Why Millennials Love Olivia Rodrigo

Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, turns listeners of ALL ages into angsty, heartbroken teens. It’s power boils down to one word: drama. Most strikingly, in a world where young female artists are often sidelined, pegged as “too emotional”, and marketed only to young girls, this Gen Z figure has captured a large millennial fanbase across the gender spectrum.


Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, turns listeners of ALL ages into angsty, heartbroken teens. It’s power boils down to one word: drama.

Sour shot to number one shortly after its release, while the perceived behind-the-scenes drama with her ex (and High School Musical: the Musical: the Series co-star) Joshua Bassett has continued to captivate social media. There’s nothing audiences love more than celebrity drama, especially when it revolves around betrayal and diss tracks, but it also seems that audiences can’t help but project their own drama onto Rodrigo’s music, as she’s captured something universal in the emotions of both her work and the narrative surrounding it.

Olivia Rodrigo: “Everyone has had like that, like, first heartbreak, and that’s like a feeling I think you feel so intensely.”

Most strikingly, in a world where young female artists are often sidelined, pegged as (to quote the lyrics to “good 4 u”) “too emotional”, and marketed only to young girls, this Gen Z figure has captured a large millennial fanbase across the gender spectrum. Here’s our take on why we live for Liv’s drama and how she got us to both respect and listen to the angry teen girl inside all of us.

Relatable High School Drama

Olivia Rodrigo: “I wrote most of Sour when I was 17 so it’s very much like a slice of my 17 year old heart.

The “drivers license” video highlights the way that the devastation of breakups feels epic

and monumental on the inside, even when the external circumstances don’t seem that striking to others. Unlike other pop icons, Rodrigo doesn’t present a glamorous narrative centered on sex or drugs, but rather, her lyrics are inherently linked to first love, suburbia, and the mundane nature of everyday life as a teenager.

Olivia Rodrigo: “I don’t think my life is glitzy or glammy at all… everyday I do my, like, environmental science homework and go in the studio and hang out with people and then come home and, like, go to sleep.

In “brutal,” the lyrics reveal that Rodrigo is mad and resentful—not just at her ex, but also at the world for pressuring her to be unabashedly enjoying her teenage years, with lines like, “I’m so sick of 17, where’s my f***ing teenage dream.” When she sings “if someone tells me one more time enjoy your youth I’m gonna cry” and, “They say these are the golden years but I wish I could disappear,” she reminds us of that strange truth that—while older adults superficially wish to be young or chastise young people because youth is wasted on them— in reality it can be incredibly emotionally painful to be an adolescent.

Olivia Rodrigo: “When you’re going through a heartbreak when you’re 17 it feels like the world is ending.

This leads to perhaps the biggest surprise of Rodrigo’s runaway popularity; while all these topics feel explicitly marketed to teens, her music has drawn a huge millennial fan base because of the nostalgia that her type of drama evokes. Her songs allow older fans to return to a seventeen year old headspace and a feeling of teenage vulnerability—and her popularity proves that, on some level, the wounds of youth never truly go away. Rodrigo told interview magazine, “When it first came out, my therapist called me and she was like, ‘Girl, I’ve been married for 10 years, I’m 40, but this song makes me cry.”

Rodrigo sings about a level of total insecurity— worrying about how, “I’m not cool, and I’m not smart and I can’t even parallel park…”— tapping into a feeling of self-doubt that remains surprisingly relatable even long after you learn to drive. Rodrigo upped the relatability factor by filming the drivers license video in Utah against a backdrop of anonymous suburbia and striking rurality, perhaps appealing to a wider audience of frustrated teens than if she’d used her own more Hollywood experiences and star-studded set of friends.

And it’s not just heartbreak that Rodrigo addresses, but every aspect of the teen experience: the complexities of self image, friendships, and of social media.

Olivia Rodrigo: “I really was just writing about my experience, and I wrote that during a time where I was so consumed with how I looked on social media and how people perceived me.

But a big part of what makes these songs appealing to both teens and former teens is the level of insight contained in the pop lyrics. When she analyzes her jealousy of other young women in the line, “I know their beauty is not my lack, but it feels like that weight is on my back,” this eloquent self-awareness is arresting, almost giving the song the air of an older adult looking back on that time and understanding it more articulately than they perhaps could at the time. And these observations about how envy is born of this need to compare remain far too relevant to many adults’ lives.

Olivia’s style and sound also deliberately echo many millennial favorites. Teen Vogue observed that Sour’s album art drew inspiration from both Clueless and Lisa Frank, while Rodrigo openly takes inspiration from older generations of music. She idolizes female-led groups and artists like Alanis Morisette, No Doubt, and Taylor Swift. Swift even publicly claimed Olivia as her protege. And because both women write all of their own songs and focus on the highs and lows of young love, it’s easy to see why many have labeled Rodrigo as Swift’s Gen Z equivalent.

Rodrigo also has influential millennials directly involved in her sound engineering process. She’s produced by Dan Nigro, who is partly responsible for Sky Ferreira’s sound. The song “1 step forward, 3 steps back” samples a Swift melody that was co-written by Jack Antonoff, while “deja vu” interpolates another Swift song co-written by Antonoff and St Vincent, and “good 4 u” also interpolates Paramore’s “Misery Business.” The act of interpolation, or using an existing song to inspire a new song is, as ABC music site Triple J puts it, “A close cousin of sampling, interpolation is less of a direct copy-paste of a song and more the borrowing of melodies and lyrics to create a new tune that sounds… wow, just so familiar.” This is proof of how the music is calculated to appeal to an audience much wider than Olivia’s own demographic. In this way, Rodrigo weaves the drama we associate with Swift’s back catalogues into her own songs, so that while she sings about the phenomenon of deja-vu, we also experience it.

Part of Rodrigo’s overnight success is based on the fact that she makes everyone feel like a main character with her relatable lyrics and universal themes. Her music’s success on TikTok even lets her audience directly insert themselves into the drama, by using Rodrigo as a soundtrack in videos that position themselves as the main character

Breakup Grief Drama

Part of Rodrigo’s overnight success can be attributed to the way she captures the drama of what a breakup feels like at any age. When analyzed track by track, the songs actually align with the seven stages of post-breakup grief. Let’s take a look:

Phase 1 of post-breakup grief, Shock and Denial, is perfectly embodied in Sour’s first single “drivers license,” where the singer states that she ‘just can’t imagine how you could be so OK now that I’m gone.” The central imagery of the song is her feeling disoriented that, after she and her ex looked forward to her getting her license, she’s now finding herself driving alone past his street—it’s an astute articulation of the alienation and disbelief that characterize the initial aftermath of a breakup. In “1 step forward, 3 steps” back, she sings about worrying over things like “did I say something wrong?” and “goin’ over everything I said”— expressing the confusion of trying to piece together where you stand with someone as a relationship is falling apart, especially when you’re doing your best to ignore the red flags or deny that it may be ending.

Post-breakup grief Phase 2 is Pain and Guilt; as Healthline writer Kimberley Holland writes, “You may feel that the loss is unbearable and that you’re making other people’s lives harder because of your feelings and needs.” We can hear this in the second verse of “drivers license,” when Rodrigo sings, “All my friends are tired of hearing how much I miss you.” The painfulness of reality hitting you in this stage comes through in “traitor,” where Rodrigo processes how her ex has moved on to someone else so quickly. Her lyrics, “Remember I brought her up and; you told me I was paranoid; you betrayed me,” also signal a rage under the surface of her pain. Which leads us to…

Phase 3: Anger. “good 4 u” is an energetic, cathartic expression of feeling total fury toward an ex, “screw that and screw you.” In “brutal,” that teen anger infects the singer’s whole life, as she expresses total dissatisfaction and insecurity about every aspect of herself, a mindset we can see segue into…

Phase 4, Depression is the underlying emotion at the start of “enough for you,” where Rodrigo turns her fury inward, calling herself ‘stupid, emotional, obsessive little me’ and claiming her partner found ‘someone more exciting’.

Phase 5, ‘The upward turn,’ is defined as the point in the grieving process in which your emotions fade into something calmer. “deja vu” is a great example of this as Rodrigo begins to reclaim a sense of power and self-assurance from realizing that she isn’t the first girl that her ex has done this to— and won’t be the last.

Phase 6, Reconstruction, is when the grieving party begins to work through their emotions with a little more self-reflection and analytical distance, eventually rediscovering themself. In “enough for you,” the singer is piecing together how the things her ex accused her of really reflected him, in the lyric, “You say I’m never satisfied; But that’s not me, it’s you.” She’s also starting to conceive of a future without him, in the line, “someday I’ll be everything to somebody else.” Finally comes. . .

Phase 7: Acceptance. In “favorite crime,” the singer looks back on their relationship, hating her ex but with a “smile on her face,” finding a twisted way to value whatever they had while gaining the distance to acknowledge that it’s really over. And in “hope ur ok,” she moves on from her breakup to reflect on past friendships, signaling that she is ready to focus on other relationships. In this final song Rodrigo offers hope, saying, “God, I hope you’re happier today,” a sentiment half-heartedly extended to her ex in the earlier track “happier,” but here sent more genuinely to friends and fans in the line, “cause I love you, I hope that you’re ok.”

Olivia Rodrigo: “Sour is a very sort of sad, angry, emotional record and I wanted to end it with a song that was like you know “we’re all gonna be alright y’all, we’re gonna get over it.”

Diss Track Drama

When “drivers license” was released, it also received endless speculation about the drama behind the lyrics about this callous ex. A week later, the presumed subject of the song, Bassett, released a song called “Lie Lie Lie,” which he claimed was written “after I found out a friend had been lying about me behind my back for a long time.” Though Bassett had teased the song before “drivers license” came out, fans noted the similarities between the two videos and were further intrigued when it was revealed that both Rodrigo’s music video and High School Musical: the Musical: The Series were shot in Utah.

Sabrina Carpenter was pulled into the excitement after fans began to speculate that she was the older ‘blonde girl’ referenced in Rodrigo’s song. These lyrics felt especially pointed because Rodrigo’s original version mentioned a brunette girl, but the line was changed by the time the song was widely released, and Basset and Carpenter were officially an item. Soon after “drivers license,” Carpenter released “Skin,” which fans heard as a response track, largely because of the lines, “maybe blonde was the only rhyme,” and, “don’t drive yourself insane.”

Once the full Sour album came out and blew up, the vitriol directed towards Bassett

and Carpenter grew exponentially. Whether the album is about Bassett isn’t even relevant any more, as the rumor has taken on a life of its own on TikTok, where he is now notorious.

Though the phenomenon of the diss track initially grew out of hip-hop, it lends itself well to Rodrigo’s pop album, adding a bold element of storytelling as well as intrigue and—yep, you guessed it, drama. Much like with traditional diss tracks, all three stars seem to fan the flames, intentionally or not, whenever asked about their beef. The sequence of response tracks create an almost linear addictive narrative of drama that fans, or haters, can listen along to, hungry for the next dose of drama. Constant updates and posts to analyze straight from the source give fans the sense that they’re a part of the chaos unfolding.

Sabrina Carpenter: “I cannot stress this enough, [‘Skin’ is] not about one person

What sets these diss tracks apart from rap or other typical celebrity feuds, is that they revolve around Disney kids. The media is already fascinated with the trajectory of child stars losing control, so what could be more entertaining than three young adults who are famous for family-friendly content battling it out via clues in pop songs. The constant buzz about the rumored love triangle even caused speculation that all three tracks were a publicity play by Disney. A setup like this would be a savvy move on Disney’s part— especially because the target demographic for these songs are teenagers who have grown up with social media, where much of the drama of this unusual, organic marketing campaign has played out.

Prom Queen Drama

Rodrigo’s drama is not limited to conflict with her peers; Courtney Love caused a media storm when she accused Rodrigo of plagiarism, claiming that the Sour Prom promo’s aesthetic was stolen from Hole’s Live Through This album cover. According to Love, the prom-based shoot was too close to her beauty pageant themed work in the early 90s.

Love’s criticism is controversial, as Rodrigo’s promos pointed to the 1976 movie Carrie as inspiration. Brian De Palma’s film not only predates Love’s concept art by decades, but (apart from the eye makeup) seems to be a more obvious influence on the Sour images. And while Love’s recent comments said her cover wasn’t based on Carrie, in 2019 the photographer of Hole’s album, Ellen von Unwerth, in fact said Carrie was their inspiration, too.

On the other hand, Gen Z’s style in general does borrow from Love’s Kinderwhore look of the early 90s (in a similar way that Love has confessed she took that look from Divynyl’s front woman Christine Amphlett and aspects of her sound from others).

Courtney Love: “A lot of the songs are complete Bauhaus rip-offs. . . my guitar playing is totally picked up from Will Sergeant and Johnny Marr.”

Arguably, both artistic aesthetics can be viewed as a respectful homage to their predecessors rather than plagiarism. Olivia responded to Love by saying that she loves Live Through This, Hole’s iconic, genre-transcending album which popularized grunge in the mainstream.

The tension here is revealing, though,because despite their similarities,Rodrigo also seems to represent so much of what Love’s music rails against.

Courtney Love: “I was never pretty, so pretty girls just lie there. . . us girls that grew up a little more homely have to try a lot harder.”

Rodrigo is a beautiful, confident Disney star, perfectly packaged to appeal to a wide audience. Love even scoffed at Rodrigo’s corporation-manufactured child stardom by writing “Does Disney teach kids reading and writing?” in a Facebook comment discussing the drama.

It’s also true that the Disney platform gives Rodrigo a chance to connect with a size of mainstream audience Love never could. But Rodrigo’s relationship to her Disney machine is interesting and curious—she’s clearly benefiting from it, while her edgier, angrier, more vocal brand also seems to be pushing or redefining those boundaries of how the Disney kid must interact with the corporation. Pitchfork contributor Olivia Horn wrote that “To anyone familiar with the history of Disney darlings and the morality clauses that typically bind them, the profanity that peppers Sour will stand out as a break from type.’Even lines where Rodrigo sings “who am I if not exploited?” implicitly complain about her Disney life to a degree that feels like it would not (until recently) have been allowed.


If Rodrigo’s achievements prove anything it’s that society is finally at least starting to give more respect to teenage girls and their emotions. Rather than immediately disregarding them as silly or fleeting, we’re starting to admit how much all of us can relate to (and learn from) the narrator of Olivia’s songs. And this goes to show that there’s nothing wrong with being a little dramatic, and it’s not just teen girls who feel a deep need to confront that heartbreak and reflect in order to heal. Maybe we can all learn from the teen girl’s willingness to be open and vulnerable about that experience.

Olivia Rodrigo: “Processing those feelings of sadness and heartbreak and jealousy and anger is so important.”