be given an inventive music video and a primetime performance to help the general population catch on to its power.
Joe Lynch: Beyond those two No. 1s, “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back” has spent the most time looping through my head, but it seems far too minimal to nab a No. 1 spot. But I can imagine “Jealousy, Jealousy” – which sort of sounds like Arctic Monkeys’ “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High” through a Taylor Swift lens – making an ascent to the pole position. It has that sneaky bass line, a teasing, Swiftian vocal delivery and those warped background yelps that have been everywhere on pop radio hits for like four years now.
Andrew Unterberger: “Traitor” is probably the early leader in the clubhouse, but don’t count out “Favorite Crime” — which has slowly been gaining on streaming services, despite being the second-to-last track on the album, and which Rodrigo says tends to be a favorite among older listeners, for whatever reason. Also probably have to mention “Deja Vu,” which seemed to have already peaked, but is now up to No. 3 on the Hot 100 with the Sour bump — and may still get a second wind on radio as Rodrigomania kicks into high(er) gear.
5. Rodrigo’s breakthrough is massive and unavoidable enough that you have to figure it will end up bending the current music industry in some significant way. Where do you think the impact of Sour‘s success will be most acutely felt?
Josh Glicksman: Rodrigo certainly isn’t the first pop star in recent memory to dip her toe in the punk world realm, but you’d have to imagine her efforts are going to lead to plenty of other aspiring musicians to try to duplicate a similar angle. It’s clear at this point that alternative radio formats are welcoming – or at least more so than they traditionally have been over the past several decades – to genre-blurring crossover hits. I get the feeling that Travis Barker is going to be a busy man for a long time to come.
Lyndsey Havens: I think the most significant shake up because of her success is that it proved to aspiring actors, particularly those looking and hoping to go the Disney route, that by doing so the next decade of your life and career doesn’t have to be predetermined. Rodrigo bravely and boldly broke out of a tried-and-true routine that has bolstered and benefitted some of pop’s biggest stars, and oh boy is it paying off so far.
Jason Lipshutz: Although I think “Drivers License” will be the most undying hit from this era of Olivia Rodrigo’s career, the success of “Good 4 U” could prove to be its most influential moment. New-school pop-punk has been creeping back onto the charts thanks to artists like Machine Gun Kelly, Lil Huddy and jxdn, but Rodrigo blasting in at No. 1 on the Hot 100 with a song that sounds like a Paramore-Green Day hybrid could have reverberations within popular music for a long time. Maybe it’s an anomaly; maybe it inspires numerous major pop artists to pick up a guitar and channel their favorite Warped Tour memories. Either way, it will be fascinating to watch the ripple effects of “Good 4 U” play out.
Joe Lynch: I’m sure label scouts are redoubling their efforts to find “the next Olivia Rodrigo” hiding on TikTok or in the cast of a teen TV series, or both. Historically, it’s been tough for artists to jump from a social media platform or a TV show and into massive pop stardom, but when it works — Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes for the former, Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato for the latter — the payoff is huge. Expect to see more teen actors and media influencers pushed into the music biz with varying degrees of success.
Andrew Unterberger: I think the hunt for young talent with a sharp writing perspective will become more competitive than ever. Rodrigo may end up being a generational star in terms of her mix of ability, intelligence and charisma, but there’s a million kids writing songs in their bedroom now who could connect to audiences in a not-dissimilar way if properly heard. Following her breakout, I could see the label rush on confessional, edgy young singer-songwriters over the next couple years being similar to the SoundCloud-era rush on young rappers from a half-decade ago.