Olivia Rodrigo, a multi-Grammy Award-winner at 19, is sweet, not sour, on stardom as her debut tour continues
The Temecula-raised Disney Channel star turned singer-songwriter has used teen angst as an impetus to create moving music
If someone tells me one more time: ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry — Olivia Rodrigo, “Brutal” (2021)
Teen angst has long been a catalyst for stirring music that captures the anxieties and self-doubts of a generation, as the lyrics to “Brutal” so readily attest.
For Olivia Rodrigo, who turned 19 on Feb. 20 and won three Grammy Awards on April 3, teen angst has also been a catalyst for stardom beyond her wildest dreams.
A Filipina American who was born in Murrieta and grew up in Temecula, Rodrigo’s swift rise to musical fame is a matter of record.
Her chart-topping debut album, “Sour,” was released last May. It came out just three months after her debut single, the all-lower-case “drivers license,” broke Spotify’s record for the most streams in one day for a non-holiday song. That’s a record Rodrigo broke the following day.
Ultimately, “driversdrivers license” also broke the global record as the most requested song in one day, ever, on Alexa. It became Spotify’s most streamed song of 2021, while “Sour” became Spotify’s most streamed album of last year. She has more than 20 million Instagram followers.
It’s not surprising, then, that Rodrigo’s recently launched debut concert tour — which includes a Wednesday concert here at The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park — sold out from coast to coast in an instant. Ditto in Europe, where she’ll perform in multiple countries in June and July.
But what’s most notable about this former Disney-Channel-star-turned-international-music-phenom isn’t her eye-popping sales figures. It’s her ability to vividly convey feelings of insecurity — about life and love, hopes and fears, the pressures of being a teenager grappling with everyday issues — at a time when much of the world seems on the brink of imploding.
Capturing the zeitgeist
Over the past 17 months, Rodrigo has captured the zeitgeist for her generation like no one since Billie Eilish, now 21, who was a five-time winner at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
Both are exemplars of “bedroom pop,” a tag that describes — literally — the exact location where they write and hone many of their respective songs.
But where Eilish favors a more layered musical mode that employs lots of digital technology, Rodrigo generally favors a piano and guitar-driven approach that is equal parts pop and emo, folk and rock, confessional ballads and in-your-face punk-pop.
Granted, Rodrigo is not a musical shapeshifter or a cutting-edge innovator. And her singing, while warm and affecting, is not technically astounding.
But those are pluses for Rodrigo. Her songs — nearly all of which are co-written with Daniel Nigro — are uniformly well-constructed and her lyrics are commendably candid. They resonate with Rodrigo’s largely young female audience precisely because her singing and her lyrics are, like her, so relatable.
On “Sour,” an 11-song album that clocks in at just 34 minutes, Rodrigo embodies the challenges and aspirations of a Gen Z teen in a time of personal and global tumult. That she favors song titles that are entirely lowercase is by design, as in: don’t underestimate me. So are the well-timed F-bombs that pepper the lyrics to some of her songs, including “drivers license” and “good 4 u.”
By all appearances, the world is at Rodrigo’s fingertips — or seems to be. But it is a world fraught with risk and uncertainty, two qualities that imbue her best songs.
The piano ballad “drivers license” ingeniously combines the liberation of achieving literal mobility — no more hitching a ride from mom, dad, a sibling or a friend — with the heartbreak of driving past the home of a former boyfriend who is out with his new love interest. The result is a music-driven emotional exorcism.
Rodrigo’s breakup anthem, “good 4 U,” combines the punch of pop-punk and emo with a song title whose spelling should make Taylor Swift and Prince fans alike smile and nod with knowing approval. If Swift, Carole King, Avril Lavigne and Paramore’s Hayley Williams joined forces to co-write a few songs, some of them might sound like Rodrigo, who has been influenced by all four.
But unlike Swift, who is in many ways her biggest artistic inspiration, Rodrigo hasn’t hesitated to state her views on controversial issues.
Where it took Swift more than a decade after becoming a superstar to speak out about any social and political matters — her management repeatedly warned Swift she would lose fans by doing so — Rodrigo hasn’t blinked.
Last year, she accepted an invitation from President Joe Biden to go to the White House. While there, she spoke to reporters and made a video encouraging COVID-19 vaccinations.
More recently, during her May 5 concert in Washington, D.C., Rodrigo reacted strongly to reports the U.S. Supreme Court appears to be on the verge of overturning Roe v. Wade.
“What a woman does with her body should never be in the hands of politicians,” she told her cheering audience. “I hope we can raise our voices to protect our right to have a safe abortion, which is a right that so many people before us have worked so hard to get.”
‘Obsessive little me’
On “Sour,” Rodrigo articulates the perspective of many young women with a winning combination of frankness, wit and snark. She pines for the boyfriend who left her in one breath, then extends both her middle fingers to him the next.
In “enough for you,” she refers to herself as “stupid, emotional, obsessive little me.” That’s a sentiment almost any teenage girl, or boy, can relate to as easily as their younger siblings.
In “happier,” a melancholic ballad, Rodrigo wrestles with her feelings of inadequacy after a boyfriend dumps her. She ultimately wishes him well, but with a major caveat, singing: So find someone great, but don’t find no one better / I hope you’re happy, but don’t be happier.
Failed romances and break-ups are an impetus for most of Rodrigo’s songs. Like many teens, she sets high expectations for herself, then laments her inability to live up to them.
But on one song on “Sour,” the album-closing “hope ur ok,” she looks outside of herself rather than in. Its lyrics first chronicle a boy who was a victim of child abuse, then a gay girl whose family rejected her, prompting Rodrigo to sing: Does she know how proud I am she was created / With the courage to unlearn all of their hatred.
It’s exactly the kind of heart-on-sleeve sentiment the 19-year-old Jewel might have written and sung when her musical career started to soar, back in the second half of the 1990s.
Whether or not Olivia Rodrigo’s career endures for another two decades, or peaks and ebbs in a few years, is unclear. It is also unclear if she has had time to develop much stagecraft on what is only the first tour concert tour of her young career. But in the here and now, her timing seems almost perfect for capturing the moment — and with it, similar moments for millions of her listeners.
Olivia Isabel Rodrigo
Born: Feb. 20, 2003, in Murrieta
Family: Her father, Ronald, is a therapist. Her mother, Sophia, is an elementary school teacher. Olivia has no siblings.
First musical instrument: Piano
First song she wrote: “Superman,” age 9
First concert: Weezer at the Del Mar Fairgrounds
Early musical inspirations: Tanya Tucker, Carrie Underwood
TV debut: At 13, she was cast in the Disney Channel series “Bizaardvark”
Biggest TV role to date: Nini on the Disney+ series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”
Honors: Three 2022 Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist
Olivia Rodrigo, with Holly Humberstone
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park, 222 Marina Park Way, downtown
Tickets: Sold out
COVID-19 protocols: All attendees must be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. In attending the event, you certify and attest that you and all individuals in your party attending the event will abide by the following regulations: All fans will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (at least two weeks after final dose) and provide proof of immunization. Unvaccinated fans under 12 years of age may be required to take a COVID-19 diagnostic test (generally within 48 to 72 hours before the event) and provide proof of negative result prior to entering the venue. Entry requirements and venue protocols are subject to change. Be sure to check the event venue website closer to your event date for the latest information.”
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