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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Turning a critical ear to "good 4 u," one of 2021's standout pop tracks

In Olivia Rodrigo's smash summer hit, I hear what may be an inflection point for pop music in terms of sound and the business of crediting.

This post is as much of a "year in review" article as you'll get from me.

I get the appeal of year-end retrospectives, but I've always thought that sort of material takes up far too much space and time in the final weeks of the year. It feels like all the focus on year-end material often leads to neglect of ongoing developments that either yield notable results right before year's end, or projects that will continue into the next year. We get so caught up in changing the last digit of the date that we massively inflate the significance of a unit of time ending. This isn't to say that I'm anti-New Year celebrations altogether — I just think they ought to be scaled back, and that the media shouldn't go nearly as crazy over it.

With that in mind, I'm not going crazy about the end of the year either. All I'm doing for the purpose of this blog is looking for inspiration for today's post and today's post alone by peeking at the Billboard Year-End Hot 100. I ended up choosing to write about Olivia Rodrigo's "good 4 u" not because of its place at number 5 on the chart, but because it's the song on the list about which I've thought the most this year. From its role in the rise if a new star (who's more than 2.5 years younger than me — what am I doing with my life?) to its pop punk influences and more, "good 4 u" is a track that has truly surprised me in just how much it has come to define the past months and year.

It's definitely a different experience to listen to such a ubiquitous song in the pop world with a critical and theoretical lens. Sure, I sometimes hear some elements I can pinpoint during more casual listening, but committed critical listening — which often divorces the song from the context surrounding it — makes me hear more intricacies which I may not have otherwise noticed.

In listening to the opening verse of "good 4 u," I was indeed able to zone in on the music and, for a very short time, forget about the song's popularity while analyzing it. The verse made me think of the aspect of 'hooks' in popular music, a theoretical lens I previously explored when analyzing Labelle's "Lady Marmalade." I particularly hear two hooks as doing the most for the verse and the track as a whole in their repetition. Firstly, the main bass figure which introduces the song — played by producer Dan Nigro — grounds the production in the key of F-sharp minor while also establishing a rhythm that continues to be emphasized throughout the rest of the production. Secondly, the up-and-down stepwise line Rodrigo sings ("Good for you, I guess...") establishes a straight, eighth-note rhythm that contrasts with Nigro's syncopated bass line, and its narrow note frame of a major third (A, B, C-sharp) is later a key element of the chorus.

Speaking of the chorus, I have a much harder time separating it from its wider context in the pop world. I owe this difficulty to two aspects of its sound. Firstly, I've spent a decent amount of time thinking about "good 4 u" and how it manifests its pop punk influences. I definitely hear the influences through the chord selection and lyrical material as Rodrigo maximizes her melodrama in singing on her inability to move on from a relationship when her ex has very clearly done so and gotten with someone else while at it. However, instrumentally the chorus is much lighter than pop punk fare, with largely clean guitars having the greatest effect until the turnaround into the verse. The chorus instruments even sound a bit dreamy when combined with the harmonized "ahhs" going into the bridge, showcasing another side of Rodrigo's sound through the dream pop and 'bedroom pop' influences present throughout her debut record Sour.

Secondly, I keep thinking of how Rodrigo added Hayley Williams and Josh Farro to the list of songwriters after similarities were drawn between "good for u" and Paramore's 2007 pop punk hit "Misery Business." The two song do share similar chord progressions at multiple points, and some may point to the vocal contour of each chorus, but I remain unsure as to how much one could generalize some elements as common attributes of pop music rather than being intrinsic attributes of "Misery Business," especially the chord progression. One way or another, it's undeniable that by crediting Williams and Farro, Rodrigo acknowledges her influences while also covering some potential copyright issues. The question then becomes whether such crediting practices may begin to be a trend in new releases.

Overall, "good 4 u" impresses me as a critical and casual listener alike. In putting on a powerful emotional performance while channeling her love for pop punk, Olivia Rodrigo and Dan Nigro created a sound that may come to define much more than just 2021. With Rodrigo's career only just beginning and her music being part of a larger pop punk revival, "good 4 u" may prove to be the jumping-off point for many artists and productions in the coming years. The conversation on the track also spreading to the business side of music also leads to questions on industry practices which themselves may have a large role in shaping the future of popular music.


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