For Olivia Rodrigo, songwriting is more than a craft — it’s the method by which the Gen Z teenager is able to process heartbreak.
“I always write songs when I’m in the thick of whatever emotion I’m feeling,” says the 18-year-old, who is being recognized as Variety’s Hitmakers Songwriter of the Year. “It’s like my therapy.”
Thanks to the success of her debut single. “Drivers License,” and the follow-up one-two punch of “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U,” millions are also able to share the insights of her hard-earned introspection.
The numbers speak for themselves: In January, “Drivers License” smashed Spotify’s record at the time for most streams in a single week (on its way to a total of 1.1 billion as of mid-November) and catapulted the Disney actor to instant pop stardom. The piano-driven ballad, in which Rodrigo laments a heartbreak aligning with the milestone of passing her driving exam, spent eight consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100.
“The coolest thing as a songwriter is feeling like you really captured an intricate emotion,” Rodrigo says of writing “Drivers License.” “All of the people relating to it and finding meaning in it is amazing, because at the end of the day, I write songs because it helps me get through hard things in my life.”
Rodrigo’s next two singles, “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U,” showed the rock side of her songwriting. The pop-punk “Good 4 U,” released in May a week before her debut album “Sour,” stayed on the Hot 100 Top 10 for nearly 24 consecutive weeks, with the exception of a single week in September when tracks from Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy” took over nine spots.
It was in the process of writing “Deja Vu” with her producer and co-writer Dan Nigro that Rodrigo started leaning to a more alternative sound. In the song’s post-chorus — in which Rodrigo croons, “Do you get deja vu, huh?” — she and Nigro were torn between using an EDM-esque vocal chop or grainy synth riff. Rodrigo felt the vocals were “too poppy” for her and opted for the synth instead. “That informed a lot of the rest of [“Sour”],” she says, rather “than down-the-middle pop.”
Sonically, “Good 4 U,” which rode the recent pop-punk revival wave, instantly became a song of the summer. Lyrically, that and the not-so-subtle spite of “Deja Vu” only helped amplify Rodrigo’s rep as a voice of her generation, as her words quickly took hold on social media.
Rodrigo says she’s long been inspired by songwriters like Alanis Morissette and Gwen Stefani who “say things that are kind of shocking,” so tapping into that side of her songwriting was more exciting than daunting.
“I think it was so cool for me to write this snarky, angry rock song and put it out and have it be received so well,” Rodrigo says. “I’ve always looked up to girls who rock out and write these songs that are so brutally honest, so I was really proud of the fact that I could maybe be that person for girls growing up today.”
As for what’s next for the multi-platinum-certified artist, she’s expanding her songwriting horizons by “listening to a ton of music that I normally wouldn’t have listened to before,” and finding hope in the same young women she may have inspired.
“I go on TikTok sometimes and just look at all of the girls writing gorgeous songs on their acoustic guitar on their bedroom floor,” Rodrigo says. “I’m just so inspired by my generation of girls who are being so vulnerable and honest — even when it’s scary.”