Taking on the world with her potent pop vision, Olivia Rodrigo is far from your typical teenager. But just two weeks ago, the singer was like most others, starry-eyed over her first prom.
In a shimmering teal dress that paid homage to her mom’s own prom look, Olivia Rodrigo swayed under the disco ball, surrounded by 1980s-themed decor. Sounds pretty normal for a high school senior, right? For most teenagers, it would have been. But not for Rodrigo.
In addition to graduating high school and going to prom, she released her debut album ‘Sour,’ which sent shockwaves through the pop music world. And her prom? For kids who were home-schooled (like herself) or missed out on landmark moments from the pandemic, it was an alternative way to celebrate that also doubled as a concert film for her fans. In a year when concerts were largely non-existent, the whole world could absorb the joy of Rodrigo’s ‘Sour’ Prom as she found a way to perform live. After all, she knew it had been a brutal one.
In the midst of a year of “firsts,” Rodrigo, who turned 18 in February, just moved into her first apartment on the Westside of Los Angeles. When we speak, she’s beaming — recharged from a cross-country jaunt to The Hamptons — still revelling in the glory of her alterna-prom. “Since I’ve been working on sets and doing music, I never actually got to go to a real high school prom,” says Rodrigo over Zoom from her new home. “For me, it was a really special experience, because I got to tick off that teenage item on my bucket list.” The best part, though? “I got to share [‘Sour’ Prom] with my fans, who are some of my favourite people ever,” Rodrigo adds, while fidgeting with her colourful “macaroni necklaces.”
At the top of 2021, Rodrigo shared what would be the first single — ‘Driver’s License’ — a vulnerable power ballad that stirred up emotions worldwide. If you weren’t a Gen-Zer enduring your first heartbreak, ‘Drivers License’ likely made you wistful for late-night drives crying over an ex or made you nostalgic for your old diary entries. “It was really cool to watch not only teenage girls that are going through the same thing that I was going through, but also older, straight guys, relate to it and be like, ‘Oh, it brings me back to when I broke up with my girlfriend in high school,’” she recalls. As a songwriter, it was rewarding for her to see how universally relatable the song was for people.
But as ‘Drivers License’ gained traction, rumours swirled about Rodrigo’s own love life: that the song — which details a love triangle — was about her ‘High School Musical’ co-star Joshua Bassett and actress Sabrina Carpenter. “I remember when ‘Drivers License’ came out, and all of these major news publications were speculating about my 17-year-old love life, and I was like, ‘What? That’s weird. I hate that,’” she recalls. Rodrigo, who has always gone to therapy, found coping mechanisms to help her manage the attention. “I had to learn how to dissociate myself with what people say about me in that regard because at the end of the day it’s truly none of your business if you do your work and do the best job that you can,” she adds.
Beyond tabloid fodder, the world remained captivated by ‘Drivers License’ as a masterclass in pop songwriting, full of sharp storytelling and keen observations. And its release came at a time when the world was an open wound, resonating as a much-needed balm from an artist who was also feeling it all. In years to come, it will be challenging not to associate that song with 2021: It shattered more than a handful of records, including breaking the Spotify record for most single-day streams for a non-holiday song just days after its release and made Rodrigo the youngest artist ever to debut at No.1 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart. Plus, Rodrigo’s ability to hyperfocus on details and pack an emotional punch garnered her comparisons to Taylor Swift, Lorde and Phoebe Bridgers.
“I was seeing all of these records being broken, all these people streaming the song and loving it, but at the same time, I wasn’t actually able to meet anyone that was listening to it. I wasn’t able to play a show or anything like that,” notes Rodrigo. But in hindsight, she thinks experiencing the fame that came with ‘Drivers License’ in isolation “was really great for my psyche and mental health.” She found comfort in her own creative bubble. “I think, maybe if I had been in LA with all these people while the song was getting big, then I would have put more pressure on myself to make the rest of the album as successful as that song,” she says.
While some listeners became dedicated Livies (the name for her fandom) because of ‘Drivers License,’ Rodrigo had already developed a solid following in recent years. Born in California, Rodrigo grew up as a theatre kid who began writing songs at nine years old. In 2015, she landed her first lead acting role in the straight-to-video feature American Girl: Grace Stirs Up Success. That project was followed by roles in Disney shows like Bizaardvark, where she played guitarist Paige Olvera and in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, where she currently stars as Nini Salazar-Roberts.
As she joined the Disney family, she became a part of the fandom that came with it. That’s why it wasn’t too surprising to see Rodrigo transition to music, considering the network was the foundation for the careers of everyone from Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. “I always thought of myself as a singer-songwriter who fell into acting and really liked it, rather than a child actor who’s like, ‘Oh, I’m going to try to be a pop star now,’” Rodrigo explains. Becoming an instant pop sensation, however? That was unexpected. “I still pinch myself about it every day,” she says of her success.
But ‘Drivers License’ was just the beginning. With follow-up singles like the bittersweet psych-pop ‘deja vu’ and the defiant anthem ‘good 4 u,’ Rodrigo was not going to be written off as a one-hit-wonder or boxed in by genre. Despite her debut hit being a sweeping ballad, ‘Sour’ is underscored by grunge, folk and pop-punk, and the self-aware LP — co-written and produced by Dan Nigro — is bursting with themes of melancholy, anger, jealousy and revenge. The influence of singer-songwriters like Carole King, Alanis Morrissette and Taylor Swift (she even sampled Swift’s ‘Reputation’ closer ‘New Year’s Day’ on ‘Sour’) is a through-line of Rodrigo’s work. “I really love women who are not afraid to speak their mind and tell their perspective,” she notes.
‘Sour,’ in fact, embodies Rodrigo as the self-described “Spicy Pisces” she is. “Lots of my songs are literally about crying, which is very Pisces, but I’m a little angsty, too,” Rodrigo explains. Like Liz Phair, Fiona Apple and the ‘90s alt-rockers before her, she sings about those emotions sans shame. And Rodrigo expresses her emotions without villainising or punching down at other women. “I’m never the type of person who’s like, ‘Oh, it’s the girl’s fault that this guy did something wrong to me,’” she says. “It’s never made sense logically in my head, and I don’t subscribe to that mindset.”
With ‘Sour,’ the singer has also been lauded for helping usher in a new era of pop-punk. Influences from early 2000s alt-rock girls like Paramore’s Hayley Williams and Ashlee Simpson to Avril Lavigne and Fefe Dobson can be heard throughout Rodrigo’s 11-track LP. But the landscape has shifted since the early aughts: Rodrigo — alongside artists like Meet Me @ The Altar and Willow — is diversifying the genre which was once a white monolith.
‘Sour’ allowed her to make space for her lived experience as a biracial, Filipina woman. “I’m very proud of who I am and where I came from now,” she pauses. “But growing up, me and my other more ethnic friends grew up in this world where we thought that being a white girl would be better, and you’d be happier, and people would like you more.” Rodrigo no longer subscribes to that mentality, but she has subtly injected “the insecurity that goes along with growing up in the world and figuring out your placement in society” into her songwriting. “I think race and ethnicity plays a very big role in that, even if it’s not super obvious that it does,” she says. “Hopefully young girls who felt the way that I did growing up can relate or find confidence and solace in the music that I write. That would be the coolest thing.”
Two months since its release, the conversation around ‘Sour’ has yet to die down. From people regularly tweeting the album’s song lyrics like AIM away messages to the internet obsessing over the ‘Jennifer’s Body’ allusions in her ‘good 4 u’ music video, Rodrigo’s debut has continually permeated pop culture and everyday life. Just the other day, Rodrigo and a friend were grabbing coffee, and a girl came up to her and said, “‘I love your album so much. I hope this is not overstepping, but the other day I had sex to the entirety of [‘Sour.’] I was like, ‘First of all, good for you. Second of all, really interesting choice to have sex to all these sad break-up songs. But I’m so flattered.’”
Rodrigo has even been at the centre of an online debate regarding who owns the “teen girl” aesthetic after her ‘good 4 u’ cheerleading outfit drew comparisons to indie rock band Pom Pom Squad and she faced allegations from Courtney Love that she plagiarised her promo image for ‘Sour’ Prom — which featured Rodrigo in smeared mascara and a tiara clutching flowers — from Hole’s 1994 album cover for ‘Live Through This.’ “I’m really flattered that Courtney Love even noticed who I am, to be completely honest,” she laughs. “I think we were both obviously inspired by [the movie] Carrie, but beyond that, I’m trying not to focus on that too much.”
As Rodrigo’s profile has grown — and so has the chatter around her — it’s been a priority for her to manage both the excitement and stress that comes from success. “Taking responsibility for my mental health and sanity has been a really important lesson that I had to learn throughout all of this,” she says. “Because it’s so easy to get fucked up in all of the craziness of the industry.” She’s giving herself the grace to grow up: After all, she’s still young and learning.
But she’s choosing to lean into the joy of it all: Rodrigo is riding the wave of ‘Sour’ and plans to tour eventually. She’s not sure when. Still, that hasn’t stopped fans from speculating about more music. Fans have been convinced that Rodrigo has another album coming called ‘Sweet,’ fueled by the internet and a collaboration with Sour Patch Kids for her debut’s release. Featured on the candy boxes is the slogan, “Sour then sweet,” with ‘sweet’ in red letters. Rodrigo says it’s “a very interesting rumor,” adding that it takes her “a long time to make a record.” “That was not my idea to do the ‘sour then sweet’ thing,” she says. “I don’t have any plans to put that out, but I love seeing people’s theories.”
Looking ahead though, she predicts that her next LP is “probably going to be a lot happier than the record I just made.” “My tastes are always changing, and I think that will be reflected in the next album,” Rodrigo says coyly. While the timing for new music is uncertain, she remains sure of her dream collaborations. “It would be so cool to make a song with St. Vincent,” she muses, adding that she’s also “obsessed” with Jack White. “It would be cool to do a song with him and have him produce a song of mine.”
Rodrigo, full of ambition, knows any semblance of a normal teenage life she might have had has dissipated. But she’s not mad about it. “I’m so happy,” she says. “I’m doing everything that I’ve always wanted to be doing.” She’s living her teenage dream.
Living Her Teenage Dream: Olivia Rodrigo Interviewed
Wednesday, Aug 11, 2021