Her lyrics? Sincere and captivating. Her timing? Unprecedented in its perfection.
If you hadn’t been paying attention to Olivia Rodrigo’s rise to global pop stardom, it may seem like she’s just been here all along. But, just a year ago, Rodrigo wasn’t a well-ingrained neural pathway in the pop culture conscious, but a one-line credit scrolling at the end of a Disney Channel show. So, it may seem fair to refer to Rodrigo, who happens to be barely 18-years-old, as an overnight success. But that qualifier borders on the offensive when you consider she’s been working since the ripe old age of 12.
Listeners aren’t the only ones who found Rodrigo’s warp speed success staggering, however. She recently told Rolling Stone that her transition from lesser-known actress to household name felt “super-quick,” adding “It definitely wasn’t overnight. But the ‘I’m writing songs in my bedroom,’ to ‘Oh, my gosh, lots of people know this song’ was really quick for me.” So, how did that rapid leap from High School Musical: The Musical: The Series cast member to expletive wielding, pop-punk resurrecting, generationally transcendent musical icon occur? It was a perfect storm of timing, talent, and even TikTok, that catapulted Rodrigo to stardom in a way we haven’t seen since the ‘90s and will likely never see again.
It was only last January that Rodrigo dropped “Drivers License,” a heartbreakingly relatable track that saw breakout success, becoming the most-streamed song on Spotify in just seven days and sitting pretty atop the Billboard Hot 100 for eight consecutive weeks. Then in May, she released her album Sour, 11 tributes to love gone wrong which showed off her songwriting prowess, ability to effortlessly shift between genres, and scored her this year’s biggest debut. But it wasn’t just her music that magnetized listeners, Rodrigo’s honesty which seems to be present not only in her writing but her personality drew in a massive fanbase.
The success of pop stars like Rodrigo seems to be a reaction to the tight constraints and expectations society placed on chart-toppers of the past. Decades ago, stars like Christina Aguilera and pop’s pivotal cautionary tale Britney Spears were expected to handle the pressure of the limelight graciously, dealing with constant critique from the outside world, while walking away unscathed. But Gen-Z and its idols have no interest in perfection, and Rodrigo’s success reflects that. One example of this is her comfort in speaking about mental health. When asked about going to therapy by CBS Sunday Morning Rodrigo responded, “Sometimes people are like, ‘Oh, you don’t need that. You have so much. Your life is so great. What are your problems?” She added, “I think that’s definitely a thing that sometimes older people can do to younger people, too — kind of trivialize what they’re going through just because, you know, ‘Ah, they’re fine, they’re just kids. They’ll get through it.’ But it feels so real when you’re in it. It’s so valid.”
That awareness of the validity of her emotions, and herself as an individual outside of her music also separates her from acts like Miley Cyrus and Lindsey Lohan who both dropped their Disney golden girl persona by way of tabloid-covered bad behavior. When asked about the difference between her and previous Disney darlings, including her fondness for F-bombs, Rodrigo told W “If that naturally sort of separated me from the Disney archetype? That’s cool.” That previously mentioned honesty and humanity of her songwriting also make her stand apart, she’s not afraid to be flawed, jealous, romantic, and resentful, or as she laughs in the beginning of her song “Brutal,” messy.
Rodrigo’s emergence would also be impossible were it not for the singer-songwriters who preceded her. Artists like Taylor Swift who Rodrigo told NME she’d “always looked up to,” who found similar success through candid diary-like songwriting. Rodrigo’s music also gleans inspiration from the petulant energy of the pop-punk provocateurs who pushed boundaries before her and she’s done this without fear she’d lose the audience who fell in love with the soulful ballad that first gave notoriety. That ability to embrace multiple soundscapes can be attributed to the internet generation Rodrigo was raised in, one that could easily access any song at any time, one that has allowed her to create music without worrying about boundaries because. As she told The Face, “I feel like music is becoming increasingly genreless.”
Although Rodrigo proudly wears her inspirations on her sleeves, not all imitation has resulted in flattery. She was called out by Hole’s Courtney Love, who alleged Rodrigo stole the teenage prom queen aesthetic seen in Sour’s promo photos, from the cover of the band’s album Live Through This. Olivia has also given up millions in publishing royalties to people who’ve influenced her work, like Williams and Josh Farro of Paramore, for the interpolation of their song “Misery Business” into her track “Good 4 U.” She also now shares writing credits with her idol, Swift, along with Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Jack Antonoff for her single “Deja Vu” which she openly admits was inspired by the song the trio wrote, “Cruel Summer.” Despite this, Rodrigo has somehow stayed out of the drama, coyly telling GQ in response to Love’s comments, “To be honest, I’m just flattered that Courtney Love knows that I exist.”
Another surprising player in Rodrigo’s meteoric success is the pandemic. Bored and isolated, listeners started consuming and sharing music via TikTok, giving artists a new and engaging way to share their music and also granting fans a way to become critics, adding their own context and opinions to the app. When word got around that “Drivers License” was possibly based on a love triangle between Rodrigo, her HSMTMTS co-star, Joshua Bassett, and singer Sabrina Carpenter, the app became overrun with theories, opinions, and luckily for Rodrigo, her hit song. Even Rodrigo has shared that without the pandemic she doesn’t know if she would have been able to share her songs with the same confidence. She told Rolling Stone, releasing her music during quarantine was a blessing, sharing, “I honestly loved it. I put out my first song, which did really well, and I didn’t expect any of that sort of success so early on. I think had I not just been doing the same thing that I had always been doing and writing songs in my bedroom, maybe I would have gotten a little more in my head about it than I did.”
The most important element of Rodrigo’s success, however, has been her innate talent. It’s her ability to write vulnerably and with excruciating detail about first-hand experiences while pulling in listeners under a relatable guise that makes them wonder if she’s in fact writing about them. It’s also her voice, an instrument she uses to show stress through vibrato, resentment through amplification, joy through laughter, and love through breathlessness. Yes, the timing of Rodrigo’s spotlight was astonishingly perfect, but all of her success was possible thanks to her readiness to step into it.