Standing Out By Fitting In: Why Olivia Rodrigo Made 2021’s Song Of The Year

There were just so many factors this past year that made it impossible to absorb as much media as I usually do. When you have a baby and a demanding job and the world is burning because of a fucking pandemic, it’s a little hard to get to the movie theater my usual 35-50 times a year. This isn’t to say that I don’t have a favorite movie (The Green Knight) or a favorite television episode (the 8th episode of the third season of Succession) or a favorite album (Tyler The Creator’s Call Me If You Get Lost), but because I don’t feel like I’ve experienced enough pop culture, it’s hard to me to hold something up and say, “This is the best the year has to offer.”

Except when it comes to the best song of the year.

There is not a solitary doubt in my mind what the best song of this crazy and chaotic year was. And, if we’re being totally honest, anyone who tells you that the best piece of entertainment this year came from someone other than a moody, emotional 18-year old Disney star probably needs to have their head examined. For this is the year when we came to understand one important fact: For the time being, this is Olivia Rodrigo’s world. And the rest of us are just living it.

That’s right. It’s time to talk about “drivers license”. Buckle up.

No song was more dominant than “drivers license” this year. Honestly, it may be the first song since “Uptown Funk” that everyone in the world seems to have heard, or at least be aware of. In a world where things are becoming more and more segregated and it is all too easy to surround yourself with the things you love, Rodrigo (star of the unfortunately named High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) found a way to bring us all together with her super-mopey torch song. And perhaps an even more impressive feat is that many of the tracks on her debut album, SOUR, are just as good, despite the fact that she demanded her album title be in all caps while all of her songs have all lowercase lettering. This is a trend in pop music that is pissing me off.

People are calling Rodrigo a Taylor Swift disciple (or, Swift Boat, a term I will continue to champion), and while O-Rod definitely has cited Swift as an influence, I actually think making that comparison is short-changing her. Thematically, you can obviously see parallels: throughout SOUR, we hear moments in her songs that are so personal and emotional that we almost feel like we’re peeking into a diary that we were told, explicitly, to not read. In fact, Olivia has certainly paid more than enough homage to T-Swift by giving her a songwriting credit on one of the songs (“1 step forward, 3 steps back”), even though I would call the credit more of a kind bow to the queen than an actual use of Swift’s “New Years Day”. SOUR is not subtle about hiding its influences, and you can directly hear the chorus of Paramore’s “Misery Business” and the riff to Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” in “good 4 u” and “brutal”.

But where Taylor began in country before dominating the pop landscape, Rodrigo seems to have set her sights on pulling pop-punk into the mainstream once again. I imagine that the Madden brothers (of Good Charlotte fame) are ecstatic right now. But it’s not just the sound of pop punk; many of the songs on SOUR have lyrics that you could have easily found on a Saves The Day album. As far as first album’s go, SOUR feels more ambitious (both lyrically and sonically) than Swift’s first album, but I’m also willing to concede that Taylor wasn’t trying to do with her debut what Rodrigo seems to be.

However, much like Swift’s last two albums, Rodrigo isn’t using capital letters in her song titles, and I fucking hate that. Bad trend, Taylor… bad trend.

There’s something that’s really unique and special about what Olivia Rodrigo brings to pop music in 2021, and that’s the fact that she just seems like a real teenager.

LONDON, ENGLAND – MAY 11: Olivia Rodrigo poses in the media room during The BRIT Awards 2021 at The O2 Arena on May 11, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by JMEnternational/JMEnternational for BRIT Awards/Getty Images)

In my lifetime, and probably way before, it seems like there has always been a need to fit female pop stars into a certain mold, but Rodrigo just seems to be a teen. I’m not exactly an expert on teenagers, but I am the father to a teenager and my wife is a high-school educator. I sometimes do comedy workshops with the students in my wife’s school, and the one thing I think about when I think about Rodrigo is, “She could be any of these kids.”

Now, perhaps this is because she is a co-writer of all of her songs, so there is no one like Max Martin or Dr. Luke to try and fit whatever they bring into her. But, when Olivia Rodrigo sings that she feels bad for her friends because they’ll never know her ex the way that she does, it feels so real. This isn’t the anthem of an independent woman; this is the rationale of a broken-hearted sad teen. With the line, “you said forever, now I drive alone past your street,” O-Rod has tapped into exactly what the teen experience is about. Think of all the people in high school who you thought you would be friends (or romantic) with forever. But “forever” is such a different concept when you’re 18.

I know I made a Taylor Swift comparison earlier, but there’s a more interesting comparison to make with Olivia Rodrigo, and that is Billie Eilish.

Eilish’s When We Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? also came out when she was eighteen, but couldn’t be in more stark contrast. That record is weird and jarring and a clear understanding of who she is, as an artist, at the time. Every line and lyric out of Eilish feels so undeniably her, as if she’s the only one who could have possibly come up with it. And that could not be in more stark contrast with Rodrigo, who writes in such a universal and relatable way. She has tapped into to universal thoughts and feelings, and that is it’s own special gift. She is trying to fit in to what we all have experienced.

In reality, most of us are not either Billie Eilish or an Olivia Rodrigo. We’re both.

All of us have that desire to stand out and have the universe recognize us for the unique individual we are. But where the dichotomy comes into play is that we all, simultaneously, have the desire to just fit in with our peers.It’s the insane balancing act of being a teenager, not made any easier by raging hormones, social media, and parents whom- according to Will Smith- just do not understand. One wonders if Willow and Jaden feel the same way.

I don’t know what the rest of Rodrigo’s career will look like. But I know that, with “drivers license”, she has captured a very specific moment in time for people of a very certain age, and that is such a meaningful and special thing.

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