Olivia Rodrigo: Merging the Raw Spirit of Pop Stardom with Rock’s Audacious Soul

by Barbara

In the sun-soaked streets of Los Angeles, Olivia Rodrigo, renowned for possessing one of the city’s most celebrated driver’s licenses, gracefully maneuvers her black Range Rover. A sweltering late summer afternoon sets the scene as she navigates her way to Westwood. Amidst the anticipation building up to the release of her sophomore album, “Guts,” Rodrigo’s mind races – not about the album, but rather about securing a parking spot in LA’s notorious chaos. Her black Range Rover, her dream vehicle and music haven, is emblematic of her journey. As she circles the area, the world remains unaware that the 20-year-old behind the wheel is the youngest artist to ever debut atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.

The trajectory of Olivia Rodrigo’s career changed forever when she awoke one January morning in 2021 to the news that her first single, the emotive ballad “Drivers License,” had catapulted to number one. In an instant, she transformed from a Disney actor with a powerful voice to a generational voice, all while navigating her final year of high school during a global pandemic.

Her debut album, “Sour,” released in May of the same year, reached quadruple platinum status. Two of its tracks, “Drivers License” and the sardonic “Good 4 U,” achieved six times platinum status. She became the recipient of praise from music icons such as Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani, as well as shared the stage with Billy Joel and Avril Lavigne. Cardi B openly lauded her on Twitter, and Halsey sent her a cake. At the 2022 Grammy Awards, Rodrigo’s seven nominations materialized into three wins, including the coveted Best New Artist award.

In the realm of music, following up a smash debut with a successful sophomore album is one of the most daunting challenges. For Rodrigo, the pressure was intense, yet she embraced the guidance she received from one of her idols, Jack White. His advice to her, “Your only job is to write music that you would want to hear on the radio,” guided her through the creative process. Crafting songs that she herself desired to hear on the radio turned out to be a formidable task.

But Rodrigo’s journey is not solely defined by her music. The landscape for young women in the pop industry is multifaceted, rife with pressures related to appearance, competition, role modeling, and emotional authenticity. Remarkably, Rodrigo seems to have sidestepped many of these expectations. In her upcoming album, “Guts,” set to release on September 8th, she seamlessly embodies the spirit of a rock star.

The album’s opening track, “All-American Bitch,” commences with Rodrigo’s ethereal soprano voice accompanied by fingerpicked acoustic guitar, before transitioning into a cacophony of fuzzy power chords, punctuated by well-placed expletives. Rodrigo’s knack for delivering impactful profanities is evident. On “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl,” she croons about a string of party faux pas over a buoyant bassline, culminating in cathartic screams.

While the album still features poignant piano ballads that explore various themes, the overall energy of “Guts” mirrors Rodrigo’s eclectic musical taste. She draws inspiration from unapologetically fierce women and the raw honesty of artists who lay bare their innermost fears and political convictions.

Rodrigo’s inclination towards a more grunge-infused direction began to solidify as “Sour” reached its conclusion. “Brutal,” the last song penned for the album, is a punk-inspired anthem that playfully laments about not being “cool” or “smart,” with a humorous undertone. This song was chosen as the opening number for her Sour Tour, a choice that she describes as “powerful” and representative of what she wished to see on YouTube during her teenage years.

Her teenage years, however, were far from ordinary. Rodrigo was already an accomplished actor, starring in Disney TV shows that brought her nationwide recognition. Her love for music existed alongside her acting pursuits, but she found herself diverging from the conventional path that other Disney phenoms took, such as Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.

In a world where pop music is often a collaborative effort, Rodrigo’s creative partnership with producer Daniel Nigro, who was once the frontman of the emo band As Tall as Lions, stands out. Their collaboration resulted in a multitude of tracks on the album that were recorded live, breathing life into Rodrigo’s vision.

Rodrigo’s fascination with rock music dates back to her upbringing, where her parents’ affinity for 90s bands heavily influenced her musical taste. Unlike the manufactured approach prevalent in pop music today, she maintains a genuine connection to her craft. This authenticity is visible in her songwriting process, where she distills complex emotions into their purest form.

As Rodrigo navigates her burgeoning music career, she remains steadfastly connected to her influences, which span generations and genres. Her admiration ranges from Snail Mail and Joni Mitchell to Kathleen Hanna and Depeche Mode. With a diverse array of influences, Rodrigo bridges the gap between generations, captivating listeners of all ages.

“Guts,” Rodrigo’s sophomore album, boldly embraces rock – a genre that has somewhat receded from the mainstream spotlight over the past decade. In an era where hip-hop, pop, and global sounds have dominated the charts, innovative rock has quietly evolved beneath the surface. Young women have been at the forefront of this rock renaissance, shaping its emotional depth and audacious spirit.

Stepping onto the stage during her tour, Rodrigo embodies a lineage that traces from the riot grrrl movement to early 2000s pop-punk, and from Soccer Mommy to the collaborative rock project boygenius. These contemporaries have been expanding rock’s emotional palette and nurturing cult followings through indie success. However, Rodrigo’s journey carries more weight – she’s stealthily ushering rock’s fiery energy and emotional intensity into the realm of pop stardom.

For Rodrigo, her musical influences are an open book, a remarkable trait given the risks associated with such openness. After all, her inspirations, such as Taylor Swift and Paramore, earned writing credits on two of her songs after the runaway success of “Sour.” Yet, Rodrigo remains candid about her musical preferences. She showers praise on artists like Tori Amos and St Vincent, both of whom embody creative authenticity and unapologetic self-expression. Their mentorship and camaraderie provide Rodrigo with a safe space to explore her artistic identity.

Within “Guts,” Rodrigo’s introspective journey navigates the intricacies of her sudden fame, grappling with the price of early success. A prime example of this is evident in the song “Vampire,” a powerful suite that builds from ballad to crescendo, directed at an individual who exploited her fame and trust. Throughout the album, Rodrigo also explores the challenges of navigating relationships and the burden of expectations. It’s a record brimming with emotional depth, a sonic journey through the tapestry of her experiences.

Rodrigo’s life is anything but ordinary, marked by a balance between her public persona and personal growth. The unique experiences that come with her level of fame led her to craft poignant songs about internal battles caused by early acclaim. Her track “Vampire,” for instance, speaks to the uneasy relationship between fame and exploitation, a topic she initially hesitated to address due to concerns of appearing self-indulgent. However, through songwriting, she distilled her emotions into their purest form, capturing her personal narrative without compromise.

In a world where pop culture often demands conformity and perfection from young women, Olivia Rodrigo stands as an exception. Her music captures authenticity in its rawest form, echoing her personal journey and defying societal expectations. While her influence continues to spread, she remains humble and grounded, unafraid to chart her own path and share her vulnerabilities through her art.

As she propels herself into the world with “Guts,” Rodrigo not only establishes herself as a pop sensation but also as a torchbearer for rock’s spirit. Her music resonates across generations, proving that the power of vulnerability and honesty knows no bounds. Rodrigo’s journey from Disney star to a rock-infused pop icon reflects the ever-evolving landscape of music, and with “Guts,” she takes her place as a bold and unapologetic force in the industry.

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