Ahead of the American Music Awards, Roisin O’Connor examines how the Disney Channel star went from virtual unknown to one of the world’s biggest new pop stars
Before January, most people had no idea who Olivia Rodrigo was. To her teenage and pre-teen fans, she was best known as Nini Salazar-Roberts on the Disney Channel’s High School Musical: The Musical, a role she landed after three seasons as guitarist Paige Olvera in US teen comedy Bizaardvark. Then she released her debut single, “Driver’s Licence”, in January 2020, and the world’s biggest song came to be. Not bad for a 17-year-old.
Less than a year later, Rodrigo is now the most-nominated artist at the American Music Awards – up for gongs including Artist of the Year and Favourite Pop Album – ahead of industry titans including The Weeknd, Drake, and her idol Taylor Swift. A surprise voice of her generation, she melds acerbic lyrics with a pop-punk ethos, grinding out gnarly guitars and moody basslines against her upbeat but often ironic delivery. She won’t be taken for a ride, either: having read about Swift’s battle with Scooter Braun and her former label, Big Machine, she asked for complete control of her master recordings before signing to Interscope/Geffen. They have plenty more in common, from their songwriting savvy to a flair for the dramatic. Rodrigo, who had watched Swift endure sexist remarks about her supposed “obsession” with her ex-boyfriends, went through some of the same. “I’m a teenage girl, I write about stuff that I feel really intensely… and I think that’s authentic and natural,” she retorted in an interview with The Guardian. “Do you want me to write a song about income taxes?”
Part of the “Driver’s Licence” appeal lies in its storytelling. Like Swift, Rodrigo understands the power of a strong narrative, building to a cinematic climax (usually the aftermath of a breakup or a relationship finally beginning). In the case of “Driver’s Licence”, it’s the former: Rodrigo drives through the suburbs as she deals with her heartbreak, thinking about her ex’s new partner. The lyrics hammer home the innocence of her wounded confusion: “I know we weren’t perfect, but I’ve never felt this way for no one.” Then there’s the melodrama, because, yes, this song is over the top, but that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s perfect for TikTok, where videos of users lip-syncing dramatically to their favourite tracks are among the most popular on the platform. Millennials may be reminded of MSN, where we would write out relevant song lyrics next to our names in the hope our crushes would read them and magically understand. TikTok is the Gen-Z equivalent.
Arguably the artist Rodrigo shares the most parallels with is Alanis Morissette. Like Rodrigo, Morissette started out on children’s TV before releasing her debut. Both have a sardonic bite that can be applied just as easily to themselves as it can to whoever was foolish enough to get on their bad side. “Brutal” opens with swooning strings, like a classic Billie Holiday song, before crashing into pop-punk territory, as Rodrigo mutters: “I’m so sick of 17/ Where’s my f****ing teenage dream?/ If someone tells me one more time/ ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry.” On “Jealousy”, she despairs at her habit of comparing herself to other girls: “Co-comparison is killin’ me slowly/ I think, I think too much/ ‘Bout kids who don’t know me/ I’m so sick of myself/ I’d rather be, rather be/ Anyone, anyone else.” Rodrigo was in the car with her parents when Morissette’s song “Perfect” came on the radio. “I remember having my mind blown and looking at songwriting and music in a completely different way,” she said, when they met face-to-face for a Rolling Stone feature. “It was something all of my friends felt so deeply, and I’d never heard anyone talk about it, definitely never in a song that was so popular.”
Similarly, Rodrigo’s delightfully contemptuous single “Good 4 U” can trace its lineage back to Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” (which recently found a fresh audience thanks to the karaoke scene in 2019’s Booksmart). There’s some of Swift’s DNA in there, too, with nods to early tracks such as “Better Than Revenge”. In the Nineties, critics wrote about Morissette’s anger like it was a red flag, something to be concerned about. They called her “histrionic”. “Angry White Female,” went the 1995 Rolling Stone headline, a reference to the 1992 movie, Single White Female. “I think anger is pretty amazing,” Morissette told The Independent last year. “I think about fire and the capacity to say no, and changes, and standing up for oneself, or protecting someone. So I was happy with ‘angry’. It was much better than any of the other ones at the time, but it’s ridiculous to call any human being any one thing.”
One of Swift’s songs recently became the subject of fresh scrutiny due to the way it dissected a past romance. The 10-minute version of “All Too Well” is undoubtedly about Swift’s three-month relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, referencing his native Brooklyn, their matching star signs, and the scarf she left at the house of his sister, Maggie Gyllenhaal. Its re-release has prompted many to question why Swift felt compelled to write what she did given the relationship’s short span. The reactions, once again referring to Swift as “obsessed”, “crazy”, “weird”, feels symptomatic not only of the way society continues to try to invalidate the intense feelings of girls and young women, but also ignores a social behaviour in which men behave intensely themselves in the very early stages of a relationship. Annie Lord, a former colleague and now a columnist for Vogue, wrote about this just last week, noting how her date’s behaviour had made her feel “nuts” and wonder if it was actually her own that was the problem.
Rodrigo taps into this perfectly. Her debut album, Sour, is an even split between kiss-off songs and ones that examine her own motives, her perceived flaws and insecurities. The way that teenage girls (and, speaking from personal experience, women in their twenties) work things out in their own minds is to talk about it with their friends all the time. They discuss it to death, poring over the details like Sherlock Holmes in search of something they could have missed, some hidden meaning. Rodrigo, being a teenage girl, is therefore able to send herself up a little without patronising her fans and fellow teens. Sour inspired a number of memes about millennials trying to relate to Gen Z by listening to the album, which was odd. “God, it’s brutal out here,” Rodrigo sings. Have things for teenagers really changed that much? Doesn’t sound like it.