PHOTO: Olivia Rodrigo photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis for The Guardian KossyDerrickBlog KossyDerrickEnt

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Saturday, September 2, 2023

PHOTO: Olivia Rodrigo photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis for The Guardian

Olivia Rodrigo photographed by Shaniqwa Jarvis for The Guardian.

Rodrigo and I meet in a cafe a few weeks after her rampaging comeback single, Vampire – the first taste of her second album – hit No 1 in the US. In the queue, she says this is her “favourite joint” because it’s where Timothée Chalamet’s character works in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. More significantly, it is where she found out, at 16, that she had landed HSM (having previously starred in Disney’s Bizaardvark, about two offbeat tween bloggers). Rodrigo orders an iced chai latte and points out the table where she was revising for “chemistry or something bad” when she got the call. She would never attend real high school, instead studying on the sets of both shows.

Of all the highlights of Olivia Rodrigo’s first two years as a pop star – breaking streaming records with her heartbroken debut single Drivers License aged 17; helping President Biden encourage young people to get vaccinated; winning three Grammys after she released her debut album, Sour – her set at Glastonbury 2022 still stands out. Rodrigo already had big plans for her Saturday afternoon performance: she asked Lily Allen if they could duet on her favourite song by the British pop star, her 2009 hit Fuck You. Then the day before Rodrigo was due to play, Roe v Wade was overturned, removing the federal right to abortion in the US. She was in London. “We were all like, we should stay here,” Rodrigo, 20, says when we meet in August in Pasadena, the LA-adjacent city where she lived as a teenager. “We were so devastated, crying because it felt so surreal and so awful.” Then Allen texted her. “She goes, ‘See the news? I guess we know who we’re gonna dedicate this song to.’”

Rodrigo, a music nut since she was little, was also a budding songwriter with a readymade audience for the demos she shared online, though she worried that they wouldn’t connect because her life was so unusual. (It’s striking that she sort of picks a film set for us to meet on.) Then Disney execs invited her to write an original song for her HSM character. After the piano ballad All I Want went viral, Rodrigo sought a record deal. Unlike her Disney forebears Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato, she chose not to make (inevitably sanitised) music for the corporation’s in-house label, and picked Interscope/Geffen because they were the only label she met that perceived her as a songwriter, not a pop star, and didn’t blow smoke up her ass.

If there was a backlash, she didn’t see it. Before she was a pop star, Rodrigo had been a Disney Channel actor since the age of 12, most notably a lead in the meta mockumentary High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (HSM), in which a group of teenagers stage a theatrical production of the Zac Efron juggernaut. The Disney-to-pop pipeline is well trodden, and it usually takes a long time for young women making that transition to find anything close to free expression, straitened by America’s puritanical double standards and the commercial imperative/threat to be a good role model. (Historically it has arrived in a repressed explosion of latex and panting, long before the considered political statements.)

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