This time last year, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone above the age of 16 who had heard of Olivia Rodrigo. Known mostly for her appearances in the Disney Channel series Bizaardvark and the amusingly titled High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, both of which earned her strong reviews, her mid-level fame was simply that of your average Disney star. Then, towards the end of 2020, she quietly signed a deal with Geffen Records. At the beginning of January, she dropped her debut single “drivers license”—an irresistible hit that blends the intimacy of a Taylor Swift heartbreak anthem with the theatrical sweep of a Lorde ballad—and suddenly, Rodrigo was everywhere.
The song rocketed straight to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, breaking Spotify’s record, twice, for the most daily streams ever of a non-holiday song. (Its current total sits just above 750 million listens.) Boosting the intrigue around the record was its purported commentary on Rodrigo’s previous relationship with Joshua Bassett, another Disney teen idol. Her following single “deja vu,” released in April, only furthered the narrative with its razor-sharp observations on the pain of watching an ex move on with somebody new. By this point, a Grammys win for Best New Artist next year is pretty much on lock, while “drivers license” is already a bookie’s favorite for Record of the Year. And at the center of this mania sits Rodrigo herself, who, she makes a point of noting, is still just 18.
“It’s been pretty non-stop,” says Rodrigo. When we speak, she’s quarantining in the British countryside—“somewhere near Oxford”—ahead of her performance at the Brit Awards in early May. “It’s actually my first performance ever, so it’s crazy that it’s at the Brits,” says Rodrigo. “I’m just so excited to see people in real life, you know? All of the success of ‘drivers license’ happened in a bubble. I was able to see the numbers on my phone, all the people who were streaming it and all that, but I never actually got to meet anyone who was actually affected by the song. So it’s gonna be so cool to see people singing along to it. I’m really stoked for that.” (Despite these nerves, Rodrigo’s powerful rendition of “drivers license”—performed in a red Valentino batwing gown and choppy middle parting that gently recalled Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights”—brought the house down.)
Even more surprising than the runaway success of “drivers license,” was what came next. She chose to work entirely with her initial collaborator on the album: Dan Nigro, whose co-writing credits include some of the most cutting-edge pop of the past few years, from Sky Ferreira’s “You’re Not the One” to Caroline Polachek’s “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings.” The resulting follow-up singles advanced beyond the moody indie-pop of “drivers license,” and into the twinkling chimes of “deja vu,” and the barn-storming guitars of the deliciously acerbic “good 4 u,” which was accompanied by a delightfully cheeky Petra Collins-directed video. Finally, her debut album, Sour, was released last week to critical acclaim and is already set to hit number one later this week. Any fears that Rodrigo was to be a one-hit-wonder have been firmly put to rest.
“Dan did this album with Conan Gray, who is a good friend of mine, that I really loved,” Rodrigo explains of sticking to her guns with Nigro instead of opting for a starrier line-up of megaproducers, a decision which has paid off in spades. “When I met with him, we just clicked right away. I think I really tried my hardest to not surround myself with yes people in the music industry, and Dan is definitely not a yes person. He was one of the first people who ever told me, ‘This is good, but I think you can write a better song than this,’ which in my mind was so wonderful because that gave me so much more confidence. I love constructive criticism, as I think it really means that somebody cares about you and your art—if they’re willing to say I think you could do better, it means they’re going to bat for you.”
Rodrigo’s natural ear for the epic balladry that characterized “drivers license” might be in full force across the record, but it’s the edgier moments that leave the strongest impression. The album’s opener, “brutal,” erupts into a thunderous guitar riff that sits somewhere between Elastica’s “Connection” and something you might have heard from a Warped Tour headliner around the year 2000. “I’m so sick of seventeen / Where’s my fucking teenage dream?” Rodrigo wails. “If someone tells me one more time / ‘Enjoy your youth,’ I’m gonna cry.”