The wonderful and frightening world of Olivia Rodrigo


The wonderful and frightening world of Olivia Rodrigo

What we can learn from the meteoric rise of Olivia Rodrigo is that as a popular artist you have to work with and anticipate the meta commentary, the fans’ obsessions, the memes and the social media wars, writes FRED DE VRIES.


I HAVE regular drinks with a friend who is in his early seventies. We go to a Kalk Bay hangout where he orders beers and asks me questions. What have you been watching? What are you reading? What are you listening to? I told him I had been listening to Dutch progressive rock from the 1970s for an article I was writing. Dutch prog rock? It didn’t seem to interest him. So I asked him what he'd been listening to.

“Olivia Rodrigo," he answered.

I choked on my beer, nearly fell off the bar stool. This is a man who has repeatedly said that beyond Dylan and Bach there’s… well, nothing really. “Isn’t that kids’ stuff?" I said.

“It’s quite good," he mumbled.

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I must confess, I had never really listened to Olivia Rodrigo. After all, it’s kids' stuff. But always open to new music and ideas, I decided to dive into the wonderful and frightening world of Rodrigo. And when I was done, it dawned on me that this is truly the age of female pop musicians. If we forget bestselling male country artists such as Jason Aldean, Zach Bryan and Morgan Wallen, who can count on a loyal, chauvinist following, it’s young women who rule: Rodrigo, Billie Eilish, Phoebe Bridgers, Lana Del Rey, Lorde, Miley Cyrus, Paramore, and of course the biggest of them all, Taylor Swift, who will be featured in one of the coming issues.

If you want a brief summary of this “movement", here’s what Laura Snapes wrote in The Guardian: “Rodrigo is the flag bearer for a wave of predominantly young women, non-binary and queer songwriters penning power ballads that are as emotional as ever, but project that emotion inward, trading bombast for hush. Immersed in heartache and mental health, this sound is sad but not melodramatic, more realistic than resilient." Snapes sees it as a move away from female empowerment to being honest and vulnerable — a fetish for small, subtle displays of pain.

Rodrigo, who is 20, was born in Murrieta, California. Her father is Filipino and her mother is of German and Irish descent. She first gained fame as a young teenager in Disney programmes. She has long dark hair, full curvy lips and beautifully shaped, slightly sad brown eyes. Her political leanings are progressive. She helped President Joe Biden in his drive to get young people vaccinated, and she was angry and devastated when the US Supreme Court took away the federal right to abortion. In January 2021 she released her first song, Drivers License, which exploded in the pop world like brocade fireworks. Apart from hitting the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in its first week, it became the bestselling song on Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon. The critics went apeshit, calling it a “sensational pop statement", “stirring", “packed with emotional punch", “stunning", “the year’s defining hit". You get the drift.

Rodrigo sings well on this soaring ballad about taking her first solo driving trip with an empty passenger seat. She aimlessly circles her ex-boyfriend’s neighbourhood while ruminating on her misery with heart-on-the-sleeve lines such as: “And you’re probably with that blonde girl/ Who always made me doubt/ She’s so much older than me/ She’s everything I'm insecure about/ Yeah, today I drove through the suburbs/ 'Cause how could I ever love someone else?" The press and the fans had a field day trying to find out who the villain in the song was. Allegedly, it was her Disney co-star Joshua Bassett. They dated for a while, but Bassett ran away with another girl, who is, you guessed it, blonde and older. True or not, poor Bassett ended up in hospital with heart failure from the stress caused by the relentless media scrutiny, while the song gave Rodrigo 12 nominations and seven awards. How’s that for sweet revenge?

Later that year, her debut album Sour appeared. Most of the songs were co-written with producer Daniel Nigro. It opens with Brutal, which is a great punky song (not surprising, since her parents listened to The White Stripes, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, No Doubt and the feminist band The Waitresses), beginning with self-flagellating Gen-Z lines: “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/ 'Cause who am I, if not exploited?"

The rest of the album isn't bad either. It’s perfectly produced, full of hooks. Nothing is out of place, every moment in every song is in service of Rodrigo’s elastic voice, which effortlessly switches between a whisper and a scream. You have your ballads, your exploding pop songs and a couple of noisy rockers, a bit like Elton John really. It has that modern-day pop sheen, mixing electronics and real instruments, but fortunately it isn't crammed with layers and layers of sound; there’s still space. As a listener you can breathe. “I want [Sour] to be super-versatile," Rodrigo told magazine Nylon. “My dream is to have it be an intersection between mainstream pop, folk music and alternative pop. I love the songwriting and the lyricism and the melodies of folk music. I love the tonality of alt-pop. Obviously, I'm obsessed with pop and pop artists. So I'm going to try and take all of my sort of influences… and make something that I like."

The cover is pretty striking too. We see Rodrigo standing, looking slightly bored and dejected, wearing a pale pink tank top. Her face is covered in small colourful stickers. She sticks her tongue out, showing similar stickers that spell “sour". The lyrics lead us into the complicated world of what it means to be young in this day and age. In her own words, she explores a variety of “sour" emotions that are often seen as embarrassing — anger, jealousy and sadness. Critics loved it, calling her “Gen Z’s most versatile artist". Sour did extremely well. It debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200.

This month, Rodrigo released her second album, Guts, which, musically at least, is a continuation of Sour: big ballads and loud pop-punk tunes. The subject matter has changed though — many songs deal with the disappointments of fame, the disillusionment that comes when reality turns out to be different from your expectations. “I’ve always felt like: you can never admit it, be so grateful all the time, so many people want this position. And that causes a lot of repressed feelings," she told The Guardian’s Snapes, who also describes Rodrigo’s regret at having missed out on many simple things that make teenage life wonderful, such as attending sports games, hanging out with your gang after school. It’s something most of will find it hard to identify with, but the sentiment seems genuine, so we’ll forgive her.

Moreover, that’s not the thing that makes her interesting. What’s fascinating is that her short but intense career shows how the world of pop music works nowadays. It’s no longer about your songs or albums, it’s the complete package. And what’s more, a “meta story" is a prerequisite. For Rodrigo, that started with Drivers License (fans speculating: who is the horrible ex?). Then she teased us with the cover of Sour, where she was wearing a ring that was “similar to" the one Taylor Swift had given her. Always good, a Swift reference. They were friends, or so we were meant to believe. But then came the second single, Déjà Vu. After  behind-the-scenes negotiations, Rodrigo was forced to give Swift a songwriting credit, because the bridge was apparently “influenced" by Swift’s 2019 song Cruel Summer. (“Everything is all reused!" Rodrigo yells pointedly in the song.) Apparently it caused some friction between the stars, who are 13 years apart.

And then Rodrigo, who always cited Swift as a huge influence and was a self-proclaimed Swiftie, came with a song called Grudge in which she looks back on a nasty relationship with someone she once admired. She sings: “I have nightmares each week ’bout that Friday in May/ One phone call from you and my entire world was changed. Ooh, your flowers filled with vitriol/ You built me up to watch me fall/ You have everything and you still want more." Was this about Swift? Perhaps. Maybe it was about more than one person. And what about Vampire, when she sings “bloodsucker, fame fucker, bleedin’ me dry like a goddamn vampire!" Was that a reference to Swift? Rodrigo claimed it was about a failed relationship with an older man. But the seeds were sown.

So is there a feud? Who cares. But this is all part of the meta narrative. As Joe Coscarelli of The New York Times wondered: “Can an album or an artist be popular outside of their dedicated niche without a gossip element, without a headline narrative ‘who is this song about?' ” He called it the “reddification of culture" where everyone’s trying to solve a problem, get to the bottom of something or come up with a theory. We now live in a culture where everyone can be a sleuth. And Coscarelli asks another question: if it weren’t for these clues and mysteries, if it was purely the music and the artistic intent, would Rodrigo be the topic of conversation she is? (Note: quality papers such as The New York Times, The Guardian and now even Vrye Weekblad have devoted thousands of words to the Rodrigo phenomenon, and ponder extensively on the question of whether any of the songs is about Swift).

Rodrigo is clever with leaving cues, raising interest and speculation. Is she really singing about Swift? When Snapes asked her the question, she was predictably evasive: “I mean, I never want to say who any of my songs are about," she said. “I’ve never done that before in my career and probably won’t. I think it’s better to not pigeonhole a song to being about this one thing."

What we can learn from the meteoric rise of Rodrigo is that as a popular artist you have to work with and anticipate the meta commentary, the fans’ obsessions, the memes, the social media wars. You have to create conversation. Five or so years ago, that was a novel thing, now it’s compulsory, indelibly part of the package. Proper songwriting craft no longer suffices. I mean, how many of you have heard Bar Italia’s Tracey Denim? Or Meg Baird’s Furling? Or Kassi Valazza’s Dear Dead Days? Has anyone listened to the new PJ Harvey album I Inside the Old Year Dying? All brimming with beautiful, interesting, complex songs, but forever condemned to niche audiences.

Spotify playlist: Women who rule

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