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

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'

By Caryn Ganz

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Published: Mon 28 Aug 2023, 3:15 PM

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 favourite 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 September 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 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.

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.”

WHEN RODRIGO ISN’T creating music, she’s inhaling it. “Oh, my God, I listened to Ballroom Blitz 10 times today,” she exclaimed. “I have no idea why.”

Although Rodrigo works across genres, Guts leans into rock, which largely receded from the centre of music a decade ago. 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.”

Although Rodrigo 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.

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 distil all of your emotions into their simplest, purest, most effective form.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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