Pop Music's Main Character
An argument for Olivia Rodrigo as social theorist
I. ballad of a homeschooled girl
As a person with social anxiety I can confirm that the line “each time I step outside it’s social suicide” is very accurate. - EmmyFuentes-sv3ew, 8.2 thousand likes
This song hits hard as someone with social anxiety. Love it sm - joe0312, 1.2 thousand likes
As a not homeschooled girl, I feel this every day. I went to public school all my life and I still feel this way. Damn, something's wrong - LibitinaVenus, 3.3 thousand likes
On “ballad of a homeschooled girl,” Olivia Rodrigo performs social anxiety; for her fans, the cohort of hyper-online teenagers to which Rodrigo recently belonged, it’s a familiar feeling. Among a handful of standout tracks from her sophomore album, Guts, “ballad of a homeschooled girl” is a riotous, tightly constructed pop-punk anthem directly in line with pop-punk a generation removed. The song is funny, catchy, performs a certain facsimile of grunge, would sound perfectly in place in a Hot Topic or a high school melodrama: it is, first and foremost, a good pop song. It’s also as naked a look as one gets into the pure power of perception that Rodrigo, the first great pop star of her generation, has wielded on her road to ubiquity in a cultural environment that no longer produces ubiquitous art.
Throughout Guts, Rodrigo reveals herself once more as an expert songwriter. One does not get the sense that her songs have been constructed by committee, a Swedish laboratory, artificial intelligence, or Jack Antonoff; they are familiar, certainly, but they are also indicative of a real voice. The records finds Rodrigo shifting between bitter frustration and whimsical wordplay (it contains two full tracks premised upon seeing a pun to its natural conclusion), stabbing deeply affecting and precise lyrics into guitars that sound louder if only for their lack of 808s. It’s this obvious and demonstrated prowess that makes the few moments of lazy writing on “ballad of a homeschooled girl” worth interrogating. The track, on its face, is a self-flagellating list of social fuck-ups meant to underscore a broader, deeply familiar point: that Olivia, or the Olivia character, struggles with a singular social anxiety by which she might define herself. The conceit is catnip for a generation of listeners who have grown up with and on the internet, for whom social skills and comfort have been eroded by forces outside of their control from the proliferation of addictive and socially corrosive screens to the staggering interruptions to social development caused by pandemic lockdowns. But with enough time, the track reveals itself less as an anthem for the socially anxious than as a character study in the deeply online soul who has come to define themselves by their perceived failures and overwhelming anxieties. Rodrigo’s self-reported embarrassments are almost offensively forgivable: she breaks a glass, stumbles over her words, she confuses a mother for a wife, she calls somebody the wrong name. Most instructively, she purports to not be able to think of a line to round out the song’s outro, affecting a certain sort of helplessness that reads as totally contrived when compared to her feats on the rest of the record.
Point being, Olivia is too talented of a songwriter to fall this flat. Point being, there’s something in the failure worth taking seriously. Point being, perhaps “ballad of a homeschooled girl” is best understood as a skewering of the self-imposed imprisonment with which so many people who have grown up online have inflicted upon themselves, the condition by which people define themselves by their perceived failures, none of them true fails, to inhabit a sort of outcast identity that the internet has taught them to crave. Point being, maybe Olivia works because she can see and synthesize how the modern audience works.
II. making the bed; or, a series of observations
Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour is projected to have earned the popstar-cum-esoteric-numerological-cult-leader more than $4 billion dollars; the tour’s concert film opened last weekend with $96 million in box office earnings, transforming movie theaters into democratic centers of ritualistic catharsis for Swifties who could not shell out thousands of dollars for concert tickets. By these measures alone, Taylor Swift had a more economically productive 2023 than India, current population estimated at 1.4 billion. Swift’s elevation into something like mainstream culture’s high priestess appears to have happened, more than anything else, by her re-recording and -releasing versions of her decade-old albums.
Drake, who has rapidly revealed himself to be on the wrong side of age 35, has spent the last two weeks debating with online pundits critical of his new album in which he raps, “feel like I’m bi, cause you’re one of the guys, girl.”
The Weeknd, two years removed from performing the Super Bowl halftime show, is widely considered a sex pest and misogynist due to his involvement with and performance in HBO’s The Idol.
At the end of September, New Orleans transformed into a sort of Mecca for the Beyhive. Silver-clad revelers flew in from across the country, coworkers and judges called out of work for a Beyonce day; no pretense of illness was required. The originally planned final stop of the Renaissance world tour at the Superdome felt like a sort of city holiday, a sweaty and ecstatic celebration of not just Beyonce but the notion of pop stardom writ large planned intentionally to end in a city known for its festivity, its music, and its Black art. Due to a previous scheduling error, however, a date of the tour was rescheduled, meaning Beyonce’s world-beating tour actually would come to its close four days later at a make-up show in Kansas City, Missouri. Even the gods cannot control this new world.
Popular culture, squeezed as it has been by the internet and a rapacious lust for profit, seems both to have fragmented into nonexistence and to have run out of things to say. Or maybe not, maybe just: people in suits, or jeans, or joggers, or whatever else one wears at a high-powered corporate suite in this day and age, are finding it harder than ever to sell things to teenagers.
III. all-american bitch
Guts is a teenage album, recorded by a newly ex-teen, visited by a felt and authentic teen spirit. Musically speaking, it is as strong a collection of pop songs as the last few years have had to offer; sociologically speaking, it is a sort of revelation - a deeply familiar but meaningfully updated mosaic of teenage tropes delivered at a time when more people than ever find themselves reverting to modes of performative childhood (once again, Elf Bars are the skeleton key to understanding 2023) and amidst a pop music landscape that has transformed into a mass, multibillion dollar tour circuit for middle-aged legacy acts.
Guts has been described as bratty, triumphant, jaded, thick-skinned, a meditation on success and its shortcomings, to which yes, sure. But Guts, more than anything else, is an album about being a teenager in a newly grim world. Rodrigo’s music is often misdescribed as angsty for the way in which, musically speaking, it recalls the mid 2000’s purveyors of pop-punk teenage angst. Nor, even when she veers into the melodramatic piano ballad, does Rodrigo appear preoccupied with rendering longing. Whether manifesting as bubblegum pop or rap-rock revival, Olivia Rodrigo’s musical world is structured predominantly by loss - loss of love, loss of innocence, loss of the sort of teenage dream that her idols, the ones currently selling out arenas with cult-like followings, sketched in romantic detail. Rodrigo’s music embodies the uniquely grim and deeply unfair prospect of a generation that is not permitted illusions, for which desire cannot exist uncompromised. Rodrigo’s teenage character and listener lives in an apparently predetermined, heavily mediated, and viciously transactional world. It’s a perspective that allows her to achieve one of the rarest things possible in contemporary culture: universality. It’s a universality worth celebrating in no small part because, pastiche and references aside, it is new.
Put otherwise, Olivia Rodrigo is a fundamentally modern artist. Compare, briefly, to her obvious predecessor, Taylor Swift. Richard Brody writes of Swift:
She writes in the first person, with telling detail and candor, but also locks into a mythology of modern American young womanhood in a manner that lends narrative richness to her self-portraiture: young romance and boyfriends, friends and frenemies, school and neighborhood and family. The songs reflect a headlong desire to live the passions of the moment fully and deeply, an awareness of the barriers to this posed by the conventions of daily life, and a sense of pushing past these by sheer force of emotion toward hard-won self-knowledge. Swift is a melodramatist in the best sense, finding heroic grandeur in ordinary lives and circumstances, conceiving her experiences as a form of naturalistic legend in which her audience, of girls and young women, find their own experiences taken seriously, as they deserve to be. The “Eras” concept notwithstanding, Swift’s songs are curiously detached from their times: in expanding the specifics of her life to a quasi-universality, she filters out cultural specifics, as if inviting listeners to fill in the blanks with their personal set of references.
If Swift’s music is a heartfelt celebration of popular narrative arcs, Rodrigo’s is the product of a society that can no longer bear the weight of mythology. Rodrigo’s narrative scenery is familiar and befitting her age—her heartbreaks and failures happen in cars, high schools, parties, increasingly clubs—but her jaded air and occasionally sincere pain recasts these spaces as cages. Hers is a voice that is routinely rejected and which rejects in turn. She defines herself by that which she is not; she sleeps with exes, not new beaus; her longing curdles into wicked jealousy; her partners lie; her life is outside of her control. Rodrigo is often unfairly maligned for her homages and inspirations (as if the entire structure of popular music were not pure interpolation), but it’s worth noting that hers is a chart-topping pop album without a single love song.
Guts works best as a record about navigating a world with very little to offer in the way of of promise. As such, it shines as it gets faster, louder, and bolder—in the moments, in other words, where cynicism gives way to transcendence. On “pretty isn’t pretty” and “love is embarrassing,” Rodrigo recalls New Wave melodramatist stadium acts to attempt to liberate her narrator from the vestigial chains of desire; on “get him back!” she delivers the best non-100 gecs rap-rock performance of a decade to turn romantic longing into a revenge fantasy. But the album’s finest point is its final one. “teenage dream,” the record’s final track, begins as a relatively predictable sophomore-album fear track—the “what if I can’t continue my growth?” hand-wringing that has become something of a prerequisite in a pop act’s repertoire. Then, the song morphs: from tenuous piano ballad to choir-backed incantation to drum-heavy, explosive catharsis. “They all say that it gets better, but what if I don’t?” But Guts’ end, Rodrigo appears to have outgrown the credulity that permits her to believe, somewhere deep down, that expectations might translate into reality, that desire can be pursued without tremendous disillusionment. “What if I don’t,” she belts, not as the expression of an insecurity but as a taunt to a world committed to delivering less than promised. It’s the first time on the record that Rodrigo appears to plead with, rather than perceive, her audience: if your expectations have always been dashed, what do you have to lose by subverting them?
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