Music fans connected over the “liberating and validating” feelings they experienced listening to Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album Guts, released on Friday. With songs like “All-American Bitch” and the chart-topping “Vampire,” which were written by Rodrigo, 20, when she was 19, many say the album is reconnecting them with raw teenage emotions that have long since passed, but feel as fresh as ever thanks to the singer’s shrewd lyrics.
“Olivia Rodrigo wrote Guts for the 20 year old teen girls who didn’t have a good high school experience, and have so much rage and angst they can’t express and we thank her for it,” one user wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. Some are calling Rodrigo their “best friend” and others have pointed to the “collective universal experience” she conveys in her “honest” storytelling.
why does every 19-year-old girl go through the most gut wrenching, earth shattering, world collapsing, emotionally damaging, heartbreak? why is this a collective universal experience?
— ellie! (@mostwantedmess) September 8, 2023
It’s not just Rodrigo, either.
Similar tributes have been made about singers like Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish, both of whom have been praised for their “cathartic” melodies that cross generational divides. In some cases, folks say their music helped them feel less alone by finding comfort in shared struggles.
But why do these artists’s songs hit deeply for so many? Relistening to music that illustrates the teenage angst we once felt in our youth — heartache, breakups, self-discovery — may offer unique opportunities for self-reflection and growth, say experts. And that can feel pretty darn satisfying.
Reliving old memories through music feels good
As musicologist Nate Sloan tells Yahoo Entertainment, there’s a “strong connection” between brain development and the music we listen to as teenagers, which makes it easier for us to channel our younger selves decades later.
“Songs we hear during these formative years become associated with heightened emotional states, creating a kind of mnemonic web between music and our intense teenage feelings,” he says. “When we listen to music that connects to our youth, we don’t just hear it, we experience a psychic return to that point in our life, with all its highs and lows.”
Not to mention, crying to songs about heartache can actually make us feel good.
People may also feel good when listening to lyrics that elicit rage and revenge, says clinical psychologist Barbara Greenberg, as it can provide language for feelings that are otherwise difficult to articulate.
Songs like Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Me Do” (with lyrics like “I don't like your little games”), though on its face seem laced with anger, can actually be empowering when listening in hindsight.
“Instead of saying, ‘I’m mad at myself’ or ‘You’ve dumped me,’ Taylor is saying ‘I don’t like your games. I don’t like your lies,’” Greenberg tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It’s about ownership. She’s reclaiming her own story.”
“You associate different songs with different relationships,” she says. “A song provides a backdrop, and that song helps to stimulate the feelings. Adults, whatever their sexuality is, we think about these relationships often because our personal history is important to us. These emotions, there is something very cathartic and wonderful about feeling them again.”
Having a roster of songs that connect hard-to-explain feelings with specific memories might also help to navigate our present-day choices, Greenberg says.
“People who can talk about songs that describe their experiences are often the healthiest people because they're not afraid to revisit those intense feelings,” she explains. “Revisiting those feelings can be healthy! For example, you might know this person broke your heart, and maybe you’re starting to feel the same thing with somebody new in your life. So, reconnecting with what happened to you as a young person could help you make better choices about who you’re involved with now.”
‘The kids are alright’
Not all artists are able to create such relatable songs like Rodrigo, Swift and Eilish do, says Sloan, noting the thoughtfulness and skill they bring to writing music.
“They place exactly the right turn of phrase in exactly the right rhythm with exactly the right pitches,” he explains, “The line burns into your brain after a single listen.”
Michelle Janning, professor of sociology at Whitman College, says reliving old memories through “sensory experiences” is required in order to gain maturity and growth in life. Music and art, she explains, help speed things along.
“A revisiting of teenage love or angst by adults through music can be a way for someone to review their own story,” she tells Yahoo Entertainment. “This review can serve different purposes, depending on the person and the experiences.”
For example, it could serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come: “Thank goodness I'm not like that anymore,” Janning explains of how someone might reflect while listening. Or, it can remind us of simpler times: “I know at the time, my life seemed really complicated, but my adult life includes way more responsibility than I prefer,” she says. Or, it may help us understand how our younger self continues to shape our present self: “I'm grateful for the teenage moments that taught me an important lesson I still use today in my relationships.”
Whatever the case, Janning continues, music helps us pinpoint the various stages of life with a bit more intention so that we can “trigger these connections” more readily in the present day.
That plays a huge role in our development, notes Greenberg, who says that adults tend to be more emotionally guarded as they age. Younger artists are able to capture such raw, universal feelings because they’re “less afraid” to say and feel exactly what they mean with less censorship, she explains.
“I don’t know that adult songs are that raw,” Greenberg says. “I listen to a lot of music and sometimes when the songwriter is being interviewed, they’re not very clear about what they’re trying to capture. They say, ‘It's what I was thinking or what I was feeling at the moment.’ But in the lyrics of some of these younger singer-songwriters, they’re very clear about their emotions.”
That also includes songs that depict the naivety of young love, as displayed in tracks on Swift’s Fearless, which she wrote at 18; or Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, which she wrote at 17; as well as in Rodrigo’s debut album Sour, which received equal amounts of acclaim from listeners.
Perhaps the larger point, Sloan adds, is that despite our age, listening to this music reminds us that at one point, we were all teenagers who felt such vulnerable emotions, too.
“There is a strong sense of recognition across generation lines when a millennial like myself listens to Olivia Rodrigo,” he admits. “Knowing that Gen Z puts into music the same teenage ennui that I experienced makes me feel like the kids are alright.”