Olivia Rodrigo, pop's brightest new hope, just may be a rock star

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Olivia Rodrigo, pop's brightest new hope, just may be a rock star
Olivia Rodrigo in Los Angeles, July 25, 2023. After the blockbuster success of her debut LP, “Sour,” and its smash “Drivers License,” the 20-year-old cranks up the volume and digs deep for its powerful follow-up, “Guts.” (Chantal Anderson/The New York Times)

by Caryn Ganz

LOS ANGELES, CA.- Olivia Rodrigo, the bearer of perhaps the most famous driver’s license in Los Angeles, piloted her black Range Rover to Westwood on a scorching late July afternoon.

Six weeks remained before the release of her second album, “Guts,” and she was racked with anxiety — about finding a spot for her SUV. (“Parking in LA is a hellscape,” she later proclaimed.) The car was her dream purchase, her favorite place to listen to music and yes, she feels guilty about the gas. She kept the stereo off as she circled her destination with increasing despair. A woman crossing a narrow street hustled out of Rodrigo’s path as she let out a “Sorry!,” unaware that the apologetic 20-year-old behind the wheel was the youngest artist to debut atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

When Rodrigo awoke on a January 2021 morning to news that her first single, the octave-climbing weeper “Drivers License,” had rocketed to No. 1, she knew “nothing would ever be the same,” she said. One day she was a Disney actress with powerhouse pipes, the next she was the promising new voice of her generation — all while she was still a high school senior living with her parents, and largely under COVID restrictions.

“Sour,” the album Rodrigo released that May with writing credits on all 11 songs, went four times platinum; two of its tracks, the bona fide phenomenon “Drivers License” and the sarcastic kiss-off “Good 4 U,” crossed that threshold six times over. She was feted by Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani, and duetted with Billy Joel and Avril Lavigne. Cardi B gushed about her on Twitter. Halsey sent a cake. At the 2022 Grammys, three of her seven nominations turned into wins, including best new artist.

Embarking on her maiden tour? Watching tabloids diagram her dating history? None of that was easy. But crafting the follow-up to a smash debut is music’s most daunting crucible, and Rodrigo felt the pressure to make a diamond. Ultimately, she turned to advice she’d received from an idol, Jack White.

“He wrote me this letter the first time I met him that said, ‘Your only job is to write music that you would want to hear on the radio,’” she recounted over her go-to dinner of salad and fries. She paused. “I mean, writing songs that you would like to hear on the radio is in fact very hard.”

Songs are only a fraction of the equation. Young women in pop face a dizzying array of pressures: to look a certain way, to compete against each other, to be role models, to project acceptable emotions. So it’s notable that Rodrigo has largely opted out. On “Guts,” due Sept. 8 on Geffen, she is simply a rock star.

The album’s opener, “All-American Bitch,” begins with Rodrigo’s angelic soprano over fingerpicked acoustic guitar before snapping into fuzzy power chords and the first of many f-bombs. (She has a true gift for a well-placed expletive.) On “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl,” she chants a litany of embarrassing party fouls over a springy bass line and lets out cathartic screams.

There are still piano ballads — poignant ones, exploring the drawbacks of her unusual path, attraction to a gaslighting boyfriend, the challenge of granting forgiveness. The LP’s mix of energy reflects Rodrigo’s tastes. She loves women who rage, and Rage Against the Machine; songwriters unafraid to bare their intimate fears, and artists who make their politics crystal clear.

Her urge to move in a grungier direction took hold as “Sour” was wrapping up. “Brutal,” the last song she wrote for the album with Daniel Nigro, the producer who has become her creative partner, is a punky eye-roll (“I’m not cool and I’m not smart/And I can’t even parallel park”) she turned into her Sour Tour’s opening number.

“It was super heavy when we were rehearsing it,” she said of her live band, whose members are all female or nonbinary. “I remember tears welling up in my eyes and being like, this is so powerful. This is what I wanted to see when I was a girl scrolling YouTube when I was 14.”

When Rodrigo was that age, she was already a working actress, starring in the first of two Disney TV shows that brought her to national attention. She long had musical ambitions, but the ordinary path for the company’s phenoms — Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera or Justin Timberlake’s gleaming synth-pop and pop-R&B — wasn’t for her.

Miley Cyrus and Demi Lovato have indulged their taste for rock, but Rodrigo’s commitment to it is deeply ingrained. Her musical foundation was built on the ’90s bands her parents loved. While most of today’s pop is made by committee, she works almost exclusively with Nigro, a onetime frontman of the emo band As Tall as Lions. A few tracks on the new album were recorded live, with a full band.

Writing “All-American Bitch,” with its fierce dynamics and wry attitude, was an uncorking of emotions that don’t often find voice in pop.

“For me, that’s what music is, it’s expressing those feelings that are really hard to externalize, or that you feel aren’t societally acceptable to externalize,” Rodrigo said. “Especially as a girl.”

RODRIGO, WHO IS of Filipino descent, grew up an only child in Temecula, a suburb between Los Angeles and San Diego, begging her mother and father — a teacher and a therapist with no artistic inclinations — to take her to auditions. No stage was too small.

“I think I was 9 years old, and I performed at the opening of a grocery store in my town,” Rodrigo remembered in a video call a week after her parking misadventure from her home office in LA, chatting in a baggy white Morrissey T-shirt from her dad’s collection.

A break arrived in 2016 with the Disney Channel show “Bizaardvark,” in which Rodrigo played a video blogger alongside Madison Hu, who became one of her closest friends. Music, her first love, was baked into its three seasons — she learned guitar for the role — and when she took one of the leads in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” in 2019, her fluid vocal performances stood out.

The Disney+ show provided Rodrigo with both an opportunity to release an original song, the sweepy, mid-tempo “All I Want,” and — if you follow the exhaustive tabloid analysis of her personal life — the relationship that led to the heartbreak fueling “Drivers License.”

On what she called “a very momentous, serendipitous day, the day before the world shut down” in March 2020, her music career officially got on track. In the morning, Rodrigo met with the major label she’d later sign to after she was assured it was investing in her as a writer, not as a potential star. (She also negotiated to keep her masters.) In the afternoon, she had her first meeting with Nigro.

The writer-producer had worked with Sky Ferreira and Caroline Polachek, artists who bridge pop and rock with clear artistic visions of their own. He’d seen a raw demo Rodrigo posted on Instagram of the eventual “Sour” track “Happier” (“I hope you’re happy,” she coos lightly to an ex, “but don’t be happier”) and was floored. It was the first song the duo tackled when they were finally able to work in person after a few months of COVID separation. (Rodrigo’s mother dropped her off for the session.)

When she brought in the beginnings of “Drivers License” not long after, “I think she started to feel really confident and like she was finding her voice for the first album,” Nigro said in a phone interview. By the time they recorded “Brutal,” with its barrage of crunchy guitars, he could see where she was headed next.

WHEN RODRIGO ISN’T creating music, she’s inhaling it. She heaped praise on Snail Mail (“‘Valentine’ is one of my favorites”), Joni Mitchell (“I’ll literally get emotional”), Kathleen Hanna (“I love Bikini Kill”), Gwen Stefani (“‘Return of Saturn’ was one of the albums that made me want to make music”), Depeche Mode (“I’m hooked”) and Billy Joel (“He is everything”). She name checked Beyoncé and Sleater-Kinney, Simon & Garfunkel and Sweet. “Oh, my God, I listened to ‘Ballroom Blitz’ 10 times today,” she exclaimed. “I have no idea why.”

One of her superpowers is bridging generations. “She’s a revelation,” Hanna, of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre, said in a phone interview. “To be my age and cry at something that someone so young wrote — like listening to ‘Drivers License’ for the first time and sobbing in my car.”

Although Rodrigo works across genres, “Guts” leans into rock, which largely receded from the center of music a decade ago. As streaming pushed hip-hop, pop and global sounds to new heights, the most innovative and exciting rock has been bubbling beneath the surface, driven largely by young women. When Rodrigo bounded onstage on tour in a pleated plaid skirt and arm warmers, she drew on a lineage from riot grrrl to early 2000s pop-punk to acts such as Soccer Mommy and boygenius who have been expanding rock’s emotional palette. Those contemporaries have built cult audiences on the back of growing indie success, but Rodrigo’s stakes are higher: She’s Trojan-horsing in rock’s musical brashness and emotional spikiness under the cover of pop stardom.

Hanna, who started putting out music in the late ’80s, has been noticing. “It’s a fascinating thing to watch these young women, and especially Olivia, because she seems to be so advanced as a songwriter, expressing themselves in these really complicated ways,” she said. She was heartened that Rodrigo spoke out about abortion rights onstage at Glastonbury after Roe v. Wade was overturned, and proud that she’s adapted “riot grrrl iconography” in her visuals: “That’s so great, to see this underground musical style being graphically referenced in the mainstream by a person who’s actually a music lover.”

Rodrigo said she’s “always loved rock music, and always wanted to find a way that I could make it feel like me, and make it feel feminine and still telling a story and having something to say that’s vulnerable and intimate.” She beamed, her eyes bright under light winged makeup, talking about how artists she admires are “using rock music, but they’re not trying to recreate a version of rock music that guys make.”

Her openness about her influences is striking considering such frankness has already come with risks: Taylor Swift and Paramore may have been inspirations on “Sour,” but after the album’s runaway success, those inspirations suddenly gained writing credits on two songs. Asked if she had caught Swift’s Eras Tour, Rodrigo was brief: “I haven’t yet,” she said, quickly adding that she’d been busy. “I’m going to Europe this week.”

In late July, she did get to a Tori Amos show with Annie Clark (who records as St. Vincent), a hero who has become a mentor. “I’ve never met anyone so young and so effortlessly self-possessed,” Clark said in a phone interview. Rodrigo “knows who she is and what she wants — and doesn’t seem to be in any way afraid of voicing that. And just a really lovely girl too,” she added. “I’ve never heard her say a bad word about anyone.”

RODRIGO’S EX-BEAUS might disagree. Although she doesn’t name them, they are the subject of both passionate takedowns and lighthearted ribbing on “Guts.” Its first single, “Vampire,” is a suite that builds from ballad to bombast aimed at a man who abused her trust and fame; on the hilarious rap-rock banger (yes, really) “Get Him Back!,” she playfully spins the title phrase, seeking both revenge and reconciliation.

“I had such a desire to live and experience things and make mistakes and grow after ‘Sour’ came out, I kind of felt this pressure to be this girl that I thought everyone expected me to be,” she said. “And I think because of that pressure, maybe I did things that maybe I shouldn’t have — dated people that I shouldn’t have.” She took a beat to clarify: “I’m very tame.” But a lot of the album, she said, is “about reckoning with those feelings and coming out of that disillusionment and realizing the core of who I am and what I want to be doing and who I want to be spending my time with.”

Over a few years of sea change, Rodrigo has sought anchors. She took a poetry class at the University of Southern California and insisted that the other students treated her “really normal.” She secured an apartment in New York where her pal Hu attends college, and immediately endured a local rite of passage: a case of bedbugs.

Although she says her public profile is manageable — “I’m not like, Kim Kardashian or anything” — Rodrigo’s life remains unconventional. Some of the album’s most powerful moments are about her internal battles over early success.

“Making the Bed,” an atmospheric ballad about reckoning with her own decisions, emerged when Rodrigo grieved that she’d never have a normal childhood. “Teenage Dream,” which flits between major and minor chords, was born out of the intense pressure to follow up “Sour.” (“They all say that it gets better/it gets better, but what if I don’t,” she sings.)

“I was so scared, and struggling with having this image of being this precocious kid,” she said, “and wondering if people would still like the music” as she matured. Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream,” this is not.

But if the album’s second single “Bad Idea Right?” — a jokey sendup of backsliding with an ex — doesn’t make it clear, Rodrigo has a vibrant sense of humor that she easily turns inward. She mocked herself for crying when she met Jack White and laughed after a fan approached at dinner bearing a somewhat dubious compliment. “That’s like the like third person this week who’s told me that I’m more beautiful in person,” she said. “I’m like, am I photographing really bad?”

Setting out to write “Guts,” “It was important for the both of us to make sure that there was a playful aspect to it, just for the sake of who she is,” Nigro said. “She’s quite a funny person who’s always pretty positive.” Rodrigo said she was thrilled to be starting from a place of happiness, but did ask herself, “How am I going to write songs that resonate with people? I could do a chart of like, when I’m the saddest and when I write the songs that make the most money.” (It was something she brought up in therapy.)

She said she was at first hesitant to write about someone exploiting her celebrity in “Vampire,” because she feared the experience was self-indulgent. “I’ve always tried to write about the emotions rather than this weird environment that I’m in,” she explained. But the point of songwriting “is to distill all of your emotions into their simplest, purest, most effective form.”

She’d seen it at work on the Sour Tour, as girls shouted the lyrics to “Traitor” back to her.

“It’s kind of sad, but deep down, it’s a really angry song,” she said. She described looking out at the audience each night and seeing girls with “tears streaming down their faces, screaming.” They were “so angry.”

“That girl felt how I felt,” she added. “It’s the coolest thing ever.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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