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How Olivia Rodrigo Became a Canvas for Millennial Nostalgia

If the past week has shown us anything, it’s that you don’t need to be a teen to love the teen pop star’s debut, ‘Sour’ 

Scott Laven/Getty Images

Every so often, maybe once a month, social media’s left-leaning, media-adjacent voices will agree on something—be it a film, news item, or particularly striking Central Park duck—and the Twitter Take Factory will churn harmoniously. Bridgerton makes us horny, the chorus sings. Lady Gaga is reborn in A Star Is Born, and born again in memes and GIFs several years later! Bowen Yang is the true star of Saturday Night Live! Put Phoebe Bridgers on every magazine cover!

Olivia Rodrigo released her hit song “Driver’s License” earlier this year, earning weeks’ worth of Twitter hype. The song immediately rose to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and broke Spotify’s record twice for the most daily streams ever of a non-holiday song. It even inspired an SNL sketch where a group of pool-playing men find themselves crying along to the troubles of a teenage girl: “Red lights, stop signs / I still see your face in the white cars, front yards.” And on May 21, Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, solidified her spot in the Twitter Hype Hall of Fame.

“If this olivia rodrigo album came out when I was in high school I would have been escorted out of IB English in fucking handcuffs,” one tweet reads.

If you wronged me between 2005-2009 good luck because I’m a millennial listening to SOUR and I’m mad at you again.”

olivia rodrigo: i’m so sick of seventeen / where’s my fuckin’ teenage dream? me, 27: wow so true bestie

The tweets multiplied as an army of new Rodrigo zealots flooded the timeline. Some called her “spiritually a daughter of the early aughts” while making comparisons to Avril Lavigne and Regina Spektor. Others lauded her “class consciousness,” likening the line “Who am I if not exploited” to the work of Karl Marx. (A Twitter search of the words “Olivia Rodrigo Marx” will lead you down a long scroll.) Rave reviews and hyperbolic headlines followed in step:

“For ‘Geriatric’ Millennials Who Love Olivia Rodrigo, It’s Brutal Out Here.”

Help! Am I Too Old to Feel So Seen by Olivia Rodrigo’s New Album?

Olivia Rodrigo Is a Revelatory New Pop Voice on ‘Sour.’ Deal With It.

The album is good, even great. Its track list surveys the coming-of-age genre and emulates its most affecting moments. Glimmers of Hot Topic punk, grunge guitars, and riot grrrl stompers bleed into “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” teen pop and post-Lorde glitz and gloom. Rodrigo stretches from a whisper to a trembling shout, a polished portrait of angst at 18. But plenty of albums are good. The O.Rod news cycle, still going strong one week past Sour’s release date, seems to be powered by some other factors. It satisfies our preoccupation with youth. The ongoing conversation appeases older generations’ desire to participate in Gen Z culture. There’s also a sense of longing, for growing pains and emotional roller coasters, for a time when everything felt like fire, for the comfort of a song you’ve heard a million times.

Sour is about hating your schoolmates and damning your ex, feeling like nobody understands you and failing at everything from love to math class to parallel parking. Rodrigo draws from the It-Girls-as-outcasts pop canon with Swiftian singer-songwriter stylings, Phoebe Bridgers’s languid balladry, Lorde-esque melodrama, and pop-punk melodies, à la Paramore. For teenagers, Sour is relatable, yet aspirational in its sleek packaging of high school drama. The album is an equally appealing soundtrack for millennials who “lost their 20s” to the pandemic, grasping for vitality from the Disney star. It’s a convenient point of access for people who don’t typically engage with new music, or 30-somethings who’ve aged out of the youth culture discourse. Olivia Rodrigo has become an inescapable enigma: Who is she, where did she come from, and why is everyone yelling? Sour validates the critics’ lionization of young artists who “get” bygone (early aughts) rock and pop traditions. Rodrigo’s rise is candy for a culture that devours displays of adolescence and prodigies who have “potential.” Yes, Rodrigo deserves praise for her impressive debut, but the nostalgia-driven hype machine deserves skeptics.

Olivia Rodrigo arrived as a fully formed pop avatar with a ready-made story line, a high school hero’s tale. After carving out a name for herself in the tween sphere with roles in the Disney Channel show Bizaardvark and the High School Musical spinoff series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, she signed a deal with Geffen Records in 2020 and released “Driver’s License” in 2021. At the same time, dating rumors swirled about Rodrigo and her Disney costar Joshua Bassett. Fans interpreted singles like “Driver’s License” and “Deja Vu” as not-so-subtle commentaries on their supposedly crumbling relationship and Bassett’s new fling with “that blond girl,” who is understood to be another Disney idol.

Whether these stories are genuine confessionals or merely part of a sharp-eyed marketing strategy is irrelevant. They’re fodder, content to be absorbed and dissected in social media’s fandom vortex. The gossip outlines a slickly edited teen soap opera for our perennially adolescent digital age. Sour’s mood board further sets the scene, soothing us with familiar pop voices, transporting us back to getting our driver’s license and blasting “Misery Business” on the way to school.

Sour doesn’t try to hide its inspirations—it almost advertises them. The album says, “If you liked X, you’ll LOVE Sour” and “Remember this song?” Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” and Paramore’s “Misery Business” are so strikingly similar that multiple fans have made YouTube mashups. Their videos aren’t condemning her for ripping off “Misery Business,” they’re celebrating the fact that there are now two songs like “Misery Business.” (Who could blame them?) Taylor Swift and Jack Antonoff have songwriting credits on “1 step forward, 3 steps back,” which interpolates the piano melody from Swift’s Reputation closer “New Year’s Day.”

These are strong, complementary influences, and Rodrigo has the vocal range and expressive demeanor to distill them into a true pop tour de force. But while her performance is impeccable, the audience never gets a peek behind the curtain. As new pop starts to sound more and more like old pop, the modern pop star is reduced to a vessel for our nostalgia, obscuring any singularity or style.

On a dark day, TikTok can feel like a psyop that makes adults idolize teens and trains kids to be little social media editors. To call Rodrigo’s album a psyop is a bridge too far, but the nostalgia pandering raises questions. Rodrigo embraces the strain of 2000s pop culture that’s returned to vogue over the past few years. Her face is covered in Lisa Frank stickers on the album cover. The video for “Good 4 U” credits Devon Lee Carlson, the Gen Z-millennial-cusp influencer-turned-model, for its girly Y2K styling. Lyrics name-check the 2009 to 2015 hit TV series Glee on “Deja Vu.” (Rodrigo later admitted in an Instagram Live that she didn’t actually watch the show.) None of this is to say “gotcha!” or assert that Rodrigo is some kind of poser who lied about watching a Fox musical-comedy-drama, but rather to reexamine our fixation with dated pop culture relics and the admiration we pour on young people when they mimic the art we liked as kids.

As Framing Britney Spears made clear, we don’t know how to handle female pop stars. Teen pop sensations have historically been exploited, expected to maintain sex appeal and a veil of virginity, and torn to shreds when they inevitably fail. The blanket praise Rodrigo has received is, of course, better than paparazzi harassment. But it falls into the same trap, painting her as a spectacle rather than a musician worthy of critique. The alternative to exploitation doesn’t have to be worship, and it’s OK for a young woman to make music that resonates without being hastily heralded as the voice of a generation. In Rodrigo’s case, the Sour buzz drowned out any criticism and eclipsed the pop star herself. We don’t see Olivia Rodrigo for who she is as an artist, but who she is when we project ourselves onto her.

Julia Gray is a Brooklyn-based music and culture writer. Her work has appeared in places like The Washington Post, Playboy, Pitchfork, and Stereogum. She makes chaotic tweets at @juliagrayok.