We're Living in the Olivia Rodrigo Era
If any musician has made their mark in 2021, it's easily been Olivia Rodrigo. Besides being Gen-Z's de-facto musical trendsetter and the next beneficiary of the Disney Channel star-to-pop artist pipeline, Rodrigo's become THE breakup guru by dispelling vivid recollections of messy heartache, owning up to her prickly faults, and attempting to remedy millions of broken hearts.
It's been less than six months since her overnight ascension to pop culture's apex, so it's easy to forget what led up to this point. There was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it appearance on "New Girl," and three seasons spent as one of the leads on Disney Channel's "Bizardvaark" before Rodrigo was cast as Nini Salazar-Roberts in the Disney+ flagship show "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series." As Nini, Rodrigo quickly developed into one of Disney's most recognizable characters and singers. Songs from the show like "All I Want" and "Just For a Moment" have confirmed her talent repeatedly. Rodrigo's outstanding performances alone carried the show's first season to binge-worthiness and shut up anyone questioning its merit. There's no doubt she seemed suited for something even bigger, and surely enough, last year, she signed with Interscope and Geffen Records. Rodrigo's run of accomplishments may or may not fit perfectly in a sinister Disney plot for chart dominance but nobody could ever say she's undeserving of her career triumphs.
Just one week into the new year, a sublime blend of social media drama, top-tier song promotion, and the teenage-driven rumor mill certified Rodrigo's debut single "drivers license" as an instant hit. It was no one-hit-wonder moment or a grasp at faux relatability. Instead, it became her entry point into eternal relevancy. Positive word-of-mouth was the song's most powerful marketing tool along with the suspicion of a romance between Rodrigo and her HSMTMTS co-star Joshua Bassett that ended sourly. Mere moments after "drivers license" premiered on January 8th, gossip began swirling that the nameless "blonde girl" alluded to in the song was another Disney star, Sabrina Carpenter, who happens to be Bassett's current girlfriend. Using that one line as damning evidence, stans everywhere proved that no actual verification was needed to start a fire and soon it transformed into a conflagration (yeah that's right I pulled out my thesaurus for that one). Soon it became an example of one of those concocted co-star relationships that's an actuality half the time ("Vampire Diaries," "One Tree Hill," "Twilight") and fantasized the other half. Granted, it's not out of the realm of possibility that some of the romantic chemistry between their HSMTMTS characters trickled into the real world, but in this case, their romantic ties seem fabricated.
There's no doubt that the flourishing medium for the "drivers license" launch was Tik Tok, and it became the most rewarding example of the app's clairvoyant effect on the random assortment of songs that go viral. (One week it's "drivers license" and next week it's a nostalgic Backyardigans classic.) However, its prominence on Tik Tok was just an appetizer. The popularity of "drivers license" produced a number-one debut and an eight-week reign on top of the Billboard Hot 100. The song also broke the record for global daily streams on Spotify for a non-holiday song *twice.* Even her fleeting streaming success was just a taste of things to come.
The cherry on top of her strawberry ice cream became her second single "deja vu," a psychedelic pop track where Rodrigo notices her former partner's new lover bears a striking resemblance. The song's video emphasizes how it's not about Rodrigo pitting herself against the other woman. Rather, it's a critique of her ex-boyfriend molding every romantic partner he's with into a corny indie girl. He's lazily telling the same jokes, only playing "Uptown Girl" from Billy Joel's catalog (not even "Piano Man") and re-living the torturous fever dream of "Glee" in place of creating a unique relationship. Rodrigo admonishes the unnamed asshole and slyly sings "So when you gonna tell her / That we did that too? / She thinks it's special / But it's all reused." This confirmed she had much more to add on top of her enigmatic "drivers license" commentary.
Rodrigo's final single and most defiant offering was the Paramore-inspired, punk-rock anthem "Good 4 U." Her stubborn tongue-in-cheek sarcasm questions how someone can be so heartless after her morally inadequate ex moves on and succeeds, effectively "winning" their relationship. Meanwhile, she's bawling on the bathroom floor and cursing his name. Her struggles paint an unfair picture where she's collectively suffering for the two of them when the other person is leaving her behind.
Riding astonishingly high off of her three dominant singles, Rodrigo's debut album "SOUR" premiered May 21 as one of the most anticipated albums of the year. From start to finish, her songwriting as well as Dan Nigro's production set a rebellious, angsty tone with copious amounts of compassion, and there is explicit influence from Lorde, Hayley Williams, and Taylor Swift. For instance, the sorrowful ballad "traitor" is something that could be convincingly placed on "Speak Now" or "Fearless" and elicits Swift's ability to inflict perfectly happy people in relationships with scathing emotional wounds. Furthermore, Rodrigo's writing is relatable. She's exceptionally rich at portraying her emotions like a seasoned screenwriter and shows wisdom way beyond what's expected for an 18-year old's first album. Everyone can picture themselves driving through the suburbs or passing under a Malibu sunset but her overwhelming state of mind is made starkly apparent as well.
Maybe it helps that Disney is letting Rodrigo freely cultivate her all-American teenager image. It may not be a big deal that she's cursing in her music or lighting a room on fire, but during the "purity ring" period of Disney crossover stars (Jonas Brothers, Demi Lovato, Hannah Montana), hearing one of the adolescent idols say "fuck" would've melted Walt Disney's frozen head. Even the commotion of "Good 4 U" still likely raises quite a few eyebrows among minivan moms.
Much of Rodrigo's project revolves around the ending of her anonymous, oft-mentioned relationship. This breakup holds permanent occupancy in her frontal lobe and has left her fully fixed on finding contentment with an unsatisfying conclusion. It is heartbreak magnified to a crucial level. Her thoughts border upon chaos but are safe enough to remember she is being driven by a potent rush of fury. It's not enough to make her smash a guitar on stage, however, she'll politely tell you to fuck off.
Though it's clear things ended badly, the specificity behind the deceit and betrayal is left principally in the shadows. Rodrigo opens up about her beau's manipulation tacts on "1 step forward, 3 steps back." The uncertainty of his behavior made it hard to tell what would set him off, and though walking on glass made the relationship exciting, it remained just as unnerving. She's a victim of neglect and there are remaining symptoms of cruel psychological abuse that have left her hanging on the edge.
On "traitor," Rodrigo firmly declares how she feels with no indication of shame or regret. She put tireless effort into becoming the "perfect" girlfriend as told on "enough for you," and she's unsure why it never paid off. This piece of the puzzle matches the broad analysis on "favorite crime" but applies figurative language to explain the situation. Despite her legitimate grievances, Rodrigo doesn't spend the whole time accusing and chooses to self-reflect on a few of her toxic misgivings. The aptly-named "jealousy, jealousy" forces her to confront the uncomfortable feelings she has towards women she's never even met, and her insecurities are inflicting even more doubt. Rodrigo's immaturity sticks out on these songs without coming across as whiny until "happier" rolls around (which is where things get repetitive for a second).
Rodrigo exhibits life as a lost teenager coming to terms with the world. Not everything is straightforward and the idea that her high school years are destined to be easy couldn't have been more incorrect. Statements affirming the simplicity of adolescence always sound philosophical coming from a person decades removed from sitting in a classroom yet are much harder to agree with while living through it. By now, she's used to being told to suppress her concerns, encouraging her to sing "If someone tells me one more time / 'Enjoy your youth,' I'm gonna cry."
The head-banging opener "Brutal" cleverly arranges her annoyance towards youth, and can convincingly serve as an allegory for the brutal effects of capitalist employment. In her first verse, she sings "I'm so tired that I might / quit my job, start a new life / And they'd all be so disappointed / 'Cause who am I if not exploited?" That's right, with just a few lines, Rodrigo has done more for class consciousness than Karl Marx in the last 100 years. Sentiments like "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" have her insecurities dialed to one thousand. Parallel parking haunts my dreams and guides my nightmares so it's good to know that I cant relate to her experiences a little bit. But that's beside the point. Pulling a full 180, "hope ur ok" ends the project on a purely optimistic note, hoping that parents will outgrow their out-of-date beliefs and suppression of their children's lives. It's subtle but wise enough to subvert any evil parents in the making.
"SOUR" is a terrific first act, and Rodrigo will certainly become an even greater songwriter as time goes by and she garners additional source material. The youth are certainly in good hands.