Olivia Rodrigo, who came out of the Disney franchise, has become one of the most acclaimed pop singers of the past five years. I listened to several of her songs after reading two laudatory articles about her in the NYT (click on headlines below).
She’s only 20, but, according to Wikipedia, here’s some of that acclaim:
After signing with Geffen and Interscope Records in 2020, Rodrigo released her debut single “Drivers License”, which broke various records and became one of the best-selling songs of 2021, propelling her to mainstream fame. She followed it up with singles “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U”, and released her debut solo studio album, Sour (2021), which was met with critical and commercial success, winning various accolades including three Grammy Awards. A Disney+ documentary, Olivia Rodrigo: Driving Home 2 U, followed in 2022, chronicling her creative process with Sour. In 2023, Rodrigo released her second studio album, Guts.
Rodrigo has achieved three Billboard Hot 100 number-one singles, one Billboard 200 number-one album, and five multi-Platinum certifications by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). In addition to other recognitions, she has won an American Music Award, seven Billboard Music Awards and three MTV Video Music Awards. Time named her the 2021 Entertainer of the Year and Billboard named her Woman of the Year in 2022.
The first NYT article, on August 24 of this year, proclaims her greatness:
and the second was published yesterday, just two weeks later:
Why is she livid? It appears to be a combination of bad men (viz., Taylor Swift) and the letdowns of celebrity, even though, at 20, she’s rich, famous, decorated with honors, and beloved. From the second piece:
Two years later, on her poignantly fraught, spiritually and sonically agitated follow-up album “Guts,” Rodrigo has seen too much. “Guts” is an almost real-time reckoning with the maelstrom of new celebrity, the choices it forces upon you and the compromises you make along the way. As on “Sour,” Rodrigo, who is 20 now, toggles between bratty rock gestures and piano-driven melancholy. But regardless of musical mode, her emotional position is consistent throughout these dozen songs about betrayal, regret and self-flagellation.
Oy! At 20! If she feels battered now, give her thirty years! And remember, she’s not a burger flipper or paper-pusher, but a self-employed musician of wealth.
I listened to several of her songs, and present her two of her more acclaimed ones below.
As always, I keep looking for new rock and pop music of extraordinary merit. I’m not sworn to dislike new rock and pop music, even though it’s mostly swill and, in my view, the genre is moribund. I’ve liked several recent groups or singers I’ve heard, including the Staves, Pentatonix, Molly Tuttle, and Billy Strings. But you will notice that none of these fits neatly into “rock” or “pop”. Frankly, if music is for the masses but shows lyric or melodic talent, I’ll listen.
Unfortunately, I see little merit in Olivia Rodrigo. That puts me at odds with the critics, of course, but, as Hitch said, I don’t need a second. If your taste in music makes you gravitate towards songs of angst by young women mistreated by men, you will like Rodrigo. If you want clever and memorable lyrics and melodies, songs that don’t need music videos to make them sick, you won’t find them here. Or rather, I didn’t.
But listen for yourself, and feel free to disagree. My prediction is that these songs are ear candy for part of one generation, and will not last, unlike (of course) the Beatles, still appreciated and listened to by many young people. (I’ve met some.)
No, rock and pop are not dead; they’re just moribund, stretched out on the ground. Young people, the object of these songs, will always need a musical background to their youth, just as a good movie needs a musical soundtrack. Rock and pop will not die; they’ll just descend through the circles of Music Hell.
Classical music is moribund, as is the Great American Songbook and jazz (but fortunately not country or bluegrass—not yet). Musical genres run their course and wane; why should rock and pop be exceptions? Classical music and jazz won’t die for good, as there will be new generations to discover Bach and Ellington, but we won’t see new Johann Sebastians or Dukes emerge from out of nowhere. People still write new classical music, of course, but it gets a hearing only when put on a program sandwiched between Mozart and Brahms. Why? Because people don’t really like the new stuff. Mozart and Brahms are the spoonfuls of sugar that help the new stuff go down.
I’ll say it again, and it will anger some—especially those tone-deaf miscreants who bawl, “every generation thinks the music of its youth was the best”— but what’s true is this: I was lucky to be born in an era when, during my youth, rock and pop music reached its apogee.
I pity the young folk who must cut their musical teeth on stuff like this. But face it: in an era of tin-ear tunes, somebody has to win a Grammy!
You will find these songs touted in the NYT articles:
Note the ungrammatical line in the one below: “I’ve never felt this way for no one”.
At least she’s not autotuned (or so I think). And yes, she has a good voice. Finally, I’ll admit that her songs are above the vast majority of their current competitors. It’s not BAD music, but neither is it music worth the hype dispensed in two back-to-back NYT pieces.
p.s. I’ve left rap and hip-hop out of my screed above. That’s because I don’t listen to it and have nothing useful to say. I’ll leave the judgments about how it’s faring with John McWhorter, a fan.