Pop

The Meteoric Rise Of Olivia Rodrigo

2021 belonged to Olivia Rodrigo and her debut album, Sour. After “Driver’s License” dominated the first few months of the year, pushing us all to remember the formative heartbreak that snapped us in two, Rodrigo landed seven Grammy nominations, including all of the big four categories, in 2022. And remarkably, she was the second-youngest artist to accomplish that feat. 

If you think Olivia Rodrigo was an overnight sensation, that’s probably only the case because you don’t consume Disney Channel content. She entered the sphere of influence for six to 14-year-olds back in 2016 on Bizzaardvark, a show that co-starred Jake Paul. Ironically, the premise was that Rodrigo was the star and content creator on a YouTube-like platform. And in the videos, she played guitar. It probably wasn’t too tricky; Rodrigo took voice and piano lessons for a few years, starting when she was nine. She wasn’t faking it: Rodrigo learned to play for the show when she was only 12. 

She’d also been lowkey becoming a music nerd. In an Apple Music interview with Zane Lowe, Rodrigo went over some of her favorite artists and shared that her grandmother bought her one of those Urban Outfitters Crosley record players when she was a tween. She and her mother would go to thrift stores and pick out vinyl to listen to that they thought was cool, which led to her discovering Tanya Tucker and Carole King. Both of them would influence her songwriting — as a storyteller and how she treated heartache and vulnerability. 

Her songwriting started long before she found those records or got her hands on the keyboard and guitar. She told MTV Push that Rodrigo’s family had been videoing her making up songs since she was a little kid. She remembered writing her first song at around nine — a little ditty she called “Superman,” an empowering jam about how she didn’t need anyone to save her. She shared the footage with the New York Times of herself at age seven singing her heart out onstage to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” and some footage she shot herself as a young teen playing guitar and singing Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” Both are classics and indicative of some tiny part of her sphere of musical influences.

Rodrigo moved on to a Disney+ series in 2019, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Yes, that hilariously long and unwieldy title is a joke. The series itself is a mockumentary-style reboot of the HSM franchise, set in a universe where a new set of students at East High put on their version of the musical set in their high school. There’s a lot of Glee-esque humor, teen drama, and, of course, musical numbers. Rodrigo plays Nini Salazar-Roberts, who lands a starring role. The series would also give Rodrigo her first chance to have a single released.

“All I Want” was written by Rodrigo and inspired, at least in part, by her character’s story arc, she told Genius. “I always try to insert pieces of my real life and my real emotions…into the songs I write for High School Musical because I feel like songs are better that way. People can tell when something is honest and coming from a real place versus when it’s not. It is really interesting to write for a character. I think that’s fun, and I think restrictions like that make you more creative,” she said on the Zach Sang Show. 

The Disney label released the song, and it bopped into the lower part of the Hot 100 but wasn’t worked as a single at radio. So, it didn’t hang around for more than a few weeks. However, it was a streaming phenomenon — enough to get the attention of Interscope Records and land her a deal.

Despite “All I Want” making a small splash, she calls “Driver’s License” her first single — but it wasn’t exactly devoid of HSM ties. Some of the initial interest in the song came from the real-life love triangle of Disney stars involved in it, which Vulture recounts more thoroughly than this piece needs to. Suffice it to say, Rodrigo and her co-star, and purported love interest, released their singles within days of each other, followed by a possible reaction track from the third corner in the triangle. What’s stunning is how quickly none of this drama mattered anymore because Rodrigo’s song eclipsed it and every other song on the planet in January of 2021.

The song went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in one week after doing blockbuster streaming numbers on Spotify and Amazon. It bested Spotify’s record for the most streams in a week worldwide, taking executives at the streamer by surprise. “It did align perfectly and quicker than anything we’ve ever seen,” Spotify co-head of music Jeremy Erlich told the New York Times. “We’ve seen alignment like that, but typically it’s spread over three to six months — this happened in a day and a half.”

The stars kept aligning. The song was featured in a Saturday Night Live sketch on February 20, Rodrigo’s birthday. She became the youngest artist in history to debut at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for eight consecutive weeks. With over one billion streams, it’s among Spotify’s 100 most streamed songs ever. Rodrigo tapped into something emotionally that everyone could identify with: heartbreak.

The release of a debut EP was supposed to follow. But, Rodrigo called up Geffen Records and told them she wanted to record an entire album instead. She holed up with the producer she’d created “Driver’s License” with, Dan Nigro, and they started reworking her songs and writing new ones. Nigro spotted Rodrigo some years before, reaching out about one of her songs on Instagram and suggesting they work together.

Rodrigo’s second single, “Deja Vu,” came in April and was followed by “Good 4 U” the next month. And on May 21, 2021, Sour dropped. Rodrigo was the first artist in history to debut three pre-release singles in the Billboard Hot 100, and upon the release of her album, all of the songs on it hit the top 30 in the Hot 100. Variety called her the voice of her generation.  Rolling Stone called it revelatory. Teen Vogue promised it would “give you the toolkit to cope with what you’re going through right now.”

Many agreed, and it became one of 2021’s best-selling albums. But, lest you forget, we were all firmly in the middle of a pandemic. So in July, Olivia Rodrigo went where only select pop stars have gone before: the White House. President Biden enlisted her to help get out the word about COVID vaccinations to young people, whose vaccination rate lagged behind other groups. Rodrigo, who suggested the partnership, saw her profile get even more prominent from behind the White House briefing room podium. “We need to reach people, meet people where they are and speaking to young people… who are under the age of 18… hearing from her that… getting vaccinated is a way to keep yourself safe, a way to ensure you can see your friends, a way you can ensure you can go to concerts, a way you can ensure that you can live a healthy life is an important part of what we’re trying to do here,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

Because of the pandemic, concerts — and a tour — were something that Rodrigo didn’t pack in as part of her experience as a newly minted pop star. In September, she’d make her first appearance playing for the public at the iHeartRadio Music Festival while hundreds sang along to her songs. But she still hadn’t played a “proper show” ans she won’t until the spring of 2022 when she kicks off a sold-out world tour.

With two concert films, Sour Prom from July 2021 and Driving Home 2 U (A Sour Film) now on Disney+, under her belt, Rodrigo has one last hurdle to pass: collecting some Grammy gold.

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