Olivia Rodrigo Crashes Into Adulthood
Catching up with the 18-year-old behind this year’s most unexpected hit.
It was a weird day in a weird month in a weird year.
“Soooo weird,” said Olivia Rodrigo, sighing in a manner that was both genuine and mocking, before cataloging the tsunami of weird that was her life on that morning in late March. At just 18, she was 48 hours away from releasing her second single, “Deja Vu,” the follow-up to “Drivers License,” the heartbreak anthem that catapulted her from a Disney star to a pop supernova who topped the charts for eight straight weeks, broke streaming records, and is probably still playing in some corner of your, and your mother’s, brain. She was also waking up on her first morning of “living in a hotel” in Los Angeles, because her parents had just moved back to the family home in Temecula, the Southern California town where Rodrigo grew up. Meanwhile, she had exactly one day to put the finishing touches on her first album, Sour, on which she’d been beavering away in the studio—a dizzying crunch that was making it impossible to focus on wrapping up her senior year of high school. “I’m severely behind,” she told me, speaking from the hotel over Zoom, a day after we’d met on the set of this magazine’s photo shoot. “This past month has absolutely been the busiest of my entire life. I turned 18; I had to move out, be on my own, work 12 hours a day, finish this record. It’s felt like a crash course in adulthood.”
The release of “Deja Vu” was, at that moment, occupying the bulk of her psychic real estate and testing her central nervous system. Although Rodrigo, who was wearing a vintage Kurt Cobain T-shirt, has been writing songs for as long as she can remember, she was now doing it under improbable circumstances: “Drivers License” had just become the first song of 2021 to be streamed over a billion times, and millions were eager to figure out if Rodrigo was the latest one-hit wonder or the next incarnation of some of her idols, like Taylor Swift and Lorde. “Honestly, I’m really terrified!” Rodrigo told me. “I always have to remember that, at the end of the day, I would write music even if no one was listening. I don’t write songs for the charts, or even for people to like them. But it is weird to have your first song be such a huge success and break all these records. How do you follow that up?” Like “Drivers License,” “Deja Vu” is about heartbreak, but tonally it’s sly and searing, where its predecessor was unapologetically anguished. “It was really important to me to not put out another heartbreak ballad,” she said. “I love heartbreak ballads, but I didn’t want to get pigeonholed into that category of writing sad-girl songs.”
In person and in conversation, Rodrigo strikes the same beguiling range as she does in her music, seeming both very much like the teenager she is and also like someone looking back on her adolescence. Jubilant and fidgety, with liquid brown eyes that flash when she gets excited—which is always—she’s simultaneously vulnerable and poised: a pro, in short, but not in the packaged, glossy-cyborg manner one expects from those reared on soundstages. The latest in a line of Disney stars who have exited the slushy netherworld of tweendom through pop music—from Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez—she is also a departure, or a subversion. “I love those girls so much; I grew up listening to them and idolizing them. But I think there’s a specific archetype of the Disney star turned pop star that I didn’t want to follow,” said Rodrigo, who has always identified as a singer-songwriter who ended up on TV more than as a child actor deciding to give music a shot. Though she remains a lead on the Disney mockumentary High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, she has broken away by putting out music through Geffen, where she can do things like freely drop the f-bomb, albeit in a way that doesn’t feel like an aggressive distancing from her childhood persona. “That wasn’t calculated,” she assured me, chuckling. “But if that naturally sort of separated me from the Disney archetype? That’s cool.”
The global pandemic has, in some ways, insulated Rodrigo from the molten core—and potential burns—of insta-stardom. Like you and me, she has spent most of the past year inside, streamed but unseen. She was the subject of a viral SNL skit and has spawned a virtual nation-state of imitators on TikTok, but she has yet to perform her hit for a live audience. (Her first TV spot, on The Tonight Show, was beamed in.) “So my song is number one, and I’m staying up till two in the morning to do my statistics homework—that’s how it’s been,” said Rodrigo, who has been homeschooled through a charter school since she was in the seventh grade. “I do feel like it’s kind of cool that I get to create without seeing the breadth of the reach of the song. When you’re looking at a computer screen and it says ‘number one in the world,’ it’s still a computer screen. It would be different if I was looking into the faces of people who’ve been affected by the song.” The pandemic, of course, has reduced those of us long removed from adolescence to a juvenile state of angst and uncertainty, priming the public at large for a song of such wanton release. “I think it provided catharsis for people who were stuck inside,” Rodrigo observed. “We’re all feeling sad. It might not be over a heartbreak, but it moves you and tugs at your heartstrings, and maybe that’s something we’ve all needed.”
Navigating the pressures of sudden fame has not, however, been without some blood-boiling moments. “I get really overwhelmed easily,” Rodrigo told me. “I’m very energetically sensitive. When there’s a lot going on, different opinions and emotions, I just shut down.” A week before we met, she’d done just that in the studio, having something of a micro-meltdown, which remained fresh in her memory. “I wasn’t happy with what we were doing. I felt like giving up,” she said. Her producer, Dan Nigro, insisted that she take a couple of days to herself to exhale and regroup, a novel concept to someone who has spent her conscious life as an indefatigable workhorse. “It’s hard to be creative under deadlines,” she said. “I get drained. I don’t write as well. It’s been forcing me to learn about self-care. I’d heard things like, ‘It’s 75 percent work, 25 percent self-care,’ and I’d be like, whatever.” She rolled her eyes, as if addressing her younger self. “Um, no, it’s real. That’s a lesson I’ve had to learn this past month.”
Rodrigo described Sour as a kind of sonic autopsy of a shattered heart, with most of her new recordings mining the emotional vortex of soured love. “I tried to write all these songs about other things, and it just didn’t feel like it resonated with me; it didn’t feel authentic,” she said. “I want my songs to feel like something I need to say. I’d rather have songs that feel personal to me than songs that people could dance to.” While aware that going down such a route risks her being perceived as frozen in a state of grief, with her personal life fodder for giddy forensic analysis, for Rodrigo, it has only been emboldening. “In the six to eight months since I wrote that song, I’ve gained a lot of perspective and clarity on what I want in my life and what’s important to me,” she said of “Drivers License.” “I’ve gained a lot of confidence in myself. When you go through heartbreak and you’re really young, it feels like the end of the world. You just don’t have the experience to know that other things are going to happen in your life. Even my favorite artists—I’ll listen to the heartbreak songs they wrote at 17 versus, like, 25, and the younger ones are pathetic and earth-shattering in this really cool way.” She laughed. “It’s ironic, because ‘Drivers License’ is soooo sad and soooo self-deprecating, and honestly, it was the most empowering moment of my life.”
As we spoke, Rodrigo was waiting to see if an Airbnb rental in the desert was going to come through. She planned to head out, to celebrate the release of “Deja Vu” and have some distance from the “L.A. New York vibes” that can fray her equilibrium. As consuming as this juncture was, it was clear that Rodrigo was also looking beyond it, to embracing the autonomy she was beginning to carve out for herself. “It’s scary to go from an environment like Disney—where every day you are told what to do, what to say, what to wear—to being an artist, where you have an absolute blank canvas,” she said. “I think I’m more sheltered than I thought I was. I’m not coddled, but I’m an only child. I’ve grown up as a weird child actor. I’m excited to have more independence.” She paused, searching for the words to describe what she saw on the horizon. “It’s like learning to have a little bit of a life. I think sometimes, as celebrities get big, their albums get worse because they’re living less of a life. They’re so consumed in this weird Hollywood industry thing that they become disassociated from reality.” She drifted off for a moment, perhaps imagining the life she’d like to live and, inevitably, turn into music. “What are you gonna write about when you’re in the studio every day?”