The air is musty, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is playing on an ancient TV by the door, and Olivia Rodrigo is flipping through racks of slip dresses and flared pants. “What’s your style?” she asks. I tell her, unhelpfully, that I’m looking for something I might actually wear. She nods and says, “Vibes.”
We’re at a vintage shop in East Los Angeles, one the 18-year-old singer-songwriter frequented while working on her debut album, Sour. She was out late last night at the American Music Awards, but she’s moving so quickly this morning you’d never guess. She’s using one hand to browse, the other to grip a matcha latte, and somehow, without my noticing, has managed to collect at least five pieces under her elbow.
She suggests, for me, a T-shirt reading #1 MOM. I explain why I can’t take it home: once you’re in your 30s, there’s no room for irony about motherhood. Instead, the winner is a baby blue tee with a spy plane on it. “It’s soft,” she says, handing it my way. I can’t describe why it’s cool. It just is.
Rodrigo has a gift for picking the best of the past—whether a well-worn shirt, the faded feedback of a guitar or the intensity of first love—and finding just the right way to situate it in the present. Her songs have hit with audiences of all ages, in large part because she renders adolescence so viscerally: she’s resentful, seething, crushed, itching to just grow up already. On Sour’s opening track, “Brutal,” she rants, “And I’m not cool and I’m not smart/ And I can’t even parallel park.” It’s teen angst, delivered with a wink.
Her rise to pop stardom was swift and definitive: it started on Jan. 8, when Rodrigo, already a Disney actor with an audience, released her first single, “Drivers License,” a torch song that took off on TikTok and stirred up theories about who inspired it. By Jan. 23, she became the youngest solo artist ever to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where her song stayed for eight weeks. Soon after, Rodrigo was performing on Saturday Night Live, which had already aired a sketch about bros in a bar weeping along with the lyrics (“I got my driver’s license 55 years ago—why is this hitting me so hard?”). Halsey sent Rodrigo a cake, Cardi B shouted her out on Twitter, and Taylor Swift offered her props on Instagram.
Any questions about whether Rodrigo could repeat the success of “Drivers License” were put to rest when she released Sour on May 21. The album, scruffier than the symmetrical, beat-driven music that tends to dominate pop culture, announced her as a serious artist. With moody, confessional lyrics that added chapters to the story told in “Drivers License,” Sour offered something we needed after more than a year of unending distress: an outlet for anger and permission to cry. Hailed by critics, it also continued Rodrigo’s streak of smashing records: with approximately 385 million streams, Sour became Spotify’s most popular release by a female artist in its first week.
After dropping her music in pandemic-era isolation, Rodrigo sang at multiple awards shows, earned seven Grammy nominations—including Best New Artist, and Song, Record and Album of the Year—and was revealed to have the most-streamed album and song of the year around the world on Spotify. Somewhere along the way, she even appeared at the White House with President Joe Biden to encourage young people to get vaccinated. And on Dec. 6, she announced a 41-city tour for 2022.
For now, Rodrigo’s taking things one step at a time. She moved into her own place this year, but her parents are still a big part of her routine (she hasn’t quite figured out the whole grocery shopping and laundry thing yet). She knew the shape of her world was forever changed right after she released “Drivers License”—she shelved her fantasy of attending Columbia University—but she isn’t forcing anything. “I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t any pressure,” she says. “But I sometimes remember: This happened 10 months ago. You don’t have to have it all figured out yet.”
Rodrigo has been working toward her meteoric rise for more than a decade. A Filipino American, she grew up the only child of a therapist and a teacher in Temecula, Calif., and started writing songs, taking voice lessons and auditioning for acting jobs in grade school. Her first big role was in Grace Stirs Up Success, a 2015 American Girl movie about a spunky baker. By 12, she was playing a vlogger on Disney’s Bizaardvark, for which she learned to play the guitar and took the family to L.A. In 2019, Rodrigo made the jump to another Disney show that would change everything for her: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a reboot of the hit movies.
As Nini, a theater kid cast as the lead in her school’s production of High School Musical while going through a breakup with her co-star (an instance of art imitating life, if you believe the gossip about “Drivers License”), Rodrigo deftly stepped into the role of an ingenue balancing ambition and heartache. She was also able to showcase her songwriting skills: when they needed a reflective song for Nini, showrunner Tim Federle, who had seen videos of Rodrigo playing songs she wrote on Instagram, invited her to give it a shot. He sent her an email, with her mom copied, but noted that schoolwork and SAT prep should come first. Just a few days later, Rodrigo played him a draft. “She plugs into something that is so well observed and so raw,” Federle says. Her song “All I Want” took off on TikTok in late 2019, the hit of the season.
Instead of signing with Disney’s Hollywood Records, once home to Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez, Rodrigo went with Geffen Records, which had emphasized her skill as a songwriter. The deal was announced in January 2021, and she chose to make her album with Dan Nigro, a producer who has worked with alt-pop darlings like Conan Gray and Caroline Polachek. Together, Nigro and Rodrigo had already made “Drivers License.”
Nigro and Rodrigo bonded over shared references: he and her mother are just a few years apart, which meant that his nostalgic favorites were the songs Rodrigo heard at home. “She knows the whole Rage Against the Machine catalog the same way I do,” Nigro says. And he respected her impulse to continue innovating as they crafted the songs that became Sour, even with the overwhelming success of “Drivers License.” “It made her feel empowered to do other things, which felt so mature,” he says. When Rodrigo released the swoony midtempo “Deja Vu” as her second single, she became the first artist ever to debut both of their first official singles in the top 10 of the Hot 100.
“Songwriting is the thing I take most seriously in my life,” Rodrigo says. “It’s the most personally gratifying too.” She’ll return for Season 3 of the High School Musical series, which starts filming in January, and maybe she’ll act more in the future. But music is her priority. While she was surrounded by adults with more power and experience when making Sour, she held firm in her belief that people want to hear something honest. The songs had to come from her. “I literally wrote them in my bedroom,” she says. “And I think you can tell.”
Rodrigo has a sense of humor about what she’s laid bare to the world. Recently, her therapist listened to “Brutal,” the teen tantrum anthem, for the first time. “She was like, ‘That song is like everything we talk about today,’” Rodrigo says. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, no! Have I not grown at all?’”
She embraces a key quality of her generation: messy, uninhibited vulnerability. It shows up in her songs and in the way she shares her life. She talks about her mental health, she watches Twilight, she gets angry, she posts pictures of her parking tickets—she does in the open all these things that 18-year-olds used to do in secret, making me ask myself why I was so ashamed to derive pleasure from cheesy movies, to have needs, to make mistakes.
Like other young stars before her, she’s forming her identity and figuring out how to run her career in real time. “You definitely have to be a businesswoman to be a musician,” she says. She has a partnership with Geffen to be able to own her masters, the copyright to the recordings of her songs. Masters are typically held by labels—a practice that has prompted Swift to remake her albums so she can own the recordings. “There’s a path for me to have a stake in the music and art I create, which is only fair,” Rodrigo says.
She’s also found herself in the center of an industry debate that’s growing louder. As music-copyright claims have skyrocketed, artists and labels have sought to avoid bad publicity and costly lawsuits. Rodrigo, who took inspiration from Swift for a Sour track and credited her when it was released, faced Internet accusations that there were similarities between more of her songs and others’. She later added credits on two additional tracks. For her, it was a lesson in business, but also something deeper. “It was really frustrating to see people discredit and deny my creativity,” she says. (Nigro is more coy: “It seems like people get funny about things when songs become really popular.”)
The conversation about ownership often collides with questions about artistic influence. Music critics have identified echoes of Swift, Carly Simon and Alanis Morissette in Rodrigo’s visceral lyrics, and tones reminiscent of Avril Lavigne, Lorde and Paramore in the punky inflections of Sour’s melodies. She’s been put in prestigious company—but this also means she’s talked about as if she doesn’t stand on her own. Rodrigo knows the latter is impossible to avoid, but wishes it weren’t. “Young women are constantly compared to each other. I’m the ‘new this’ or ‘this woman meets that woman,’ and that can be reductive,” she says. “I’m just Olivia. I’m doing my own thing. It’s meaningful when people recognize that.”
Her idols do. She named Gwen Stefani as the person she’d most like to write a song with. “I’d be honored,” Stefani says. Morissette sees a “solidity” in her. “She has a steadfast care about self-expression. She’s not precious about it, nor does she seem overwhelmed by it all.” And songwriting legend Carole King, whose music Rodrigo discovered through her mother, says she has “a gift of knowing how to tell a story in a song.”
There’s an undeniable satisfaction in watching someone spin a heartbreak into a hit—and Rodrigo is open about how incredible that feels. At the same time, she’s aware that writing revealing lyrics also means inviting questions about the people she addresses in her songs. When I ask her what, if anything, she feels she owes those people, she laughs, her tone shifting. “At the core of it, all my songs are about me and my experiences and my feelings,” she says. She understands the alchemy at work for the listener—how anyone could take her words and apply them to their own life. Naming names would only ruin the effect. “It’s an important lesson in controlling your own narrative too,” she says. People write stories about her that she can’t control. Songwriting is a way of reclaiming her power.
And listening to Rodrigo’s music can be a way for her audience to reclaim theirs. She tilts the frame away from the people who’ve let you down and the disappointments you’ve faced and back toward the person who matters: you. Her songs offer validation—a kinship in knowing that your heartbreak, rage or self-doubt is universal. Young people feel seen, and adults get a potent reminder of how we all feel like that insecure deflated kid version of ourselves sometimes.
For an artist, it’s an impressive trick—time travel for the listener. In the vintage store, she moves through the decades herself, skimming confidently through things of the past. Now there’s a pile of clothes on the counter: the spy-plane shirt and another top for me; a slip dress, feathery tank, leather skirt and graphic tee for her. Everything in Rodrigo’s haul has Winona Ryder vibes—as a kid, she was more into the Audrey Hepburn look, but now she’s fascinated by the ’90s and Y2K. “It was the last time people could exist without being hypersaturated on social media,” she says. “People seemed cooler because they weren’t sharing every aspect of their lives.” She wraps the waist of the skirt around her neck to see if it will fit—a trick she saw on TikTok. She’ll give it to a friend if it doesn’t work out. As we walk to the back door, we stop to take a selfie. Rodrigo purses her lips, lifting her bag of clothes into the frame. At 18, she already knows: everything old becomes new again. —With reporting by Mariah Espada and Simmone Shah
Set Design by Mary Florence Brown; Styling by Chloe and Chenelle Delgadillo; Hair by Clayton Hawkins; Make-up by Molly Greenwald; Nails by Brittney Boyce
TIME’s 2021 Person of the Year will be revealed on Dec. 13 at 7:30 a.m. ET.