Olivia Rodrigo at the crossroads | Sunday Observer

Olivia Rodrigo at the crossroads

24 October, 2021

Olivia Rodrigo broke a rule when she was around seven years old.

Her mom, a third-grade teacher, told her she wasn’t allowed to buy lunch in the cafeteria, out of concern for her health. But Olivia caved — and got busted immediately. You can’t get away with anything when your mom teaches at your school. “I just, like, broke down,” Olivia says now, laughing. “It felt like I had just murdered someone.”

Olivia isn’t sure how to trace the root of that need to be good, or the crushing emotion she felt when she couldn’t pull it off. Her parents weren’t super strict, and they didn’t need to be. She got straight A’s and was a self-described teacher’s pet. Straight-laced, she says. She took singing, acting, and piano lessons starting at age six. She threw herself into gymnastics even though she was terrible, thinking that pure determination would lead her to the Olympics.

Song writing

And then, it was song writing. Finally, there was a place for all those messy emotions to live under her goody-two-shoes exterior. Pettiness and jealousy and anger and betrayal. Desire, for control over her choices, for permission to make mistakes. “I’m a human being,” she wrote in her first-ever song, at age eight. “I can clean up my own messes.”

It is a part of Olivia’s duality: All the angst and emotion comes out in her music, not her public persona. On her ’Teen Vogue’ cover shoot set, she is poised and professional, taking notes and feedback and working them into her poses and facial expressions in a way that seems effortless. She stands amid statues and chaotic shapes in a hot room, surrounded by adults who watch her every move, wearing a tiny, purple Louise Lyngh Bjerregaard knitted top that warrants constant adjusting so as not to reveal too much. You never see signs of fatigue or stress cross her face. Here, she’s working, trying her best. On her bedroom floor, where she pens many of her songs, she’s creating, searching for the next right version of herself.

When we meet for breakfast at the Cara Hotel in the Los Feliz neighbourhood of Los Angeles, she’s wearing what could be considered Olivia Rodrigo cosplay.

It’s a week and a half after her one-two punch at the MTV Video Music Awards and the Met Gala, and Olivia admits she’s still in a daze. At her apartment nearby, a suitcase lays open on the floor, clothes everywhere. She realised yesterday that she didn’t know how to wash her own sheets, so she phoned a friend to assist. It is one more thing to learn about being an adult.

Olivia turned 18 in February, just over a month after she released ‘drivers license’ and her whole world tilted. Because she dropped a hit song in the middle of a pandemic, she had a month-long grace period filled with near-flawless interviews and hit singles stacked neatly on top of one another. As winter turned to spring, the biggest debate fans had over her music was whether to hit play on ‘drivers license’ or ‘deja vu’.

But after you have three-straight No. 1 singles and a record-breaking debut album, Sour, the adulation, well, can sour. Fun TikTok mash-ups become retroactive songwriting credits; criticism about originality boils. “I want it to be, like, messy” — Olivia’s opening line on ’Sour’ — seems prescient. But a mess doesn’t reveal as much about a person as how they deal with it.

Lesson

“I just feel like sometimes there’s so much noise and criticism and weird things going on in the world,” she says, generally referring to times she’s felt misunderstood over the past year. “I hope people know that deep down, all that I do is write songs and talk about how I feel, and that’s the most important thing to me. Everything else, I think, is not so important.”

“A hard thing for me to grapple with when this whole thing started happening is just, anyone can say anything. You just can’t control…” she trails off, before broadening the picture. “That goes for anyone, like girls going to high school.”

The world is indeed noisier now for Olivia than it was when she was growing up in Temecula, California, with her mom and dad, a family therapist.

Olivia’s parents moved with her to Los Angeles when she was in seventh grade, as she began to pursue acting. She filmed her first project, ’An American Girl: Grace Stirs Up Success’, in 2014 when she was 11, and then joined the Disney Channel series Bizaardvark, where she met one of her best friends, costar Madison Hu. That show ran for three years, and then she was cast in ’High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ as Nini, a shy high schooler coming into her own as a performer.

All the while, Olivia was writing. In 2020, she ramped up her efforts, writing a song every day for the first four months of quarantine, sharing snippets of almost two dozen on Instagram. It was deliberate practice. “I’m a big believer in creativity as a discipline,” she says. Among songs like ‘Apocalyptic Crush’ and ’Twilight Song’ are early versions of Sour tracks happier and drivers license. It’s hard to believe ‘drivers license’ could get any more devastating until you hear the first attempt.

Constructive criticism

“My favourite people in the world are people I feel like will be totally honest with me and care about me enough to be like, ‘Oh, you can do better,’ she says, referring specifically to ’Sour’ producer Dan Nigro.

Being a young star has reinforced the idea for Olivia that there is no room for error. “That’s something I’ve always felt confused over [while] growing up,” she says. “When you’re in the industry, you’re sort of treated like a child but expected to act like an adult. That’s a really terrifying thought, to think that I’m not allowed to make any mistakes, because I think that’s how you grow as a person. I’m no different from any other 18-year-old out there. I’m definitely going to make a lot of mistakes in my life and in my career probably too. That’s just life.”

Perhaps she said it a bit more clearly in an interview with ’The Guardian’ in May: “It’s hard for anyone to grow up in this media where it feels like if you don’t have European features and blonde hair and blue eyes, you’re not traditionally pretty,” she said then. She’s still figuring out how to talk about race, ethnicity, and having a platform beyond, a statement she repeats twice: “I think representation is all about adding. I don’t think it’s about taking anything away from anyone.”

Avatar

What that means for Olivia the human is that she’s reached a level of fame where she has become an avatar for larger conversations. She’s the photo at the top of the article. But what good does defensiveness serve? “It’s tricky,” Olivia says, careful with her wording. “Writing songs about how I feel has always been easy and fun for me, and I think the business side of music has been something I’ve had a harder time learning.” She continues, treading delicately around the contentious topic, “I’ve been sort of growing through that this year, but I’ve just been trying to remember that I write songs because I love them. I feel lucky I get to do that and be a songwriter and a performer for a living. …. At the end of the day, I feel it doesn’t have too much to do with me.”

The discourse is on her mind in the days after our interview, when we talk again on the phone so she can explain more about her feelings on how people talk about her music. “I was thinking a lot about some of the interpolation questions you asked, and I feel like I didn’t answer them as truthfully as I could have,” she says. Interpolation — when you record part of a song created by someone else and use it in a new way — is different from sampling someone else’s work in its original form. They’re really common in music, Olivia says, and she tries not to get caught up in what people say.

“I think it’s disappointing to see people take things out of context and discredit any young woman’s work,” she adds on the call. “But at the end of the day I’m just really proud and happy to say that my job is being a songwriter … All music is inspired by each other. Obviously, I write all of my lyrics from my heart and my life first. I came up with the lyrics and the melody for ‘good 4 u’ one morning in the shower.”

On ’Sour’, comparison is a through line — to girls who get chosen over her, sure, but also the landscape of social media that encourages voyeurism, body shaming, and endless, desperate jealousy. Like so many things, it hurts teenage girls the most. When Olivia said, “God, it’s brutal out here,” she wasn’t wrong.

“Who am I if not exploited?” she asks in ‘Brutal’, and in a fitting homage during the music video, she wears the same Roberto Cavalli dress that Britney Spears wore to the 2003 American Music Awards. Olivia has been following Spears’s legal journey to have her conservatorship removed, and thinking deeply about how society treats young girls.

“I’m so excited to see her making leeway in her case,” Olivia says about Britney’s highly-publicised conservator case. A couple of weeks after we met, Britney’s father would be suspended as her conservator after a decade of control. “I think it’s a step in the right direction. I’m so happy that Britney’s case is getting so much attention, and I just hope that she gets all the justice she deserves and lives the best life she possibly can.”

The whole thing has larger ramifications for the way we treat young women celebrities, and young women who aren’t celebrities, and the average teenage girl who watches all of this play out while she’s scrolling through social media. “It’s one example of this culture that so often tears down women in the spotlight for sport,” Olivia says. “As a society we definitely have to re-examine the way we treat women in the entertainment industry, and not just for ourselves — it’s unhealthy for young girls to be looking at all that stuff in the media. It paints a bad picture.”

“It’s so frustrating to see young girls held to a completely different standard than other people. Social media is making it even harder for young girls to grow up,” she continues. “I don’t even think it’s about me being like, ‘Oh, I’m hurt to see people say mean things about me or my friends.’ It’s really toxic for young girls to open their Snapchat app and see the articles about young women who are just sharing their art and existing in the world, and watching them being torn apart for doing absolutely nothing.”

Personal level

On a personal level, she takes care of herself by separating who she is as a person from her social media presence and how she’s perceived online. She has struggled with feeling like that was her whole identity, numbers and pictures determining things about herself.

When she gets low, she hangs out with people who know her, who see the goofy Olivia at 3 a.m., laughing at nothing. When she imagines her future, it’s not one in which she mentions fame or adoration; it’s one where she’s with family, maybe writing songs for other people, the way Carole King and Julia Michaels have thrived.

“I think it’s so cool to be a part of helping someone else to bring their vision to life,” Olivia says. “That’s my dream. That’s my ideal life. I just wanna be, like, 30, in a cool mid century-modern house with two babies and a husband, writing songs that I like, and having brunch with my girls on the weekends.”

Here’s what Olivia wants to talk about more than anything else: what she can control, what brings her closer to knowing who she is and what boundaries she can draw. Song writing, and her unshakable belief in the power of music and its ability to make you feel, or take you back in time, or put a soundtrack to your life. She’s most passionate when she talks about what music allows her to express: “We’re so much more alike than we are different. At the core of it all, we’re all feeling the same feelings of fear and sadness and loneliness and happiness and love.”

Olivia’s favourite song on ’Sour’ is ‘Traitor’, and it conjures a memory. She’s hiking with her mom in Salt Lake City — where ’HSM’s’ first two seasons filmed — when she brainstorms the wrenching hook, “Guess you didn’t cheat, but you’re still a traitor.” Later, she’d finish the song on her bedroom floor, rushing to get it done in 20 minutes before dinner with a friend. “I think maybe in hindsight [that] made me write a better song,” she says, “because I wasn’t in my head thinking too much about is this word perfect? Is this thing perfect?”

What’s next

Her eyes are warm and excited as she imagines what’s next. Maybe Nashville, to write with country music greats and learn from them. Maybe more rock music collaborators, the way Halsey tapped Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Jack White is her hero, but maybe she’d be too scared if he reached out to work together, not quite ready yet. Maybe more acting, though she doesn’t want to be ‘pigeonholed’ into only doing one thing. She’s going to try not to rush into her next album: “I’m gonna take my time to figure out

Song writing, Olivia says, is a way to talk about what isn’t socially acceptable, unravelling in a way she wouldn’t do in person. There’s the Olivia who sits across the table from me, carefully balancing avocado toast, awe at her good fortune, pride in what she’s created, gratitude toward the musicians who inspired her and humility for what she has yet to learn. There’s the Olivia who asks multiple times during our conversation if she’s giving a good answer. Then there’s the Olivia who wrote, “Good for you, you’re doing great out there without me, baby! Like a sociopath!”

Even when things about her life or public presence get messy, she’s still so grateful she gets to write songs. Like, this is her job. How cool. How lucky she is to get to do this for a living. It makes all the difficult things easier to put into perspective. It focuses the noise and turns it into music.

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