From SOUR to GUTS: Olivia Rodrigo’s Journey into Global Pop Stardom

Two years after her breakout album <i>SOUR</i>, 20-year-old Olivia Rodrigo is proving that she’s more than just a Gen Z star with her latest album <i>GUTS</i>.

From SOUR to GUTS: Olivia Rodrigo’s Journey into Global Pop Stardom
Saleah Blancaflor
Saleah Blancaflor
September 8, 20237 min read
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It was the driver's license seen around the world. When Olivia Rodrigo first emerged onto the music scene with the release of her single “drivers license” at the beginning of 2021, the song, which chronicled the singer reminiscing on a past relationship with a former lover and driving past his house, became an instant hit.

Within its first week, the song reached number one on the Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music global song charts. Billboard reported in its first three days of release in the United States, the song was streamed 21 million times and sold over 16k digital downloads. On the second day, its total streams increased by 122% and rose another 32% on the third day.

SOUR and blowing up on TikTok

The song and its music video (which currently has 474.3 million views on YouTube) came out in January 2021 when people worldwide were still under COVID-19 lockdowns and living vicariously through social media, and quickly made the rounds on TikTok. Started by creator Mel Sommers, a new viral trend emerged on the app where users would post videos of themselves recreating the music video’s dramatic shot of Rodrigo falling into bed.

@spoiledmel can this be a trend? 😳 #oliviarodrigo #driverslicense #fyp @livbedumb ♬ drivers license - Olivia Rodrigo

Rodrigo released the second single “deja vu” a few months later in April 2021 and it debuted in the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. This track was followed the next month by “good 4 u,” whose catchy “like a damn sociopath” line quickly sparked another viral trend on TikTok, generating further hype for the release of her debut album, SOUR, the next week. By that point, the then 18-year-old singer already generated a sizable amount of excitement for the album thanks to strong marketing and word of mouth on social media. Nearly three years later, users are still using these songs in their videos: 1.9 million TikTok posts feature “good 4 u” followed by “drivers license” and “deja vu,” featured in 1.4 million and 1.2 million videos, respectively.

A chart showing the number of Spotify streams and TikTok posts for 5 Olivia Rodrigo songs. "good 4 u" has the most, with 1.93 billion streams and 1.89 million posts.

SOUR received universal critical acclaim and went on to win several awards at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards, including Best Pop Vocal Album, in addition to Rodrigo winning Best New Artist. Many have praised Rodrigo’s album for reclaiming the power ballad and her ability to express her vulnerability. Others applauded the album’s personable marketing in which Rodrigo connected with young fans who felt isolated due to COVID-19 and missed out on milestone events like prom night. She hosted live-streamed concerts like “Sour Prom,” which gave a few lucky fans the chance to celebrate with Rodrigo in person.

Rodrigo, who began her career acting in Disney shows like Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, already had a sizable fanbase, but there’s no doubt she exploded in notoriety among the mainstream population when SOUR debuted. She currently has 3.7 billion views on YouTube and 27.6 million followers on Spotify, up around 25.7 million followers since her first album's debut.

a chart showing the increase in social media followers Olivia Rodrigo received between the releases of her two albums, SOUR and GUTS on Spotify (25.73 million), Instagram (25.22 million), TikTok (11 million), and YouTube (9.52 million)

Rodrigo is Gen Z's queen, but millennials love her too

While Rodrigo has resonated with Gen Z for her reliability and vulnerability in her songs on the trials and tribulations of being a teen in the 21st century, she’s also found a fan base among older listeners as well. Some memes have poked fun at the “geriatric millennial” fans who rock out to her music in a sea of Gen Z fans.

But, what exactly has piqued the interest in Rodrigo’s music across demographics? Nostalgia, for one. Rodrigo’s music is heavily influenced by pop-punk and emo, which were popular in the early-to-mid 2000s and have seen a revival in recent years. She also adopted the bright colors, lip gloss-heavy Y2K aesthetic that was popular in the same era, and some fans have pointed out that her “good 4 u” music video references the 2000s cult classic “Jennifer’s Body.” That sonic and visual style has also been experiencing a resurgence in popularity recently as a result of new Gen Z audiences and sentimentality among millennials who most likely remember their own Limited Too and Juicy Tubes-wearing days.

Rodrigo’s music has also reminded some millennial fans of their favorite musicians from when they were teens. She even cited artists like Taylor Swift, Paramore, Alanis Morissette, Kacey Musgraves, and Avril Lavigne (whom Rodrigo eventually performed with on tour) as inspirations for the album. Paramore and Swift, also known for their emotive lyrics especially when it comes to the experience of being a lovestruck or angsty teenage girl, are two who have drawn comparisons to Rodrigo.

Shortly after “deja vu” and “good 4 u” came out, listeners compared Rodrigo’s sound to Paramore and Swift. Fans swiftly pointed out that the bridge in “deja vu” seemed to be inspired by Swift’s shout-y bridge in “Cruel Summer,” while the guitar-heavy chorus in “good 4 u” was reminiscent of Paramore’s 2007 hit “Misery Business.” However, some critics accused her of plagiarizing the songs, which resulted in Rodrigo giving songwriting credits to Swift, Jack Antonoff, and St. Vincent who co-wrote “Cruel Summer,” and later to Paramore lead singer Hayley Williams a credit for “good 4 u” for the interpolation of the two songs. While Rodrigo reportedly made the decision in order to avoid copyright infringement, some music experts have pointed out that the move might not have been necessary, since songs are commonly inspired by older music. She ultimately spoke out about how the accusations of plagiarism were disappointing, stating that “nothing in music is ever new. There’s four chords in every song. That’s the fun part — trying to make that your own.”

Her songs, particularly “driver’s license,” have also led fans to speculate on Rodrigo’s love life, similar to the way that Swifties debate who Swift’s songs are about. The song, which was reportedly written about the love triangle between her, her ex-boyfriend and co-star Joshua Bassett, and fellow Disney star turned pop “it girl” Sabrina Carpenter (Ahem, “and you’re probably with that blond girl”), inspired a lot of theories on social media. One writer previously referred to it as “post–Taylor Swift messiness now playing out on TikTok” similar to the ‘00s love triangle between Swift, Joe Jonas, and Camilla Belle that reportedly inspired “Better Than Revenge.”

Last spring, Rodrigo kicked off her sold-out SOUR tour which ran through North America and Europe. She kept the Y2K aesthetic and prom theme going for her concerts where concertgoers showed up in colorful gowns, mini dresses, plaid skirts, fishnet tights, Doc Martens, and lots and lots of purple, inspired by Rodrigo’s signature color from her album cover.

Outside of music, Rodrigo briefly got into politics: President Joe Biden invited the young pop star to the White House in the summer of 2021 to promote the importance of getting vaccinated, once again emphasizing her popularity among Gen Z fans. While the Biden administration could have worked with any other celebrity or influencer, they clearly saw the massive influence that Rodrigo wields over young people and selected her for that reason.

It takes GUTS

Flash forward to the present: this June, nearly a year after the SOUR tour ended, Rodrigo began teasing new music for her second studio album, GUTS. On June 30, she released the song “vampire” with an accompanying music video, both of which quickly went viral. The song debuted at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, while the music video currently has 52.8 million views. Rodrigo currently has a Chartmetric artist rank of 35, up 63 slots in the last six months following popularity bumps caused by the new releases, and her rank is only expected to rise following the release of GUTS.

A chart showing how Olivia Rodrigo's Chartmetric artist rank has rised in the last few months from around 100 to 35 currently due to releases of "vampire" and "bad idea right?"

Rodrigo released the second single “bad idea right?” last month along with an accompanying video. The song once again has Rodrigo singing about an ex-lover, but this time, she’s debating on whether it's a good idea to see him again. In the music video, Rodrigo is with three of her real-life best friends (Tate McRae, Iris Apatow, and Madison Hu) at a house party before the pop star leaves to visit an ex. The song debuted at the No. 1 spot on Spotify’s USA Top 50 chart in its first week and took the top spot on Billboard’s Hot Rock & Alternative Songs chart. The music video currently has 13.9 million views. In a recent New York Times interview, Rodrigo hinted that GUTS would be more rock-inspired than SOUR. Some music critics have also listed it as their most anticipated album of the fall.

A recent Billboard article reported that music executives are increasingly worried as the industry struggles to find big artists, reportedly pointing to Ice Spice and Rodrigo as the last recently successful ones. But, if there’s anything that the success of Ice Spice and Rodrigo proves, it’s that perhaps having artists take the reins and find ways to authentically connect with fans through social media (a recipe perfected by Swift throughout her career). Many of Ice Spice and Rodrigo’s fans are young women influenced by the pink “cutecore” and purple, sticker-heavy aesthetic that reminds Gen Z and even millennials of their own girlhood. Between Rodrigo and the popularity of “Barbie,” the power of women and “feminine joy” is clearly strong in pop culture right now.

While GUTS only just came out today, the early success of the album’s singles “vampire” and “bad idea, right?” indicates the second studio album could be just as big a hit as Rodrigo’s first album. If it does follow in its predecessor's path, GUTS could cement the 20-year-old musician’s place in pop star history. Perhaps that could mean a not-so-sour future for the gutsy Rodrigo.

Graphics by Nicki Camberg and cover image by Crasianne Tirado; data as of Sept. 8, 2023.