How Olivia Rodrigo Became America’s Biggest New Pop Star

6 minute read

You don’t have to be a teenager to love Olivia Rodrigo’s music, but it certainly helps. Hitting play on Sour, the 18-year-old Disney star and hit singer-songwriter’s debut album, is a guaranteed one-way ticket to reliving the most potent emotions of adolescence: the all-consuming heartbreak, the envy and insecurity, the sense that everything that’s happening is the biggest thing ever.

Mirroring the album’s intensity, Rodrigo’s rise has been quick and efficient: the January release of chart-topper “Drivers License” propelled her to the top of the pop stratosphere. (Rodrigo is the rare breakout artist to debut at the top of the charts with her very first single.) In just a few months, she has become a household name with an SNL sketch dedicated to her song—and a subsequent SNL performance under her belt.

It’s fitting that everything has happened at lightning speed. Rodrigo is a digitally-native celebrity who lives at the beating heart of youth culture, a pupil of the Taylor Swift school of self-disclosure and the ultimate Gen Z cypher. That Rodrigo rose so far so fast is no mystery: it’s a blend of formula and good fortune, her path paved by the soul-baring vulnerability of her songwriting itself multiplied by the frenetic pace of the TikTok generation. Here’s what to know.

Who is Olivia Rodrigo?

Rodrigo started her career in showbiz young: she was only 12 when she booked her first big commercial for Old Navy, and 13 when she made her Disney debut as the guitar-playing character Paige Olvera on the show Bizaardvark. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series became her biggest role in 2019 when she joined the cast as Nini Salazar-Roberts,, the female lead opposite actor Joshua Bassett, making her a sensation with tweens and teens. In 2020, she signed a record label deal; and just a month shy of her 18th birthday, Rodrigo released the song that would rocket her to new heights. Like Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus before her, Rodrigo has used her acting background as a springboard, following a well-established Disney funnel to musical success.

How has Olivia Rodrigo become so popular?

Sometimes, a perfect storm brews for stardom. Rodrigo has been at the center of that mostly benevolent storm this year. Despite its tongue-twisting name, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series has been one of Disney Plus’ sleeper hits, thanks in no small part to the affable performances of Rodrigo and Bassett. Add to that a song that dropped right during a pandemic-induced lull in releases from established A-list artists (and a lull in chart competition), a compelling potential romantic backstory that references other Gen Z celebrities and a viral TikTok trend (more on both of these below), and Rodrigo was destined to find herself in the spotlight. That she has maintained momentum through the spring and into the summer comes down to a savvy continuing release schedule, a smart promotional strategy with a teen-friendly aesthetic and music that continues to be witty, catchy and relatable all at once, without pushing the boundaries.

What’s the story behind “Drivers License?”

It starts with the sound of the ringing from an open car door, something so familiar—and, for many, mundane—that it awakens a lifetime of sense memories. And then the song tells the story of a high school love gone awry, of a partner with whom the singer built hopes and dreams only to find herself left behind. The high school nostalgia of it all is cross-generational, timeless and bittersweet. The melody is strong. The bridge would make Taylor Swift, queen of bridges, jealous—or proud.

And the mysterious backstory has brought even greater attention: while never publicly confirmed, many believe Rodrigo was in a relationship with fellow HSMTMTS star Bassett before he allegedly started seeing actor and singer Sabrina Carpenter. Since all three celebrities have passionate fan followings in their own right, the rumor mill went into overdrive upon the song’s release, as listeners searched for clues as to whether or not the lyrics might have a real-life meaning. Rodrigo has stayed professionally aloof about her personal life, letting the music do the talking. Meanwhile, Bassett and Carpenter released their own songs in the wake of “Drivers License.”

But beyond gossip, “Drivers License” hit the jackpot when it found itself the center of a viral TikTok trend. Started by TikTok user Mel Sommers, users re-created a scene from Rodrigo’s music video in which she falls back away from the camera during a dramatic shift between the verse and chorus. Many of the videos have millions of views and likes, a testament to how the trend metastasized across the app and gave extra life to the song’s streams, further boosting its popularity and success on the charts. This is not the first time TikTok has backed a star’s rise; Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” also found its footing there. His career remains on the climb, an indicator that even if the app’s many trends are short-lived, some of its winners can make it big and build careers off the platform.

What does Sour sound like?

The album art for 'Sour'Geffen Records

Rodrigo’s debut album Sour, released May 21, certainly feels more like an artistic statement than like a newly minted sensation cashing in. Rodrigo has openly gushed about her love for Taylor Swift; one of her new songs, “1 step forward, 3 steps back” even interpolates one of Swift’s melodies (from “New Year’s Day,” off of Swift’s 2017 album Reputation.) But Sour, with its earnest pop-punk anger and hunger to bare insecurities and unpack jealousies, also shares DNA with artists like Fiona Apple, Avril Lavigne and—in its most balladic moments, like on the tender “hope ur ok”—Lorde, all women who turn vulnerabilities into lyrical minefields, putting their deepest wounds on display and using music for cathartic release.

But unlike her predecessors, Rodrigo’s references are distinctly Gen Z: she sings about watching reruns of Glee, a show that debuted in 2009. Aesthetically, everything from her album cover to her Instagram is a nod to her age, a slew of pastel colors and cooler-than-you photo shoots that show off her trendy fashion sense.

But her sound, from the punk angst of album starter “Brutal” to the bedroom-pop minimalism of “enough for you,” is harder to pin down. “I’m so sick of seventeen/ where’s my f-cking teenage dream? If someone tells me one more time, ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry,” she rants on “Brutal.” Remember being 17? Likely, you felt that way too.

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