I avoided most of the critical coverage leading up to the September release of Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album Guts, in part because I found it preemptively exhausting. I could already predict the shape of the discourse. Would she live up to expectations? Was “Driver’s License” a singular, unrepeatable moment of viral success? Would anything come close to the hilarious and addictively singable “Good 4 U?” When would her affect of exaggerated teenage angst get tiresome? Was she only a one hit wonder? Kill me!
But of course my wariness was always about my own anxieties. I wrote my first novel, The Poppy War, when I was 19; it hit shelves days before I graduated college. I’ve experienced my share of media coverage more interested in my age than my artistry and heard all the skepticism that someone so young could have anything meaningful to say. I’ve tasted the highs of success much earlier than I thought I deserved. And I’ve sat down terrified and bewildered before the accusing blank page of a new manuscript, wondering if all that came before was lightning in a bottle that I’ll never capture again.
The apex of your career has to occur sooner or later—but what if it’s already come and gone? What if I am never as funny, sympathetic, or attractive as I was several years ago? What if next year if I’m not even nominated for an award I won when I was younger? What if the most interesting thing about me is, in fact, my youth? Rodrigo’s “Teenage Dream” (the true thesis statement of this album) articulates the problem with painful precision: “They all say that it gets better/It gets better, but what if I don’t?”
Rodrigo gets it. For anyone in our youth-obsessed world, it’s terrifying to consider that the highest highs of your life may already be behind you. For artists, it’s even more terrifying to consider whether your relationship with your craft has been fundamentally corrupted by exposure and success. What if you can’t replicate the conditions under which you did your best work? What if we only get so much creative inspiration allotted to us our lifetimes, and I’ve used mine up in one go? There’s an old saying that mathematicians do their most groundbreaking research when they’re in their 20s. Athletes have a brief window in which their bodies can withstand the battery it takes to train and compete. Physical beauty, particularly that of women, is understood to “fade” once the first wrinkle appears. But then what on earth do you do with the rest of your life? Twiddle your thumbs? Show up to awards ceremonies and clap for everyone else? Have they already gotten all the best parts of us? Will we spend all the rest of our years wishing we could go back?
Today, Rodrigo learned, along with the rest of the world, that Guts has been nominated for six Grammys. It’s a major feat, the kind of achievement that should make anyone ecstatic. But still I wonder—based on my experience—if she’s nervous that if she doesn’t surpass her three wins from last year, then she’ll have failed.
It’s hard to shake those anxieties. During my most insecure moments, I like to pair “Teenage Dream” with “Nothing New” by Taylor Swift: “Lord, what will become of me/Once I’ve lost my novelty?” Yes, like Swift, I wake up in the middle of the night and can feel time moving. Yes, I fear the moment I no longer light up a room, when I’m not the ingenue, when I meet the radiant fever dream who’s replaced me. Cue in the precocious, successful, deeply unhappy Alice from Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You: “And then that’s it, I’m finished, and the next flashy 25-year-old with an impending psychological collapse comes along.” I’ve had my psychological collapse. What’s next?
I’d be crying a lot more if I hadn’t realized that aging out is an escape. The night before I turned 20, I cried because I would no longer be a teenager. You could not pay me now to be a teenager again. The kindest thing my industry ever did for me was let me grow up. At a ripe old 27, I’ve long stopped qualifying for the category of publishing prodigy (good grief), and I can’t tell you what a relief it is that my youth no longer overshadows my work. What a blessing to stop being great for my age, and to possibly just be good. I think I was a terrible writer at 19, and I hope in 10 years I’ll cringe at everything I’m publishing now.
There’s so much freedom in the relentless pursuit of growth. If you refuse to be satisfied with what you’ve done, the apex remains on the horizon, ever out of reach. If you can accept that you’ll never repeat the glory days of the past (and that maybe those glory days were not so glorious, just filtered through nostalgia), you’re free to get weirder, wilder, and sharper with every successive project. Flop era, comeback era—may I be so lucky to ride those highs and lows. Crystallization is death, change means you’re alive, and no one’s crying themselves to sleep when there are exciting new challenges to tackle. Swift has mastered the trick of shedding her skin; she’s made an entire narrative—not to mention a business empire—of her eras. If the evolving artistry on display in Guts is any indication, Rodrigo has realized the same.
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