“I’ve always been a real goody two-shoes. My music can be my form of teenage rebellion.”
On the face of it, such a comment isn’t particularly unexpected from someone in the position of Olivia Rodrigo.
At just 17 years old, she’s already been subject to far more scrutiny than the majority of us will experience in a whole lifetime – scrutiny that, rightly or wrongly, appears to come with the territory once you sign on to be a teenage Disney star.
Given the way that young fans, parents and the media place these young performers under a microscope, it’s unsurprising that girls like Olivia are taught to err on the side of caution – to present themselves as the wholesome, uncomplicated girl-next-door. With that in mind, it’s equally unsurprising that what tends to follow is, as Olivia says, teenage rebellion.
It’s a formula that we’ve seen play out for years, with former Disney stars across the board leaping out of the contract and into controversy, declaring their adulthood to the world by seeking to push the boundaries wherever they can. From Lindsay, to Miley, to Demi, they’ve all done it – and who can blame them? Your teenage years are a nightmare to navigate at the best of times, let alone with eyes on you at every waking hour.
However, the teenage rebellion we’re seeing from the drivers license singer doesn’t appear to be the kind we’re used to seeing from her fellow alumni of the ‘house of mouse’.
Olivia doesn’t seem to be attempting to shake off her squeaky clean image. Far from looking to rile the Karens of the world (‘Think of the children!’) through adopting an edgier image and sound, her message is surprisingly simple – that teenage problems are real and valid, no matter how much the adult world seems to want to minimise them.
It’s an idea that has been at the core of Olivia’s music since she first began to develop her talents as a songwriter, inspired by Lorde’s debut album, Pure Heroine – released when Lorde herself was just 16.
“She talks about driving to the suburbs and going to school and all her friend-group drama,” she told The Guardian, “I remember feeling so seen: she’s taking this normal experience that we all go through and turning it into something really beautiful and artful.”
“I always wanted to write a record like that, but never felt like I had that normal life experience.”
For Olivia, Pure Heroine offered a look at the sort of teenage mundanity that she had scarcely experienced for herself. Having made her Disney debut as Bizaardvark’s Paige Olvera when she was just 13, she has been home-schooled for much of her life, mingling not with classmates but with co-stars. Having become a firm favourite amongst fans of the network, she has since moved on to play Nini Salazar-Roberts – a starring role in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
To young viewers, it probably looks a lot like a dream come true. Olivia doesn’t seem so sure – asked to speak on her experiences with Disney when interviewed recently, she was quite clearly reluctant to give anything away.
“Oh ho ho,” she laughed, “These are hot topics…”
Perhaps it’s because she’s contractually tied to her role in HSMTMTS for another two years.
It’s easy to see how this could be frustrating for Olivia, whose interests quite obviously lie with the development of her music career. She’s about to release her debut album, Sour, which she says she worked thirteen hours a day, seven days a week to create – exhausting hours for anyone, but almost impossible to comprehend as a 17-year-old with an acting career in full motion.
For Olivia, though, it isn’t the hours that present the biggest difficulty – rather it’s the contradictions in the ways that she has to present herself in her respective careers.
“I think it’s really hard to split time between the two and there are very few artists who do that efficiently,” she says, “Because acting is based on being a good liar and presenting a version of yourself that’s believable, and being a songwriter is the complete opposite.”
“It’s like, ‘Here are all of my deepest, darkest secrets and I want you to know me so personally’.”
Despite Olivia’s understandable desire to leave her Disney years behind, her work on HSMTMTS did ultimately provide her with two very important things – her first universally relatable teenage experience and, consequently, much of the inspiration behind Sour.
The former, of course, is the now highly-publicised heartbreak she experienced after splitting from Disney co-star Joshua Bassett. With so many fans invested in their relationship, speculation that the two had split had been inescapable for Olivia long before photographs surfaced that seemed to confirm Bassett had moved on with actress and singer Sabrina Carpenter.
Olivia, like anyone in such a situation, was hurt. Fortunately, she decided to invest her heartbreak wisely – into a collection of honest, reflective songs about the experience. She has described losing her first love as “sort of earth-shattering in a way that’s obviously heartbreaking but really beautiful, too.”
Explaining the process of writing Sour, Olivia recalls instances of being on-set at HSMTMTS and performing ‘poppy, happy’ dance numbers, before escaping during her breaks to work on her emotionally-charged solo material. The creation of the album seems to have provided Olivia with a creative outlet at a time when she truly needed it.
In the following months, however, the songs have brought Olivia so much more.
Few could have predicted the success of the album’s first supporting single, drivers license. Released at the very beginning of the year, the track was the first runaway chart success of 2021 – and still the biggest single of the year so far. Having shot to the top spot of charts around the world and amassing almost a billion streams on Spotify since its release, the track made Olivia an instant household name.
However, listeners were quick to link lyrics in the track to Olivia’s high-profile heartbreak, with TikTok users globally using the song as a soundtrack to videos discussing the now-infamous love triangle between Rodrigo, Bassett and Carpenter. Discussions only exploded further when Bassett and Carpenter both released their own tracks, both appearing to reference the situation directly.
It put something of a damper on the experience for Olivia, who has since weighed in on the widespread interest in the apparent fall-out, which she describes as being ‘very hard’.
“Sometimes it wasn’t always the kindest or the most respectful,” she recently told NME, “But I understand why people are curious and I’ve been curious about who my favorite songwriters wrote their songs about, so I completely understand.”
This recent standpoint echoes previous comments that she made regarding the drama back in January, explaining that whilst she understands the interest, she feels that the backstory is ‘really the least important part of the song’.
“It’s resonating with people because of how emotional it is,” she says, “And I think everything else is not important.”
Olivia seems to have a knack for taking situations that resonate with so many of us and turning them into powerful, infectious pop tracks. The album’s second supporting single, deja vu, is all about watching a former partner introduce his new girlfriend to songs, shows and places that the pair experienced together.
For those who have been in and out of love a few times, this will be a familiar experience – and one that we all inevitably have to get used to. A break-up doesn’t always prevent your ex enjoying things that you introduced them to while you were together – contesting this will almost always leave a person looking insecure.
However, insecurity isn’t something Olivia wishes to shy away from. If anything, she wants to embrace insecurity as just another ironically-beautiful part of life.
“I think there’s a lot of strength in saying ‘I don’t know anything and I feel so insecure and unwanted’,” she says.
“If I were a younger person looking up to my favourite songwriter, I’d be really moved by that, so I hope I can provide that.”
Given the talent for exploring both the beauty and heartbreak of the teenage experience that Olivia has showcased so far, it seems that she is well on track to do just that.
Sour is released on May 21st 2021.
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