Alice Browne on the latest sensation, Olivia Rodrigo, and her new album.
Just four months ago, the name Olivia Rodrigo meant very little to a large portion of the population. In fact, unless you fall into the younger end of the Gen Z demographic, those apparently familiar with the Disney+ spin-off mockumentary High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, it probably meant nothing at all. Fast forward to our current moment, and the 18 year old Disney star turned singer-songwriter is inescapable.
Everything I learned about her emotionally saturated debut track drivers license, and the story behind it, I learned against my will. For days, my TikTok feed was rife with its earworm bridge and speculation about the song’s meaning- apparently fuelled by a love triangle between two of her Disney co-stars. For every video that could fill in these blanks, however, there would be approximately five more in a similar state of confusion to me, claiming that they’re now ‘invested’ in the relationship status of a teenager that, until a few hours ago, they had no idea existed. It felt like a classic case of TikTok music marketing, rapidly and intensely promoting a track or artist to a young, online demographic. Yet, Rodrigo’s team chose to veer from the conventional, easy to follow dance routines and into the realm of carefully constructed ‘drama’. This is where the appeal could begin to fall short. Whilst the sudden rise of young musicians is not uncommon, particularly in the online sphere, for someone in Olivia Rodrigo’s position, it feels almost too linear. When comparing her stratospheric rise to child stars of times gone by, it could feel manufactured at best, exploitative at worst.
To label her a simple ‘industry plant’, however man-made her rise may feel, would be reductive in the plight of understanding her cultural appeal. Aesthetically, her album quite clearly mirrors the zeitgeist of current western youth. She acknowledges trends of the online world she’s beginning to dominate and replicates them with faint, palatable features of alternative culture, glossed over with a pastel, Brandy Melville-esque sheen. Each of sour’s lower case titles reads like an Instagram caption, and it is in capturing the vague space between the virtual and real so seamlessly that Olivia and her team outshine her rivals. Though often overlooked as a serious audience in the music industry, teenage fan bases are the first to see through artists performing contrived and ill-fitting youthful identities, or acting ‘too online’ for their own good. Even if Rodrigo’s stardom is the result of a carefully constructed marketing campaign, we can find both illusion and truth in the debate for her authenticity. To be truly accepted by this market, some of the harshest critics of fast-paced pop culture, is no mean feat.
In the video for deja vu, one of the album’s lead singles, we see this aesthetic coupled with more classic media tropes of adolescence. As Rodrigo becomes her own self-conscious voyeur, taking us through a brief history of teenage imagery in archetypal American cinema as she compares herself to, and subsequently reimagines herself in the place of, another girl in a variety of sickly sweet, all-American settings. As a series of televisions show the pair twirl playfully on a beach not dissimilar to that of the opening of Grease, don matching prom dresses and eat ice cream in letterman style cardigans, we’re directed to see the transcendent power of insecurity, between fiction and reality- past and present.
Perhaps it is in the universality of this experience that Rodrigo has attracted the unlikely attention of a slightly older crowd. Whereas Disney era Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato seemed to appeal to a very specific audience, largely ‘tweenage’ girls, Rodrigo’s debut album sour is dominating conversation between teenagers and late 20-somethings alike. If listeners aren’t experiencing Olivia’s world directly as it happens- they’re reliving their own stories through her bewildered, coming of age lens.
With the reemergence of both ‘y2k’ and ‘emo’ aesthetics, it’s become increasingly clear that nostalgia sells. Tracks like good 4 u and the album’s opener brutal tackle the twenty year trend head on, with fraught, pop-punk intensity. She bounds mischievously across these tracks, never letting her bitter rage misguide her into the realm of pretentiousness, instead revelling in her immaturity. Lyrics like ‘I’m not cool and I’m not smart / And I can’t even parallel park’ remind us exactly what the album is: a dive into the unpleasantries of youth, both in tender naivety and perpetual embarrassment, not to be taken too seriously. As good 4 u becomes Paramore’s Misery Business for a post internalised-misogyny age, sour finds joy in all of its sorrow- both sonically and lyrically drenched in a playful teenage angst.
Whilst the album, on a surface level, depends on this nostalgia, the emotional rawness of sour does not discriminate in age. As Rodrigo continuously recalls, rebuilds and rebreaks her understanding of past romantic realities, we’re reminded of the repetitive conversations we’ve had with ourselves, or our long-suffering close friends, when a near perfect illusion begins to shatter. Though new to the game of love, loss and heartbreak, she moves through tracks such as traitor with a contradiction of fragility and strength reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s All Too Well, conjuring a near universal ache amongst listeners. A similar Swiftian delicacy is found in 1 step forward, 3 steps back as both Taylor and creative partner Jack Antonoff are listed on it’s writing credits. The track interpolates Reputation’s closing track New Years Day as it’s opening piano dances behind more of Rodrigo’s incessant self-doubt.
The crux of sour’s relatable charm is in the sincerity of its own self-indulgence. Rodrigo is unashamedly undignified, releasing the messy discomforts of growing up out into the wild with unabashed confidence. Whilst the album contains all of the clichés of the diary/tumblr blog style it replicates, potentially drawing a few grimaces of second hand embarrassment from listeners, it is keenly self aware. It’s hard not to see the mainstream appeal of a breakup album unafraid of its own cringeworthiness. Though Olivia Rodrigo’s place as a truly organic, individual pop star is yet to be realised, her playfully brutal honesty on sour makes for an impressive debut, placing personal experience and emotion at its forefront.
Words by Alice Browne