Imagine the thrill as a notification pops up on your phone from one of your musical heroes. They’ve posted your latest promo shots on Instagram with the hashtag #twinning and you – naturally – treat it as sincere (“love u and live through this sooooo much”). But then they respond that you owe them flowers and you start feeling less like she’s passing on a torch and more like she’s treating you as a punchline.
If anyone can empathise with a situation as specific as this, it’s Olivia Rodrigo. What started out as a seemingly sweet exchange between a rock legend and an up-and-comer soon turned a little…sour. Upon Rodrigo releasing promo shots for her ‘Sour’ Prom livestream, Courtney Love quickly pointed out a similarity to Hole’s ‘Live Through This’ artwork. It’s fair enough – the image of a manic, mascara-stained prom queen clutching a bouquet is iconic – only Love didn’t stop there: “Does Disney teach kids reading and writing? God knows,” she wrote on Facebook in response to fans. “My cover was my original idea. A thing you maybe have to actually live life to acquire?”
If only the cover was as original as Courtney suggested. Before Rodrigo and before Hole, there was 1976’s horror classic Carrie and its haunting image of Sissy Spacek crowned as Prom Queen seconds before a bucket of pig’s blood is unceremoniously dumped on her (we all know what happened next). Compare Love’s approach to that of Elvis Costello, who could have more legitimate beef with Rodrigo considering the central riff to ‘brutal’ is so reminiscent of Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’ that you could easily call it a sample. But Costello gets how art is referential – “it’s how rock and roll works” – and he doesn’t hide his own homages to Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry. Power dynamics aren’t always cut and dry: Rodrigo is barely 18 and has only just released her debut album, but she also has the backing of one of the biggest corporations in the world. None of this is to ignore the rights of artists and songwriters but imitation in music, and art itself, isn’t new. The important thing is not to pretend otherwise.
The ‘Sour’ Prom quite plainly doesn’t: it’s a loving homage to all the high school movies we grew up on that’s melodramatic in the best way. There’s a little of 10 Things I Hate About You in the pop-punk riff playing on the dancefloor. The co-ordinated dance movies from She’s All That. As Rodrigo takes to the American football field for the finale, it’s not just a Superbowl halftime show but a nod to Bring It On. Perhaps even an ode to Mean Girls’ Janis Ian as Rodrigo dons a tux jacket over her dress and combat boots.
While it stirred up controversy before the tuxes had been rented and corsages had been pinned, when the ‘Sour’ Prom did arrive it was a charming and fun piece of art, so slickly produced that it was easy to forget it was a livestream. The high school prom has been such an enduring image across American media for so long, almost frozen in time between the late 80s and mid-90s, and in this current void of modern teen rom-coms, nostalgia has become a necessity. From the ‘so bad they’re good’ outfits down to those classic thematic hallmarks (heartbreak, cliques and spectacle), Rodrigo brought this throwback to life with all the star quality we’ve come to expect.
But even throwbacks need tweaks. There’s a subtle queerness in the ‘Sour’ Prom as dancers switch partners fluidly regardless of gender. Meanwhile, Rodrigo takes on the role of narrator and main character, providing a soundtrack for teenagers and herself alike. Everything revolves around her but like any good teen rom-com, there’s just enough of the outsider in her do care metallic prom dress and her don’t care choker and combat boots combo. Even if we have a sneaking suspicion that the Disney star probably was very popular at school, we play along: she’s Taylor Swift on the bleachers from ‘You Belong With Me’ and fretting about her style while seeking validation from an ex: “If I looked like the other Prom Queens I know that you loved before”.
In the age of livestreams, making something genuinely unique and compelling to watch is no easy feat. To create something cinematic to boot is even better. And Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Sour’ Prom is a reminder of just how fun it can be to play with shared nostalgia.