By Ally A-L. ’23
Only last year, Olivia Rodrigo was a name known mainly only to fans of the Disney shows Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a mockumentary-style show which revived the concept of one of Disney’s most successful film series into a modern streaming success. But following the release of her debut single, drivers license, in the first few days of 2021, the now 18-year old’s name and hit songs have soared to the tops of both hearts and charts and have established her as one of the most popular rising artists in the music industry. Now having released her first album last May, a heartbreak-filled assortment of songs that broke global streaming records, blew up social media, and is, incredibly, still trending over five months later, Rodrigo’s enduring success demonstrates a unique presence in the music industry. Although her music has touched those of all ages, Generation Z, the group of young adults born from 1997-2012, makes up the backbone of her fanbase. So what is it about Rodrigo that appeals so greatly to teenagers? A unique combination of identity, personality, and powerful music has led to Rodrigo becoming the voice of the generation.
Born February 20, 2003, Rodrigo said throughout childhood she always identified more as a singer and songwriter than as an actress. However, her first professional breakthrough was in the film business, when she debuted as the lead in the American Girl movie Grace Stirs Up Success in 2015. The next year, Rodrigo began playing Paige Olivera on the Disney comedy Bizaardvark, a role she retained for the next three years. In February of 2019, Rodrigo signed onto Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series as the lead female role alongside Joshua Bassett, a relationship which would go on to attract much scrutiny particularly following Rodrigo’s debut single. During the first season of the show, Rodrigo wrote and sang what would become the series’ hit song, All I Want, a longing yet upbeat melody about an unsuccessful search for love and self-acceptance. Despite not being her individual single debut, fans of the show were impressed by the mature depth of Rodrigo’s lyrics and her raw, natural voice. These factors, prominent even in her earliest songs, aid in the explanation of why Rodrigo’s music has become the sensation it has.
Rodrigo’s first individual single, drivers license, was released on January 9, 2021. The first few lines open with describing Rodrigo getting her driver’s license, which she says she got just last year. Her voice is emotional, her lyrics poignant, and the background melody dynamic and engaging. Teens, heartbroken or not, latched onto the song. It flew to Number 1 on Spotify, Apple Music, and Youtube, set the record for most streams in a week worldwide on Spotify, and blew up on the music platform TikTok. Just four months later, Rodrigo released her debut album, Sour, which generated even more success and cemented her newly forged pop star status.
The appeal of Sour comes in both what it represents and the manner in which it’s delivered. The album mixes and matches melodies and feelings – punk rock anger combined with sweet, heartbroken pop – to encapsulate the ups and downs of the teenage experience. One of Rodrigo’s main strengths is her lyrics. Her opening track, brutal, is a fiery expression of the struggles of growing up. “If someone tells me one more time/ ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry/And I don’t stick up for myself/I’m anxious and nothing can help/” Rodrigo proclaims. In jealousy, jealousy, one of the album’s rawest songs, Rodrigo puts into words the feelings of social media-based pressure that many youth today share. “I know their beauty is not my lack/But it feels like that weight is on my back … /Co-comparison is killin’ me slowly/ I think, I think too much.” Her lyrics deliver to teenagers a refreshing dose of relatability, empathy, and understanding from an industry that often feels out of touch with the common youth circumstance.
Combined with her lyrics are powerful melodies. According to a 2018 Statista survey of music preferences of 16-19-year-olds across the United States, 52% of teenagers declared pop music to be their favorite genre, with indie rock, classic rock, and rock ‘n’ roll all also generating high levels of interest. Sour is a medley of all of the above– dulcet pop meets indie, hippie punk rock. Rodrigo’s music appeals directly to her age group’s preferences, providing another reason for why it has enjoyed the success it has.
Another contributing factor may be Rodrigo’s identity. For Asian Pacific Heritage Month in 2017, the teenager opened up about her own ethnic background. “My heritage is a part of who I am,” she told Disney. “I’m part Filipina on my dad’s side of the family. My Filipino heritage comes from my great-grandfather. He came on a boat from the Philippines when he was just a teenager.” Rodrigo is part of Generation Z, the most ethnically and racially diverse yet. In the United States, 49.1% of teenagers are people of color, and 4% identify as mixed-race. Having a young, biracial female at the forefront of pop culture serves as another point of connection between the entertainment industry and its audience by allowing many to see their own identities reflected in the media.
Additionally, Rodrigo is very interactive with her audience. In May, the singer hosted a “Sour prom,” where she went door to door to her fans’ houses and “asked them to prom.” She is active on her social media platforms, and has posted endearing content such as her own surprised reaction to hearing her music on the radio for the first time. One of Rodrigo’s strengths is her ability to come across as sweet and mature, yet refreshingly real and unpolished. “[M]y song is number one, and I’m staying up till two in the morning to do my statistics homework—that’s how it’s been,” Rodrigo disclosed in an interview with W Magazine. This attitude resonates with teenagers, who appreciate her pleasant demeanor and relate to her authentic depiction of the struggles of adolescence.
What’s next for the newly molded star? The singer has kept things under the wraps about future albums, but she has continued to release music videos, vinyls, and other merchandise related to Sour in recent months. She gains at least 50,000 followers a day across social media platforms, met with President Biden over the summer to encourage getting vaccinated, attended the prestigious Met Gala in September, and has continued to interview with esteemed magazines throughout the fall. Whatever the future holds for Rodrigo, it’s likely she’ll be able to keep utilizing her distinct melodic abilities and unique knowledge of the teenage experience to connect with her audience and ensure her long-lasting success in the music industry.
Categories: Arts & Culture