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Songs Of Summer, From Olivia Rodrigo, Willow And Japanese Breakfast


This is FRESH AIR. Our rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to a lot of music, especially on the radio while traveling on vacation. He's noticed some trends that he says distinguish the summer of 2021 from recent earlier ones. In his songs of summer review, he's got songs from Japanese Breakfast, Willow and this one by Olivia Rodrigo called "Brutal."


OLIVIA RODRIGO: I want it to be, like, messy. (Singing) I'm so insecure. I think that I'll die before I drink. And I'm so caught up in the news of who likes me and who hates you. And I'm so tired that I might quit my job, start a new life. And they'd all be so disappointed because who am I if not exploited? And I'm so sick of 17. I'm over this teenage dream. If someone tells me one more time, enjoy your youth, I'm going to cry. And I don't stick up for myself. I'm anxious, and nothing can help. And I wish I'd done this before, and I wish people liked me more.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Olivia Rodrigo is the biggest pop star in the land right now. Her album "Sour" is both a gigantic bestseller and critically acclaimed. And she influences the culture. When the Biden administration wanted to promote vaccines among young people, they invited the 18-year-old Rodrigo to the White House to have a public chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci about the subject. Her song "Brutal" is the hardest rocker on an album that most of the time doesn't really want to rock that hard. Its super-catchy guitar riff briefly became controversial when some folks said it was a rip-off of Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up." Elvis had the good sense to give his benediction to "Brutal," saying in a statement, this is fine by me. It's how rock and roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a new toy.


RODRIGO: (Singing) I feel like no one wants me, and I hate the way I'm perceived. I only have two real friends. And lately I'm a nervous wreck 'cause I love people I don't like. And I hate every song I write. And I'm not cool, and I'm not smart, and I can't even parallel park. All I did was try my best. This the kind of thanks I get? Unrelentlessly upset - they say these are the golden years. But I wish I could disappear. Ego crush is so severe. God, it's brutal out here - yeah, just having a really good time.

TUCKER: Many summer songs in recent years have tended to derive from the languid grooves of hip-hop hits. This year, there's certainly catchy hip-hop songs such as Drake's "What's Next" and Polo G and Nicki Minaj's "For The Love Of New York." But maybe because of pent-up post-lockdown fervor, I don't know. This summer I hear more of an edgy rock thing going on. For example, there's Willow and her song "Transparent Soul." Willow you may know as Willow Smith, daughter of Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith. She's 20 years old with already a decade of experience in the music biz. You must remember 2010's indelible hit "Whip My Hair." Now she's attacking lovers who are patent phonies on "Transparent Soul."


WILLOW: (Singing) I don't f****** know if it's a lie or it's a fact. All your little fake friends will sell your secrets for some cash. Hey, hey. Smile in my face, then put your cig out on my back. If you ever see me, just get to running like the Flash. I knew a boy just like you. He's a snake just like you, such a fake just like you. But I can see the truth. Transparent soul, I can see right through, just so you know. Transparent soul, I can see right through, just so you know.

TUCKER: Finally, we come to Japanese Breakfast and the current hit "Be Sweet." Japanese Breakfast is the band created by singer-songwriter Michelle Zauner, she's also the author of a recent highly praised bestseller about growing up Korean American called "Crying In H Mart." "Be Sweet" is a song from the latest Japanese Breakfast album, "Jubilee." And I hear it as a mixture of influences, sort of David Bowie blended with Blondie.


JAPANESE BREAKFAST: (Singing) Tell the men I'm coming. Tell them count the days. I can feel the night passing by like a mistake waiting for me. Caught up in my feelings, overthink the truth, fantasize you've left me behind and I'm turned back, running for you. Make it up to me. You know it's better. Make it up to me. You know it's better. Be sweet to me, baby. I want to believe in you. I want to believe. Be sweet. Be sweet to me, baby.

TUCKER: Be sweet to me, baby, sings Zauner. I want to believe in you. She adds a bit later, I want to believe in something. And isn't that what we all want now - things we can trust, things that won't cause us harm, things to believe in?

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed songs from Japanese Breakfast, Willow and Olivia Rodrigo. Monday on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Adam Harris, author of a new book about why America's colleges have always been unequal. He writes about how the legacies of slavery and segregation as well as continuing racism have kept many Black students at a disadvantage when competing to get into college. He also writes about the important role of historically Black colleges and universities. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Al Banks. I'm Terry Gross.


Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.