Olivia Rodrigo: an overhyped musical phenom

September 9, 2023 • 9:00 am

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.

54 thoughts on “Olivia Rodrigo: an overhyped musical phenom

  1. I can agree on all parts. Even more baffling is Billie Eilish. I believe she comes across very well in interviews, and seems to have stayed down to earth with all her fame. But I see no merit in her angsty whispering singing.

  2. Hear hear!

    I would like to repeat this :

    “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 think PCC(E) wrote before about how older music – written, or recorded in days of prior generations – sort of matures to the listener, and undoes the notion above.

    I’d agree if so.

    Rodrigo might turn out great – e.g. like my personal change of heart with Kurt Cobain/Nirvana – but I’ll believe it when I hear it.

    Real quick : Musician-writer to read : Ted Gioia.

  3. It’s not exactly pop-rock, but “TV on the Radio” is a very good band. “Dear Science” is an especially strong album.

  4. Not all is lost. For instance, one of my favorite post-90s female singers (singer-songwriters) is LISSIE, who deserves more fame than oh-so-fashionables like Rodrigo.

  5. You could make an argument that commercial pop music today is mostly machine pop music – i.e. there’s a pop industry machine needed to propel to product into the public awareness. As such the music often inherits machine qualities (autotune, song structure, electric drums, permitted subjects, accompanying video) from the process.

    Ditto machine politicians, machine main stream media, machine cinema ‘blockbusters’ and so on. I detect a theme.

    1. A computer literally makes the music (in the scenario described).

      Living, breathing, expressing individuals are mere inputs to the computer.

      That’s why I feel sterilized listening to that stuff – and how I finally grasped e.g. John Bonham can make the drum kit breathe (on Black Dog, for instance) – after having listened to Black Dog countless times over unmentionable years.

      1. I agree. Any fool can play the drums, any drum machine can ‘play the drums’. But really good musicians know how play their instruments with expression. Something not yet tackled by an AI drum machine as far as I know. But not long before there is dial to switch between ‘In the style of John Bonham’, ‘In the style of Keith Moon’, or ‘In the style of Ringo Star’.

  6. Coincidentally, I was thinking of composer Harry Partch recently. His thoughts are germane here: “The profession of music is lacking in horse sense, not only because the commonplace variety of horse is absent from its operations, but because parts of the horse are noticeably present.”
    Less snarky, Partch, while revolutionary in many respects, harped on the theme that humanity needs another J. S. Bach at present in order to lay the foundation for a new, vital art music. But where is such a genius? Do we have the culture to nourish and develop such a one now? Both the hidebound conservatory system and the profit-above-all commercial music industry are decidedly not the cultures to foster genius.

  7. Note the ungrammatical line in the one below: “I’ve never felt this way for no one”.

    The double negative is one of the most common forms of enallage in pop and rock lyrics, generally used for emphasis. Dylan employs it all the time. Hell, sometimes he’s even lampshaded it right in the song’s title, as in “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Yesterday, I was listening to Joni Mitchell, one of the most articulate lyricists of her generation, and noticed the line “we don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall” in the chorus to “My Old Man.”

    To paraphrase the old Winston cigarette commercial, What do you want, good grammar or good lyrics? (not that I’m any more impressed with young Ms. Rodrigo’s early catalogue than you are, at least so far).

    1. The difference between Joni and Rodrigo is that Joni KNEW it was ungrammatical while in one of the NYT articles Rodrigo implies she didn’t know.

      PLUS, Rodrigo’s mistake is the MORE ungrammatical one. . .

      1. Well, if the lyricist doesn’t recognize the ungrammatical construction, it’s merely solecism, not enallage. My point is that enallage is a well-established part of the lyricist’s (and poet’s) toolkit, and deserves no disparagement. It can be used for emphasis, as observed above, or to mimic the demotic, as in Louis Jordan’s “Is You Is Or Is You Ain’t (My Baby).”

  8. Thanks for this post and for providing the videos. I have heard of Olivia Rodrigo, but I don’t think I hadn’t heard her music. I agree in part with the criticism, especially about the vapidity of the lyrics. Musically (melody/harmony/rhythm) I found it quite interesting–far more compelling than Taylor Swift, whose melodies are instantly forgettable. And Olivia’s voice is nice once she breaks out of the Billie Eilish-style blubbering with which she begins the Vampire song

  9. Well, Miss Rodrigo should make music and fill stadiums as long as the Rolling Stones. Then maybe the media can sing her praises 😉

      1. [ ahem, cough ] yes!

        Yes, great sound! They still got it!

        … Charlie Watts on this? Sadly I think not.

        Trivia : Keith Richards was in a Pirates of the Carribean movie.

        1. Mick explained that two songs on the new album were recorded with Charlie’s drumming in 2019. The other 10 are Steve Jordan’s work. By the way, Steve was highly recommended by Charlie as substitute or replacement.

  10. Re music, well yes, I share your demographic — hear hear & all that, too. Not paying attention to what charts, there’s great music done by all age groups. You’ve just got to poke around.

  11. On a related point, has the New York Times’ art coverage always been this bland and forgettable? Occasionally the paper runs a decent book review, but otherwise its arts critics lack distinct voices. Their positive pieces are the worst and sound like advertising copy, or will praise something for tackling social issues (rather than having aesthetic merit).

    1. No, not always, but they dwell a lot on pop these days. Against that, they have a great ‘5 minutes that will make you love…x’ series, mostly retrospective. Last week they had a great one on Max Roach. Contributors selected some great examples. These are worth watching out for.

  12. Do any of these commenters ever listen to classical music? we have literally centuries of musical masterpieces that originated in the “dark ages”, starting in the churches and then moving to royal palaces and then finally in the 19th century to the public concert hall, where audiences sat through several hours of great LIVE music. Then we had an amazing flourishing of 20th century music, starting at the turn of the century: Debussy, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, Ravel, Bartok, Stravinsky, Ives, as well as globally important music theater (Weill, Sondheim, Bernstein) and astounding Latin American music headed by Piazzolla. Aside from the Beatles and a few country/rockand roll
    musicians, most of the pop/jazz music of the 20th and 21st centuries will be
    truly moribund, while Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Mahler and Stravinsky will be immortal. My condolences to those who never encountered a late Beethoven quartet, a Brahms symphony, a Schumann piano suite and songs, a Mozart or Wagner opera, and a Chopin ballade, not to mention a Bartok quartet, a Stravinsky ballet suite, or a Ravel orchestral piece. Or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Or a Handel opera.
    Those masses of deaf people have discarded truly great music…this is as if we discarded Shakespeare or Dickens or Keats.It is a shameful situation that says more about this country’s cultural tastes than anything else: decline of the west.

    1. If you mean this commenter, then yes.

      It depends on where I am and what I’m doing.

      I know that is nearly meaningless but classical is to other music as … I mean, it’s substantially different.

    2. Agree 100 %. Some contemporary “classical” composers doing great
      work: John Adams, Winton Marsalis, and (even !) Billy Joel.
      I’m currently going though the works of ignored master Alexander Glazunov
      and they are fantastic.

      1. There’s an enormous volume of material in addition to the new – I am pacing myself.

        Soundtracks, film music, are good to keep an ear to as well – Newman…

        Also I don’t care what people say, John Williams is great.

        There’s a star factor too…

        1. Ludwig Göransson is also an impressive up and comer, influenced by John Williams (what contemporary artist writing movie scores isn’t?). He wrote the soundtrack for Nolan’s Oppenheimer among a lot of other cool Star Wars scores (The Mandalorian, Book of Boba Fett) and that’s just scratching the surface. He is/will be a force…still very young to boot.

      2. just following up:

        I got Glazunov on my playlist

        Also Borodin

        They associate somehow, so I add them.

        Borodin I think was the one studied chemistry, and had some publications. Interesting trivia.

        1. I think you’d like the music of Reinhold Gliere as well.
          There are complete sets of Gliere’s and Glazunov’s symphonies
          and other orchestral works available on CD at very reasonable prices.

  13. Using Olivia Rodrigo to make any general point about contemporary music is a waste of time and energy. Even Rick Beato finds some good stuff in his weekly reviews.

    And I’m sorry, but there was plenty of great and innovative music after 1972. I agree on one point, having been born in ’61 – it was a great starting point to live through it all. But saying the best stuff all happened before you were 25 is just sad and wrong.

    I spend more time playing Radiohead and Snarky Puppy than the Beatles. Once you’ve heard a catalogue a thousand times you can get more musical nourishment listening to great stuff you haven’t heard before. And there is literally an infinite amount of it, from every decade. Can’t we spend more time on that?

    1. Thank you for informing me that I’ve wasted my time and energy, and that I’m not only “wrong” but “sad”!. Nor did I say that there was no great music afer 1972. That’s right after I graduated from college and I was still young (22-23). That Rick Beato finds some music he likes now doesn’t contradict my thesis that pop and rock have gone downhill.

      Sorry, but you could have made your point without being insulting and rude, which is a Roolz violation.
      As for Radiohead (which I’ve listened to) and Snarky Puppy (which I haven’t), the fact remains that no group has come close to the Beatles, the Band, Joni Mitchell, the Eagles, or any number of groups I could mention.

      See the rule about not telling me what to write about

    2. I dig all that music.

      I’d caution that there’s a thing called “jazz snob” – which Rick Beato is emphatically not though easily could be.

      I’d say also :

      The Beatles get constant replay on my list because of the depth. I notice things – especially as I sing along – as in try to hit harmonies like in a choral setting. It is eternally renewing – sound like anything? Classical music? Great composers / performers?

      Yeah, can’t listen to it all the time. But what does that mean?

  14. By chance, I listened to some of Olivia Rodrigo’s songs just last night, after reading about her on one of the online news media. OK – I’m getting old and very boring and, though I can see how she can appeal to the young, give me Mozart any day.

    Meanwhile, this morning’s listening – Mozart, of course:

    Piano Quartet No. 1, K. 478 – Holy Ceiling Cat – but how I love this one!

    Quintet for Piano and Winds in E flat Major, K. 452 – Good Ceiling Cat – but I love this one too!

    Symphony No. 25 in G minor, K. 183 – written at 17 years of age – three years younger than Ms. Rodrigo these days. My Ceiling Cat! How did a mortal write something like this at 17?

    Piano Sonata No. 8 in A minor K 310 (with Daniel Barenboim at the steering wheel), written in grief after his mother’s death. A superhuman work of art! The panoply of Ceiling Cats must be jealous!

    David Lillis

    1. Lucky!

      Latest stuff for me : I came across some Schubert sonatas.

      Where does this stuff hind? I think I got them all, and then – surprise!

  15. I agree with you Jerry.

    I read the article & listened to a few of her lauded songs… meh!

    Not impressed.

    Musicality and well written lyrics are not that easy to come by.

    Personally, among contemporary artists, I really like Sara Bareilles’ work but don’t see nearly the same hype in the press.

    I don’t get it but am glad we have so much easy access to so much great music.


  16. Olivia Who? Never heard of her. When I hear current music, I think of Socrates strolling through the marketplace, saying, “My goodness, what a lot of things there are that I don’t want!”
    I’m afraid we’re not going to have a Renaissance in current arts, fine arts or pop, because the new examples get used up and worn out as soon as produced.

  17. During the last 15 years I have learned to shun radio stations that focus on the current hype. Overproduced pop just isn’t for me. I rather listen to tracks either at random on YouTube or after recommendations and then either add them to my personal playlist, keep them in mind for a specific feature/mood or just discard them.

    I also have no artist I find engaging across their entire or even the majority of their work. I stick to specific tracks. Dire Straits only really appeals to me in Sultans of Swing and Money for Nothing (and sometimes Walk of Life), Das Modell by Kraftwerk is great, but I care little for their remaining catalog. In this vein, the 80ies are a treasure trove for pop and rock, while the 90ies and oughts are great to hunt for hip hop and EDM.
    I don’t know, if “liking the output of an artist” isn’t too high of a bar to clear. I have the feeling that this requires a certain zeitgeist immersion which is hard to achieve if you don’t grow up in the era (at least that is my hypothesis for why people are mostly fans for artists of their own generation). I don’t care much for both Beatles (outside of Here comes the Sun) and Stones (outside of Paint it Black) – but I was born early 80ies.
    So maybe there’s a single track of brilliance in Ms. Rodriguez… though I doubt I will dive into her work as whining about the world isn’t my cup of tea.

  18. I’ve recently taken to listening to a band with minimal lyrics… great souring guitar/licks, strong bass lines and funk grooves. I’m enjoying it. Sometimes it makes my hips wobble.
    Santino Surfers

  19. It’s true. And it’s the same with films. All the big polls of the best movies ever made are still topped by Star Wars, The Godfather, Jaws etc. Must be depressing growing up now with the current crop of CGI pap.

  20. My observations on the two songs you posted:

    1. I wasn’t entirely sure they were two different songs

    2. It sounds like she’s got somebody else’s false teeth in.

    3. It’s not my kind of thing, so I can’t say how good it is.

    I’ll say what I always say. There is good music still being produced. It’s just that you have to go looking for it. Music festivals are good for this. All of the traditional outlets are producing this kind of mush.

  21. I’ve grown tired of the music I grew up with (I’m 66), and uninspired by the vast majority of modern music of any genre that I used to like.
    Lately however, I’v become aware of the re-invigoration of those genres in Japan and now feel that rock-‘n-roll hasn’t died, it just moved to Japan.

  22. With respect, the criticism in this article seems more in response to articles written about the music than the music itself.

    The mention of the Beatles is interesting because they were a driving force for creating many of the things people in the comments are bemoaning about the music industry. At first, The Beatles were a pop boy band whose primary trick was to turn up the volume on their guitar amps. Their early lyrics fit the needs of the market but aren’t aspiring to much more and include content like hitting on the underage.

    As they matured, they built swaths of modern recording. They have piles and piles and piles of cables running through instruments, speakers, recorders, mixers, pushing the technology as far as they can. The musician is just an input for the computer? The difference between what modern artists do in the studio compared to the Beatles is just a matter of computing capability. Paul McCartney is actively experimenting with AI right now to resurrect old vocals of his dead band mate.

    Now let’s take a look at what modern artists like Olivia and Billie are doing and see how it differs. Everyone here seems to have missed the reason for why breathy, whispery vocals are so popular. It’s technology again. The way people listen to music has changed and more people are listening to music with earbuds and the sound fidelity of the devices we use to listen to music has improved a lot in small devices. That changes the way you experience these songs. It establishes a closeness, a kind of intimate experience with the song. Give this kind of tech to people in the 60s and you’d very likely see the Beatles playing with that too. In an environment where most music is mastered assuming playback occurs on desktop speakers or cabinets, hearing something made to cut through to press against your ear nearly directly will hit like a lightning bolt.

    I’m not saying that Olivia or Billie is as good or better than the Beatles; solo artists and bands are doing different things. It would be closer to compare the individual members of the Beatles against them and the individual members of the Beatles, after the band breaks up, produced middling work on their own.

    Pinging her on the one line of grammar comes off strange as well. As others have said, in Spanish, the ordering works. Music today is a lot more multicultural and multilingual.

    I don’t think I totally disagree with the assertion that certain genres are moribund but I think the technology for creating and distributing music globally has outpaced the media’s ability to follow it all, let alone understand it.

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