Trends: How Olivia Rodrigo has gained her immense success

The songwriter’s nostalgic self-expression, authentic storytelling and feminist influence epitomizes a competitive and alternative way to market a debut album.

by Jade Haakonsen | 4/28/22 2:05am

by Lila Hovey / The Dartmouth

At the beginning of 2021, Olivia Rodrigo skyrocketed into fame. Her publicity and marketing have sparked a new kind of popularity amongst not only the youth, but also young adults who resonate with her genuine storytelling. Rodrigo’s fame and acknowledgement on social media platforms, such as TikTok, illustrate the extent to which a generation living through a pandemic was hungry for content and musical inspiration. She has also taken on a nostalgic aesthetic, as she wears clothing reminiscent of the early 2000s, includes trendy filmmaking tactics in her music videos and weaves angsty rock elements within her songs. 

For Rodrigo, her rapid increase in popularity is notably shown through the numbers. “SOUR”’s first week on global Spotify accumulated 385 million streams, becoming the biggest opening week for an album by a female artist, passing the record formerly held by Ariana Grande's “Thank U, Next” (2019). Rodrigo now has more than 44 million monthly listeners. 

By releasing “drivers license” in January 2021 and “SOUR” in May 2021, Rodrigo’s timing played a monumental role in rising to the top of the Hot 100 Billboard chart. Stuck indoors due to the pandemic, members of Gen Z were prone to invest in many forms of multimedia and entertainment. 

Another factor to her success was her mild fame from Disney Channel — which later spun into a dramatic love triangle perpetuated by TikTok. Rodrigo’s earlier recognition in the realm of songwriting and singing came through her role in the original Disney+ show, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” 

In the series, Rodrigo plays the female protagonist, Nini, alongside her co-star Joshua Bassett as Ricky. Rumors sparked about the two having an off-screen relationship. This relationship was seemingly confirmed by fans on social media with the release of her debut single and overnight sensation “drivers license.” 

Specifically, TikTok became flooded with videos that deeply analyzed every word of the atmospheric power ballad. Fans fixated on the lyric “And you're probably with that blonde girl,” speculating that it referred to fellow Disney actress Sabrina Carpenter. The ensuing commentary on social media reveals how people gravitated to the situation for entertainment while stuck at home, further promoting interest in Rodrigo and her songwriting.

It is interesting to examine whether the immense success of “drivers license” was a lucky coincidence or strategic marketing. Female artists are often able to thrive in the music industry as they ruminate on their past relationships, heartbreak and public drama. Rodrigo’s emphasis on the passion of songwriting sticks with fans as a genuine element of her character in an age when music’s lyrical content has become rather generalized and impersonal. Whether the publicity gossip was plotted by her team or not, Rodrigo and her team still fueled the mystery of the situation by neither confirming nor denying the breakup. Instead, they continued to further promote their next singles, leaving the public to imagine and make assumptions.

Rodrigo took the overwhelming success from her debut single to surprise fans in March 2021 with hidden messages in social media posts, hinting at a potential new single release for April 2021. Her themed posts — including short clips of ice cream melting and beachy images — led up to her announcement of her second single, “deja vu.” 

Fans noticed that this social media tactic was similar to that of her female artist inspiration, Taylor Swift, who also deleted all of her Instagram posts to announce her album “Reputation.” Though Rodrigo was subsequently accused of copying other female artists’ in their vocals, lyrics, rhythms and publicity methods, she continues to carve her own path and style. She has mentioned that she draws upon other female artists such as Swift, Gracie Abrams and Fiona Apple, which helps her formulate her own appealing image in the media while also maintaining originality. 

Despite the claims of unoriginality in her songs — “good 4 u,” which ties into Paramore’s song “Misery Business,” and “deja vu,” which shares elements of its bridge to Swift’s “Cruel Summer” — Rodrigo is still taking creative liberty in her work. She interpolated similar melodies to produce a sound that is uniquely true to herself and her style. 

Just as Rodrigo related deeply with other female artists, she seeks to reciprocate the way her fans have connected with her. With social isolation, much of Gen Z longed for deeper connections and parasocial relationships with their favorite artists. Rodrigo delivered copious behind-the-scenes content and insider messages with her relatable social media presence. The newly premiered “driving home 2 u” documentary also explored the creation of her album with producer Dan Nigro.

In June 2021, Rodrigo’s creative team played upon this aspect of youthfulness and being in high school in order to connect with her fans. Rodrigo hosted an in-person watch party at The Grove in Los Angeles and released the “SOUR Prom Concert Film” to appeal to the high school experience fans were missing while at home. 

Rodrigo’s relatability to teenage girls is a prime element that her marketing team picked up on early in her musical career. Her entire brand is composed of high school breakup nostalgia including composition books, stickers and a 90s and early 2000s wardrobe. The consistent color palette for her album includes purple hues and multicolored illustrations of butterflies, flowers, cars and even grape-flavored Sour Patch candy

Still, her art of songwriting resonates with not only the younger generation, but also young adults as “SOUR” encapsulates feelings of love, betrayal, heartbreak, jealousy and other complex human emotions. 

Being of Filipino-American descent, Rodrigo’s triple Grammy win also sheds light on Asian American talent on stage. Her wins at the American Music Awards, iHeartRadio awards and the Grammys as well as her first stage performances on Saturday Night Live and The Brits are visions of victory for the different communities she stands for. Thus, diverse audiences can feel as if they have “won” with her.

While Rodrigo’s success was bolstered by her early entrance into the entertainment industry through Disney, she adopted a new brand saddened by heartbreak but resilient in reflection. Her authenticity, her honest talent and her unabashed presentation of emotions sticks with her listeners and sets a new standard for the music industry.