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Inside Olivia Rodrigo’s Musical Journey to Become the Voice of Her Generation
August 11, 2021 -  24 

Criticism doesn’t scare Olivia Rodrigo.

If anything, the 18-year-old — whose platinum-certified debut, “Sour,” captured the biggest U.S. opening week sales for an album in 2021 so far — fully embraces it.

“I love criticism, honestly,” Rodrigo tells Variety in a thoughtful tone, as if she’s confiding a secret. “I think I can grow so much from people being like, ‘Oh, I wish it was more like this,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh cool, this is my first album; I’m learning.’”

While “Sour” has received rave reviews — so much so that it’s already secured a place alongside Taylor Swift’s “Red,” Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” and No Doubt’s “Tragic Kingdom” in the pantheon of mega-successful breakup albums — it’s also invited some drama. Take a recent Instagram dust-up involving ’90s rocker Courtney Love.

On the day of Rodrigo’s Variety cover shoot, as the photo team and a gaggle of assistants readied the second setup, the room buzzed with the news that the former Hole frontwoman had reposted the art for Rodrigo’s upcoming virtual concert, “Sour Prom.” The photo featured Rodrigo wearing a crown and holding a bouquet of flowers with mascara running down her face, and Love captioned it “Spot the difference! #twinning!” It didn’t take long for Instagram users to draw comparisons to the cover of Hole’s 1994 album “Live Through This.”

At first it seemed that Love was giving Rodrigo her seal of approval. Rodrigo even commented: “love u and live through this sooooo much.” But things soon turned, er, sour in the comments section, where Love clapped back requesting flowers, and in another comment called it “rude” that Rodrigo had not asked her permission.

Some users agreed with Love that the similarities were too close for comfort. Others pointed out that the “Live Through This” artwork was itself reminiscent of the 1976 horror film “Carrie.” (Representatives for Love declined Variety’s request for further comment.)

When asked about Love’s remarks, Rodrigo doesn’t seem fazed. “I mean, to be honest I’m flattered that Courtney Love knows who I am,” she says. “She’s from a totally different generation, so I thought that was cool, but I think we’re both obviously really inspired by the film ‘Carrie.’ I don’t know — I didn’t really give it too much thought.”

In the short time since releasing her breakout single “Drivers License,” Rodrigo has become a voice of her generation, as a recent trip to the White House to endorse COVID-19 vaccines affirmed. And despite the comparisons or the social media drama, she’s determined to keep doing things her way: chronicling heartbreak and growing pains in the raw fashion that could be delivered only by a teenager experiencing it all for the first time.

A quiet power practically radiates off Rodrigo’s petite frame, which on this summer day is adorned with a multicolored neon Marc Jacobs shirt (designed by friend Devon Lee Carlson), black pants featuring full-length zippers down the front and formidable heels that would make a Bratz doll jealous. Though Rodrigo maintains a professional poise at all times, her free-spiritedness shines through in a handful of moments: discussing her undying admiration for Gwen Stefani, pausing her photo-shoot posing to sing along to Lorde’s “Solar Power” and embracing the choice of wearing her long, brown locks in two braided buns instead of down.

Rodrigo’s face also lights up when she talks about her love for songwriting, a pursuit that she still can’t quite fathom has become her career. But for her, the proof is in the pudding — just take a look at the smash hit that “Drivers License” has become.

The song, in which she belts her heart out about driving past an ex’s house, was released in January and made the actor — who stars as Nini on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” (the Disney Plus reboot of the famed franchise) — an instant pop star. Through Rodrigo’s then newly minted deal with Geffen Records, the four-minute track didn’t just take off — it became the most widely heard song on earth.

Out of the gate, “Drivers License” reached No. 1 on the top three streaming charts — Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Music — and broke the Spotify record for the highest streaming numbers for a debut single by a female artist. It also debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, making Rodrigo, at just 17 (she turned 18 in February), the youngest solo artist to achieve that. It stayed at No. 1 for eight consecutive weeks.

But to truly get a sense of the enormous impact of “Drivers License,” look no further than the Feb. 20 “Saturday Night Live” skit in which host Regé-Jean Page and six male cast members earnestly recite the song’s most crushing verses — “Can’t drive past the places we used to go to / ’Cause I still fucking love you, babe.” (Life and art came full circle when Rodrigo sang it on the show on May 15 — her second live performance ever.)

Rodrigo is no stranger to show business. But the success of “Drivers License” was something else. “Oh, my gosh, that was the craziest time of my life,” she says, noting that she was in Utah filming “HSMTMTS” when the song came out. “I was sitting in a grocery-store parking lot, and I called my A&R guy. It had just gone No. 1 on Apple Music, which is hard for a pop act to do. We were looking at each other on FaceTime, speechless, and just stared at each other for a minute. ‘What do we do?’ ‘I don’t know.’ That was the moment that I knew that it was going to be something bigger than I expected.”

Rodrigo’s manager, Kristen Smith of Camp Far West, says the song offered a “collective cry” after a heartbreaking year of pandemic. “But I don’t think anyone could have predicted what happened, mainly because some of it has never been done.”

Adds Sam Riback, executive vice president and co-head of A&R at Interscope Geffen A&M: “Did we know it was going to be this global smash that would break all these records? No. But we did know it was an incredible song and the perfect first step for what we were trying to paint for this album campaign.”

The rapturous response to “Drivers License” threw Rodrigo into a bit of a tailspin. Speculation as to who the heartbreak anthem was about — as well as the identity of “that blond girl” mentioned in the lyrics — ran rampant as fans and tabloids alike settled on Joshua Bassett, Rodrigo’s Troy Bolton-esque co-star on “HSMTMTS,” and Sabrina Carpenter, another Disney starlet with whom Bassett had been seen prior to the song’s release. (Representatives for Bassett and Carpenter did not respond to Variety’s requests for comment.)

Though neither she nor Bassett publicly confirmed a relationship, Rodrigo admits: “I put it out not knowing that it would get that reaction, so it was really strange [when] it did. I just remember [everyone being] so weird and speculative about stuff they had no idea about.” Besides, she adds, “I don’t really subscribe to hating other women because of boys. I think that’s so stupid, and I really resent that narrative that was being tossed around.”

• • •

Long before “Sour,” “Drivers License” and even “HSM,” Rodrigo had a flair for dramatic songwriting. “I literally wrote breakup songs before I’d ever held a boy’s hand or even remotely dated someone,” she says. “When I was 4 years old, my parents made videos of me just making up random stuff. I think it wasn’t until I was like 9 or 10 years old that I learned how to play piano and how to do chords, and actually started writing them down, recording them, listening to them back and trying to get better.”

A self-professed “theater kid” from Temecula, Calif., Rodrigo grew up performing in school productions and singing competitions like the local Boys & Girls Club Idol, where she delivered attitude-heavy covers of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home” and Jessie J’s “Mamma Knows Best.”

At home, Rodrigo’s parents blasted alt-rock bands of the ’90s and early 2000s like No Doubt (during the photo shoot, Rodrigo rocked out to the Stefani-fronted group’s 2000 album “Return of Saturn”), Pearl Jam, the White Stripes and Green Day. Her first concert was Weezer.

Rodrigo grew enamored with songwriting through country music, and it quickly became a much-needed emotional outlet. She proudly calls herself a “fangirl for life” and has cited Taylor Swift as a songwriting idol — nods to Swift’s lyrical style and knack for big bridges can be heard all over “Sour.” The artist also was one of Rodrigo’s early champions on social media.

“It’s so nice to be welcomed into the music industry and so great to be supportive of other women,” Rodrigo says. “She wrote me a letter a while ago, and she wrote something about how you make your own luck in the world, and how you treat other people always comes back to you.”

Most of the tracks on “Sour” came from Rodrigo’s deep arsenal of songs, many of which were written during the COVID-19 quarantine that began in March 2020. During that period, Rodrigo says she wrote a song every day for four months, ultimately sharing writing credits on all but three of the album’s tracks with her key collaborator, songwriter-producer Dan Nigro.

“She’s so effortless when it comes to lyric writing it’s pretty incredible to witness,” says Nigro. “Sometimes she’ll run a line by me, and I’ll help her tweak it to make it stronger. But most of the time she’s just running with it.”

Released on April 1, “Deja Vu” added more of an alt-rock sensibility to Rodrigo’s lyric-driven songwriting with fuzzy guitars and saturated drums, courtesy of Nigro. Recounting the sneaking suspicion that an ex is now repeating history with someone else, “Deja Vu” references Billy Joel, “Glee” and strawberry ice cream.  

“I think specificity is one of the most important things you can do as a songwriter,” Rodrigo says. “I love songs where you can listen to them and sort of feel like you’re in another world… and the way you do that is through imagery and details.” 

Indeed, though the sonic diversity of “Sour” is impressive, what really stands out is Rodrigo’s brutally honest lyrics, especially when recounting the all-too-familiar pain of a relationship gone wrong. Even on upbeat cuts like “Good 4 U,” the words cut like a knife: “Maybe I’m too emotional / But your apathy’s like a wound in salt,” she snarls in the song’s bridge.

“I definitely talked about my deepest, darkest secrets and insecurities on ‘Sour’ — which is sort of strange to be like, ‘Here, you guys can have this. Anyone who wants to listen to it can listen to it,’” Rodrigo says. “But it’s really empowering when it comes out, and it’s been really awesome for me to see people resonate with that vulnerability and relate to it.”

Rodrigo credits Nigro’s background as the former lead singer and guitarist of indie rock band As Tall as Lions with helping her find the pop-punk sound for “Good 4 U.” She says she came up with the track’s hook — “Good for you / You look happy and healthy / Not me / If you ever cared to ask” — in the shower. “I didn’t want the entire record to be sad piano songs,” Rodrigo says. “But then again, I didn’t want to write a poppy, happy, ‘I’m in love’ song, because that was so far from how I was truly feeling at the time. So writing ‘Good 4 U’ was really satisfying because the song is upbeat and high energy and people can dance to it, but I didn’t have to sacrifice being honest and authentic in order to write it.”

Though “Sour” is heavy with heartbreak ballads, its edgier tracks bolster Rodrigo’s genre-shifting abilities – most of all, opener “Brutal,” which smacks you in the face with angst and ferocity. Other album highlights include “Traitor,” Rodrigo’s belted manifesto on how emotional affairs can hurt just as much as physical ones, which she initially wrote off as not being relatable enough. Little did she know, the result would be the opposite.

“I wrote it on my bed while I was crying,” Rodrigo says. “I never really thought that it was going to be a song that resonated with so many people. I thought that it was a very specific situation that I was going through, and it’s so funny that that’s the non-single song that’s the most successful. So many people have been like, ‘How did you know? This is exactly what happened to me!’”But not every song on “Sour” has to do with heartbreak. Toward the end of the album, the jazzy “Jealousy, Jealousy” and closer “Hope Ur Ok” deal with themes of insecurity and self-acceptance. In particular, “Jealousy, Jealousy” riffs on growing up in the social media age and confusing Instagram with reality – something that Rodrigo says she has struggled with herself.

“I definitely saw ‘Sour’ as a kind of slice of teenage life,” Rodrigo says. “I think a big part of growing up is going through your first love and first heartbreak, and that was definitely reflected in the album, but I think songs like ‘Brutal’ and ‘Jealousy, Jealousy’ reflect the other parts of being a teenager and feeling insecure and not sure how you fit into the world.”

In fact, pop-punk pioneer Avril Lavigne, who was struck by the “depth and mood” of “Drivers License,” counts herself among Rodrigo’s many fans. According to Lavigne, Rodrigo’s vulnerability is her superpower.

“I think it’s important for people like Olivia to give an honest voice to so many young women who are still discovering themselves,” Lavigne says. “Her songs are her truth, and you can really feel that. You can tell it’s real by the way all of her fans grab onto every single word she says.”

• • •

With Rodrigo’s freewheeling use of the f-word in her lyrics, it’s easy to forget that she still stars on a Disney show. “People ask me all the time, ‘Oh, did you just swear so that people would know that you’re not a Disney kid anymore?’” she says. “It truly isn’t a calculated decision in my head. It’s not like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be an edgy kid now.’ I just tend to have a very dirty mouth, and I think that obviously reflects itself in my songwriting.”

Still, Rodrigo’s path has strayed from that of other Disney alums who branched out into music — Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, to name a few — in that she didn’t sign with Disney Music Group’s relatively straitlaced Hollywood Records. Rodrigo’s break with tradition is an important differentiator when it comes to the trajectory of Disney stars, who have often found themselves pigeonholed into a certain genre or kid-friendly category. Rodrigo says she has learned a great deal from those who came before her.

“I met Selena, and she was so kind,” Rodrigo recalls. “She talked to me a lot about prioritizing mental health, which I think is really important in this industry. All of us were in the limelight very young. … That can be taxing on your psyche and can bring about all these weird issues.”

Kristen Smith, Rodrigo’s manager, says: “Watching Olivia step into her power, that’s most gratifying to me and most important. We’re just starting to see what she’s going to do.”

Interscope Geffen A&M’s Riback adds that Rodrigo has navigated her rise to fame “like a professional,” taking both good and bad in stride. “I honestly just want her to keep living life, and keep documenting it in only the way she can,” he says. “I’ve been doing A&R for 20 years, and she’s potentially one of the most — if not the most — talented songwriter I’ve ever been around.”

Says Rodrigo of her process: “I write about what I know and what I am feeling intensely. The album is about heartbreak, but I think all the songs are sort of a different aspect of heartbreak. There’s plenty of emotions that come along with something like that: anger, spite, sadness, jealousy, longing.”

Indeed, she acknowledges that her fans are helping her make it through the messy, insecure maze of young adulthood just as much as she is helping them.

“It makes me feel so much less alone when a fan says, ‘That perfectly captured how I felt in my relationship,’” she says. “That makes me feel so seen.”


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