Olivia Rodrigo: The Face of a Changing Music Industry
By Sarah Druhan
Photo: Variety – Source
There’s doubtlessly no need to spend time on introducing recent breakthrough artist Olivia Rodrigo—rarely anyone made it through the year 2021 without hearing her name. Her insanely successful smash hit "drivers license" flooded every corner of the internet for the entire month of January, and from pool parties to the grocery store aisle her sister single "good 4 u" was one of the most inescapable parts of last summer. The nineteen-year-old former Disney Channel star has gone from posting audio of "drivers license" on TikTok to performing for MTV and the VMAs, and what with an upcoming concert tour, seven Grammy nominations under her belt, and a documentary on Disney+ coming out in March, her juggernaut entrance into the music industry doesn’t seem to be slowing
“It’s been the absolute craziest year of my life,” Rodrigo marveled to The New York Times in an interview shortly after the drop of “drivers license” on streaming platforms. “My entire life just, like, shifted in an instant.” It indeed felt like it took only an instant for Rodrigo to go from a relatively known Disney Channel actress to being responsible for one of the longest-running No. 1 Hits on Billboard’s Global 200. Her split-second rise to fame was astonishing and almost unprecedented, but might just also be an example of the subtle changes happening in the culture of the music industry. “drivers license” was teased by Rodrigo on her TikTok four days before the track released. But once it did, it absolutely exploded on TikTok, users from all over the world making videos typically involving the dramatic pause between the song’s second chorus and its devastating bridge. The subsequent soar of “drivers license” to the top of charts around the world emphasized TikTok’s immense influence on trends in the music industry in a way that was now absolutely undeniable.
Rodrigo’s debut single was also universally acclaimed in that the depth of its devastation felt all too relatable to people from many different age groups and stages of their life, but her following album Sour contained subtle underpinnings of a voice that was freshly adolescent and wholly Gen Z. The album’s opening, “brutal”, is a snarky bass-thumping protest against insecurity, fake friends, and the millions of other tiny pressures that build up in teenagers’ lives. “jealousy, jealousy” slickly details the Gen Z experience of constantly comparing yourself with your peers’ perfected social media presence, and of always finding yourself lacking. While Gen Z stars like Lil Nas X and Billie Eilish have also gained music industry presence, Rodrigo’s deeply personal exploration of teenage heartbreak and generational issues very much stood out. It was a clean, fresh perspective that told a coming-of-age story for a generation that hadn’t yet had one, setting the stage for new artists and a new era in the industry.
But Olivia Rodrigo’s arrival on the music industry scene also came at a very particular time, a time in which the industry was being forced to reckon with its current and past treatment of women. 2021 saw a resurgence of the #FreeBritney movement; the widely publicized New York Times documentary about her career and conservatorship
Framing Britney Spears came out on Hulu not even a month after “drivers license”, and Sour was released the same summer that Spears returned to court and spoke publicly about the conservatorship for the first time. Taylor Swift’s critically acclaimed 2020 albums folklore and evermore ushered in a widespread appreciation of her music and lyrics that quickly became mainstream, replacing the vitriol she had received in 2016 and the frequent dismissals of her work as simple and too ‘girly’. Fellow pop star Kesha’s struggles with producer Dr. Luke shed a very revealing light on how women’s issues in the industry are rarely addressed, and the recent trending of #FreeKesha on Twitter might indicate some hope for her ongoing battle.
If Sour had been released around the same time as, say, Taylor Swift’s Speak Now, it might have received sexist dismissals as the over-emotional ramblings of a teenage girl. But while these attitudes have certainly not disappeared entirely, the music world is now a little more receptive to the idea that there is much to be celebrated in work from young female artists, and recent years have started forming a space for them that was never really there before. With iconic albums like Lorde’s Melodrama and Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher having set the scene for music that defined young female experiences, their audiences were hungry for more, and Sour was able to fill the role perfectly.
Olivia Rodrigo has made it clear her youth doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand the nature of the music industry. “I think, as an industry, people are getting better at not taking advantage of and manipulating and bullying young women. But it’s still so apparent, and I witness that too,” she told GQ Magazine during an interview in August. “I’ve definitely seen corporate dollars be prioritized over people’s mental health.” The same month, she opened up to Page Six about how the female pop scene she grew up with was predominantly white, and how the idea of young Filipina girls and girls of color seeing themselves in her was something “incredible to think about”.
While her calmly casual air during interviews and performances might suggest differently, Rodrigo’s comments demonstrate a clear cognizance of her situation and the environment she’s a part of. Her awareness of the music industry is a good sign of her ability to stay true to her own art and identity in the midst of one of the most chaotic businesses in the world. One thing is clear: her trajectory of success is tangible proof of a music industry, and of a larger pop culture, that is shifting subtly every day.