“I know my place, and this is it”, sings Olivia Rodrigo on the opening track of her new album GUTS. The line’s sarcasm sounds straight out of her aptly titled debut SOUR, though now its flavour is more sharp than it is bitter. The song ‘all-american bitch’ appears to list a series of qualities she possesses, but we soon sense they are in fact expectations she faces, demanding an impeccable femininity that is at once pert and pious: “I’m sexy, and I’m kind / I’m pretty when I cry”. Starting out as a teen actor for Disney, Rodrigo is familiar with feeling stuck in an assigned role, echoed in the video for lead single ‘vampire’ where she is seen escaping a ruinous stage play. That old-timey compound ‘all-american’ also flags the history of this pernicious ideal, not least when applied to young pop stars. So despite her affected conviction, her listeners are warranted in wondering what exactly Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘place’ is in contemporary pop culture, how she got there, and where it might lead.
Inevitably, Rodrigo’s Disney past looms large over how we read her career. She got her first break at fifteen after landing a main role in their show Bizaardvark, a kind of iCarly for the Musical.ly generation. From there, she starred in Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series for around two seasons along with fellow child-actor Joshua Bassett. She and Bassett are thought to have dated, before he dropped her for another Disney star Sabrina Carpenter, and this, Tiktok fan theorists insist, was the pretext for her debut single ‘drivers license’. Like with Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and the Jonas Brothers, Disney stars typically rise in sets, and try as they might, remain associatively bound to that set.
Unlike those names however, Rodrigo’s record deal was with Interscope instead of Disney. Whilst the drama helped her music’s sudden shoot to fame, much of her first album SOUR pushes back against her twee clubhouse beginnings. Songs such as ‘brutal’ and ‘good 4 u;, with their undressed interpolations of pop rock greats Elvis Costello and Paramore, evince her earnest desire for a harder, if well-worn, aesthetic. Where Rodrigo really stands out from her predecessors is in her lyrics. On one hand, she stays in the domain of female American teenagehood, with love and cars recurring across the album. On the other, Rodrigo constantly plays with register, that is, her mode of address. Switching between silly and serious self-consciousness, comic and tragic irony, she takes on heartbreak through a series of parries and feints, always shifting her footing to keep her listeners guessing. More than anything, these vacillations mark her effort to keep control of her image.
Olivia Rodrigo knows that, in one respect, this is a losing battle. The story of fellow Disney alumna Britney Spears represents, depending on your view, either the unlikely extreme or the mythic archetype of this struggle. Spears also started as a child actor, and recorded her first album …Baby One More Time not with Disney but Jive Records. Nevertheless, for years her youth and her supposed sex appeal were presented in her music, images, and videos as synonymous. Her series of breakdowns in the mid 2000s, and the consequent conservatorship placed on her, denying her autonomy over her personal and financial matters for over 13 years, were not purposely induced by Disney. The insurmountable pressure, however, for Spears to play the role of the ‘all-american bitch’, to use Rodrigo’s phrase, was purposeful throughout. Disney’s complicity is structural, facilitating this ‘place’ in contemporary celebrity culture where young women are singled out and placed on a perilously tall pedestal.
Since Spears, some female pop stars have been more vocal about their concerns.The lead single from GUTS, ‘vampire’, while plainly a heartbreak ballad, addresses a so-called “fame fucker” who made her “look so naive”, suggesting a simultaneous critique of corporate patriarchy. This self-awareness alone cannot save her from imposition. However, it does evince the evolving complexity of Olivia Rodrigo’s songwriting on GUTS. On the album’s closer, she sings of how she “couldn’t always be your teenage dream”, and it is this refusal of stasis and embrace of impermanence that will allow Rodrigo to retain her autonomy and edge.
Illustration by Clodagh Earl