Being on Disney used to hold teen stars back, but Olivia Rodrigo is changing the narrative

By Sonia Rao

The widespread popularity of Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, “Sour,” can in some ways be explained by the resonance of its third single, “Good 4 U.”

The pop-punk breakup song dropped in mid-May – four months after the ubiquitous hit “Drivers License” broke multiple industry records, and a handful of weeks after, its catchy follow-up, “Deja Vu,” helped sustain the anticipation.

With “Good 4 U,” even more ears seemed to perk up.

The fiery track earned numerous comparisons to Alanis Morissette and Hayley Williams of the band Paramore, the latter especially reeling in millennials who up until then might only have casually listened to Rodrigo, the 18-year-old star of a Disney Plus series.

This is “Misery Business” for a new generation of broken, angry hearts. Maybe it still serves that purpose for those who first sang along with Williams nearly 15 years ago.

This cross-generational appeal no doubt played a hand in “Sour” debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart.

Billboard also reported that “Sour” had recorded the biggest week for an album so far this calendar year, a feat joining the two No. 1s Rodrigo earned on the Hot 100 singles chart with “Drivers License” and “Good 4 U.”

In his review of “Sour,” New York magazine music critic Craig Jenkins noted that you “don’t need to be a Disney Channel star who has just seen her Disney Channel co-star boyfriend buzz off with yet another Disney Channel co-star to relate to the feelings of abandonment and upheaval” that songs like “Drivers License” get across.

Similarly, he wrote, you don’t need to be “fresh off the learner’s-permit circuit … to feel weird cruising past haunts that remind you of failed relationships.”

However irrelevant to the quality of her music, Rodrigo’s Disney connection is vital to her industry standing.

After a breakout role on the Disney Channel series “Bizaardvark,” she moved on to “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” a meta, mockumentary-style show that began streaming on Disney Plus in November 2019.

Rodrigo and co-star Joshua Bassett’s characters play Gabriella Montez and Troy Bolton in a stage production of the film “High School Musical,” layers of fictional romance rumoured to have transcended to Rodrigo and Bassett’s real lives as well.

There is something of a tradition in supposed drama among Disney stars making for popular music, notably captured years ago by veiled references to the tangled web of Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers.

Vested interest in their celebrity led fans to listen to their songs on repeat, picking the lyrics apart for clues as to what went down.

Many have assumed “Drivers License” to be about Bassett leaving Rodrigo for another Disney star, Sabrina Carpenter.

But Rodrigo’s success also seems to be part of a shift within the Disney sphere, which has apparently evolved enough to allow its stars to curse while still holding down jobs on PG-rated television.

Rodrigo is signed to Interscope and Geffen Records and plays on major radio stations, instead of the recently departed Radio Disney.

Speaking to The Washington Post last month, sisters Aly and AJ Michalka – who released music on Disney’s label in the mid-aughts, including the memorable single “Potential Breakup Song” – mused that social media had changed the landscape the most.

“You would never be on the cover of a cool magazine. You wouldn’t get an ‘SNL’ performance or an NPR Tiny Desk or whatever it is,” AJ recalled of their past experiences.

“And now, if you blow up on social media and you happen to be connected to the Disney machine, it doesn’t really matter if Disney is involved. You’re probably going to get those cool opportunities.”

Rodrigo has promoted her music to her 10.8 million Instagram followers, but apps like TikTok, on which a young woman started a viral trend with “Drivers License,” help keep it in the conversation.

The song got big enough to become the basis of a “Saturday Night Live” sketch about adult men who couldn’t stop listening to it; three months later, Rodrigo appeared as the musical guest.

At the root of it all, of course, is the music itself. Critics agree that Rodrigo shows promise, proving adept at maintaining the tricky balance of writing specific lyrics that speak to universal experiences – especially notable in the pop genre, and not unlike the work of her professed idol, Taylor Swift (who even has a writing credit on the track “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back,” which interpolates Swift’s “New Year’s Day”). Rodrigo collaborated on “Sour” with songwriter and record producer Dan Nigro, but maintains a writing credit on every song.

The album experiments within the pop genre, ballads relaying the heartache of Rodrigo’s breakup and the rock-tinged tracks pulsing with teen angst.

As the album goes on, she reaches the conclusion that things will only look up from here. It is undoubtedly true of her career as well.