last month, billboard Published a survey of record company executives expressing pessimism about the state of the music industry. Many respondents lamented one troubling shift in particular—one in which brand executives themselves were undoubtedly complicit. They point out that “breaking” a nova is nearly impossible. Sources explain that they can successfully sign large numbers of new talent and even create hits for the digital age, generating millions or even billions of streams. The bigger challenge, however, is finding young artists who can break through the internet noise and create a real, lasting fan base that allows them to become household names and sell out arenas. “Everyone I’ve talked to in the industry is more frustrated than anyone I’ve talked to before,” one manager said. Given the nature of streaming, and especially the TikTok algorithm, the music industry has never seemed more competitive, but the ability to create viral crazes on TikTok has also perversely led to an oversaturated landscape where In this configuration, everything seems particularly fleeting.
A rare exception to this frustrating paradigm shift is twenty-year-old former Disney star and vocal superstar Olivia Rodrigo. Rodrigo has achieved real success in the pandemic era with his 2021 debut single “Drivers License,” a piano power ballad with a driving rhythm and finger-licking that delivers a breakup with unusual clarity Thoughts afterwards. The song taps into that core desire of great pop music, and of pop music’s young fans, to make the mundane seem cinematic: “Yeah, today I’m driving through the suburbs/Imagine I’m driving back Home to you,” Rodrigo sings.
The song quickly broke streaming records, setting the record for the most streams in a single day on Spotify (excluding holiday music). Following “Drivers License”, Rodrigo released two more hit singles before releasing his debut album “Sour” in the spring of 2021. “Sour” hit No. 1 on the Billboard album chart, establishing Rodrigo as the best purveyor of breakup songs in modern times. (The song also won her three Grammy Awards.) With her musical theater presence, vibrant soprano and poignant lyricism, the eighteen-year-old hasn’t become a disappearing act. Sensational, but an emotional provocateur and the embodiment of a new generation. She seems to have been anointed as a leader in the post-Loder and post-Billie Eilish post-alternative trend of female pop stars. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, and at a moment of such apparent despair for radio pop, “Sour” is viewed not just as a breakout star’s debut, but perhaps as the last successful star-making effort in pop history.
So Rodrigo’s new record, Guts, is filled not only with the usual expectations for a second album, but also with ideas about the health of the industry as a whole. The young star, now 20, said she was paralyzed by the expectations and felt stiff when she sat down to write the song. But new record Guts doesn’t betray any of that fear. If “Sour” was a single-minded project aimed at publicly healing the specific trauma of a romantic betrayal, “Guts” is a transitional record as Rodrigo begins to turn the mirror away from her ex , treat yourself mischievously and arrogantly. Rodrigo is at her best, perhaps due to her acting background, delivering long rants in a hyper-self-aware colloquial style. “Yes, I know he’s my ex, / But can’t two people reconnect?” in “Bad idea, right?” ”, she strikes a pose with an almost audible wink. In the song, she contemplates the self-destruction of rekindling an old relationship. “I only saw him as a friend/Biggest lie I’ve ever told,” she adds, always shrewdly one step ahead of herself.
Novelty is a key factor in the rise of any pop music. Part of what makes Rodrigo feel fresh is that she owes more to various rock sounds from the late nineties and two millennia than to the influence of hip-hop, which has been so closely associated with the world of pop music for years. Rodrigo counts The White Stripes’ Jack White as one of her biggest inspirations, and her music is a deft blend of piano ballads and retro pop-punk with touches of grunge and emo. It’s a carefully chosen style that works harmoniously with the attitudinal tenor of her music, which oscillates between brazen contempt and exaggerated longing. A lot of her music sounds like the soundtrack to an early-2000s teen drama, and every line makes you roll your eyes. While her music is inherently nostalgic in style, Rodrigo is otherwise a quintessentially modern star. If previous pop stars sought to project sexual maturity beyond their years, Rodrigo is a constant reminder of her adolescent state—or at least the idea of it—and revels in teenage poses. Lest anyone doubt that she’s beyond the norm, she paints a clear picture of a bumbling teen: “I laughed at the wrong time, sat with the wrong people,” she says in “Songs for Homeschool Girls.” sang in. “Search ‘how to start a conversation’ on the website.”
In the early days of her success, Rodrigo admitted to being the “biggest Swiftie in the world.” She already showed this in April 2020 when she recorded a passionate, minimalist piano cover of Taylor Swift’s song “Cruel Summer.” Later, Rodrigo admitted that “Cruel Summer” was such an influence on her own single “Deja Vu” that Swift would come on board as a co-writer. Swift’s influence is evident throughout Rodrigo’s work, especially when she sings about romantic betrayal (which she almost always does). Rodrigo, like Swift, has mastered the narrative art of belittling past lovers while simultaneously casting herself as victim and victor: “I wanted to uppercut him and kiss him in the face,” she says on the bouncy pop song “Get Him Back!” sang. The rock-core anthem of “Guts,” the song has the sweet energy of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” mixed with a sinister, vengeful glare. “I want to meet his mom/Just to tell her her son sucks,” Rodrigo says, more spitting than singing.
Today, Rodrigo’s admiration for Swift is complicated, at least in the imaginations of her listeners, by professional rivalries. (A major sign of an artist achieving a certain status is when ardent fans begin eagerly reading the tea leaves in their lyrics and making up stories about them.) When Swift sings rather poignantly on “Antihero,” “Sometimes I feel like everyone’s a sexy babe/And I’m the monster on the mountain,” some thought she was taking aim at Rodrigo. With “Guts,” fans feverishly speculated that a song called “The Grudge” was written for Swift: “You have it all, but you still want more,” Rodrigo sings on the bridge . Whether or not Swift was the song’s target, “The Grudge” is still about Swift in a way—Rodrigo takes serious cues from Swift, subtly embellishing her music Infused with cryptic tidbits designed to spark gossip. It is a sacred cultural knowledge passed down from the greatest stars of one generation to the next. ❖