Songwriting

How Olivia Rodrigo Became Pop’s Brightest New Star


“Nini and I are very similar,” said Olivia Rodrigo. “She writes songs about the boys and puts them on social media, and it’s totally something I do in my real life.” Rodrigo sat in front of a mixer, talking about the character she plays on TV and the complicated ways her life and art tend to be similar. It was in 2019, and she was interviewed on a Disney Channel show with a suitably recursive name: “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: The Special”, a promotional vehicle (“The Special”) for her show. television (“The Series”), which involved a group of students putting on a theatrical production (“The Musical”) of a popular Disney Channel film of the Two Thousand (“High School Musical”). Later in the special, the cameras caught the show’s producer telling Rodrigo and his co-star, Joshua Bassett, that a duet they wrote was going to be included in a future episode. “You picked your song, and it s titled “Just for a while.” It’s gonna be a huge hit, ”he told them, and they shouted in gratitude.

The producer was right, or almost. “Just for a Moment” was a hit, but the real flagship song of the series was “All I Want,” a solo written and sung by Rodrigo, who delivered the lyrics with a hint of vibrato and temporary affect – like if at any time she could take it all back. In Nini’s character, or maybe not, she sang, quavering, “All I want is love that lasts / Is all I want to ask too much?” And then, in January, even that song was overshadowed by Rodrigo’s debut single “Drivers License,” a perfectly crafted romantic howl of resentment that became an immediate blockbuster – one of the most contagious pop songs, surely, that anyone will come out all decade. He set streaming records on Spotify, and by the time he appeared atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart, a week and a half after its release, fans had already decided they knew what it was. Using clues gleaned from social media, they concluded that Rodrigo and Bassett were dating and that the “driver’s license” was about how he left her. “You’re probably with that blonde girl,” Rodrigo sings bitterly, and listeners imagined she was referring to actress and singer Sabrina Carpenter, who is blonde, and who appeared to be friendly with Bassett. Like many breakup songs, this one is both a complaint and an indictment. A piano chime evokes the insistent sound of a car asking its operator to close the door. Singing for the prosecution, Rodrigo delivers his final argument: “You said forever, now I’m driving alone down your street.” She invites fans to share her fury at the cosmic injustice of it all, and obviously millions of them are.

The success of “Drivers License” spawned a small music industry: the following week, Bassett released his own malicious song (“Lie Lie Lie”) and, the following week, Carpenter released one as well (“Skin”); Even as “Drivers License” conquered the world, Rodrigo and Bassett were together in Utah, filming the second season of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”, which debuted a few weeks ago. Perhaps more importantly, “Drivers License” marked the launch of an impressive musical career: Rodrigo has just turned eighteen, and she is already emerging as the first big new pop star of this young decade. Her debut album, “Sour”, is surprisingly determined, and indeed: eleven half-sweet songs, almost all about love gone bad. (Last week this spawned another # 1 hit, “Good 4 U.”) In interviews, Rodrigo is strategically shy about the meaning of her lyrics, but when she sings she uses all the tricks – high and short of breath; half-shouted choirs; a micro-rash of mirthless laughter – to make sure we know exactly what she’s talking about.

The original “High School Musical” was tall and broad, built around loud ensemble dance numbers; the most memorable character was Sharpay, a bold and imperious rich girl, played by Ashley Tisdale, who was essentially a walking punchline. “HSM: TM: TS. As some call it, is kinder and more intimate, driven by close-up love songs and affectionate humor. The cast is diverse (Rodrigo’s legacy is partly Filipino), and just about all of the characters are caring and kind, at least most of the time. At one point, during a rehearsal, Nini and a friend stop to pass judgment on Troy, the male protagonist of the original film; the way he treated her love, they agree, was “a little unforgivable”. There is no doubt that this renewed sensitivity reflects the evolution of cultural expectations. ‘Gossip Girl,’ another two-thousand television hit, is currently being rebooted for HBO Max, and in a recent Twitter exchange Joshua Safran, executive producer of the old and new series, explained that the 2021 version have strict rules: “No shame bitch. No cat fights. “When some people wondered what exactly was left, Safran suggested that the characters would continue to do ’roundabout things’ – nothing unforgivable.

In an age of increasingly sensitive teen drama, what is a breakup song supposed to sound like? Boys who sing songs about treacherous ex-girlfriends might sound like morons, or worse. Juice WRLD, the chart-topping singer and rapper who died of a drug overdose in 2019 at the age of twenty-one was known for his heart-wrenching songs that sometimes swapped out old clichés of female cheating: / Who Knew That the evil girls had the most beautiful face? In the case of Rodrigo, who was seventeen when “Drivers License” exploded, the words of a cruel ex might suggest another possibility: that the girl in the song requires not only commiseration, but also protection. There are worse things, after all, than grief, although a singer like Rodrigo can make you forget about it temporarily. “Sour” is fun in part because Rodrigo’s complaints are so specific and don’t lead to action:

And maybe I’m not as interesting as the girls you had before
But god you couldn’t care less for someone who loved you more
I would say you broke my heart, but you broke a lot more than that
Now I don’t want your sympathy, I just want to find myself.

The joy of a great breaking song is the joy of being enlarged, of hearing a familiar romantic tragedy explode to global historic proportions. The girl in the songs can’t believe that her ex-boyfriend is playing Billy Joel for someone new. “I bet you even tell her how much you love her, between the chorus and the verse,” she sings, and you can understand her dismay: imagine realizing that you submitted to such a maneuver in vain. .

As she mentioned in this special, Rodrigo used to post song clips on Instagram. One of its greatest strengths is its ability to create the illusion of intimacy: a cloud of multitrack voices will disperse, or a buzzing riff will fall silent, so we can hear the sound of fingers moving across the fret, or the sound of Rodrigo. breathe, prepare for the next indictment. Rodrigo worked with songwriter and producer Dan Nigro, who previously helped a beginning singer named Conan Gray create one of the best debut albums of last year. (His name was “Kid Krow,” and it was filled with swooning wails and neat dance floors.) Together, Rodrigo and Nigro wreck recent emotional pop history: one song deftly evokes the sparkling, provocative spirit of Paramore, and many point to Taylor Swift in her accusatory heyday. Rodrigo’s album, like his TV show, cleverly undermines nostalgia for the short cycle; both seem designed to make relatively young listeners feel absolutely old. She said she wrote “Drivers License” after a drive, during which she cried and listened to one of her favorite songwriters. This songwriter turned out to be not an ancient hero but Gracie Abrams, a rising star who is only twenty-one years old and has yet to release her debut album.

Rodrigo has been famous since the age of thirteen, when she started playing a character named Paige on a Disney Channel show called “Bizaardvark”, which was almost as meta-meta as “HSM: TM: TS”. (These were two girls who are gaining increasing fame by making viral videos; in the third episode, Paige and her friend learn to fight “enemies” online). she’s also, quite literally, a Disney character, which means Rodrigo is already looking for ways to de-Disneyfy himself, at least slightly. At the climax of “Drivers License,” she declares, “I still fucking love you, baby,” a slightly awkward line that works because it doesn’t sound written – in fact, it sounds almost improvised. Shortly after the song’s release, Rodrigo told an interviewer at W that her use of profanity was not a ploy, but she admitted that it could be of use to her nonetheless. “What if that naturally separated me from the Disney archetype?” ” she said. “That’s great.”

There was a general perception that teenage pop music was destined to explode and then fade away, as its fans grew and came out. But a song as big and as solid as “Drivers License” tends to last for years, if not decades, no matter what happens to its creator. It’s pretty easy to see how Rodrigo benefited from the popularity of his show and the overwhelming drama of three teenage idols who seem to be singing songs to each other, and even the midlife environment, in which people spent a lot of time watching TV and making things go viral But with “Sour” it’s also easy to see that Rodrigo has a knack for transforming into a memorable protagonist and creating pop songs as memorable as the ones they borrow. She probably won’t spend the rest of her life making breakup albums, although some of us would prefer her to. And before long, Rodrigo may well inspire his own nostalgia for the short cycle. Many high school listeners, by no means just teenagers, will likely always think of “Sour” as the sound of this moment – 2021: The Year: The Album. ♦



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