Olivia Rodrigo and the Beauty of Teen Music

Despite how personal some popular music may feel, it is almost always a group effort. Large record labels have much invested in artists and won’t let them fumble around creating whatever they please. True, untouched, individual music, with a few exceptions, can only really be found on the fringes of the music industry’s fiscal scale. There is either so little money invested in you that you’re allowed to take risks, ‘sure, make a three hour noise-rock masterpiece about the experience of immigrants in the contemporary moment, we’re not buying you a billboard anyway’; or you’re so ragingly successful anything less than free reign over your work would be insulting. In the bland middle of this financial bell curve, music is made by large teams of writers, sound designers, mixers, producers, and many more people essential in creating a marketable album. Here, songs can’t be embarrassingly naïve or blatantly pretentious; nor ragingly cruel: sure, you can threaten to kill a man in your upbeat country song, but you have to mention he cheated on you with your sister or something, and you’re just playing character, right? There is a way to escape this conundrum, however, to be marketed and supported and still get away with writing songs that would provide most studio executives weeklong fever dreams. The solution? Youth.

If you’re a teenager, still largely blind to the tedious misery of reality, according to everybody but teenagers themselves, you can be naïve, pretentious and downright mean, and I mean, really, really awful on your records. You can get away with all this because, hey, you’re still young, so who cares? This may sound like criticism, but it really isn’t. From this odd patronization comes beauty. Sometimes I want to listen to people being horrible, occasionally I desire to hear someone barely past ten percent of their lifespan weepingly lament the loss of the love of their life because they moved two towns over; and once in a while I want someone to explain to me how the world really works in melodic shrieks produced by semi-pubescent vocal cords. Children transport us to our childhoods, and there is a homely comfort, a safe warmth in the naivety of youth. As Taylor Swift, a wonderful example of this phenomenon in her own right, once sang: “How can a person know everything at eighteen but nothing at twenty-two?” I don’t understand how the world works at all, and with every passing day I understand less of it, but by god, was it all clear as day when I was the age Olivia Rodrigo is now. The world was small, my problems then seemed as massive as my problems do today, but they really weren’t, it was warm and delightful. I suppose the safe distance the present has from the past helps me glamorize this time of my life, but still. And all it takes for me to be launched back into that wonderfully ignorant manor of petty worries and insignificant strifes is teen music.

The first feature of these emotional time-machine-tunes I so adore is the aforementioned naivety about love. I too have been young and in love, and I too was really quite convinced the girl I so adored would be the one I would grow old with, retirement-home-old, not end-of-my-first-year-of-college-old, as it eventually turned out. Now, with my hopes and dreams shattered, I have become, like all of us do eventually, more than a little cynical, and whenever I enter a new romantic escapade these days my mind can’t help but trudge to the sentiment “I know this isn’t gonna end well, but the middle part is gonna be awesome”. One song that can transport me to a time before this preemptive pessimism about the duration of a love is the delightful song Driver’s License by Olivia Rodrigo. With a voice as fragile as a baby swallow that just tumbled from her mother’s nest, she croons “how could I ever love someone else?” This is an utterly ridiculous statement, she was eighteen at the time she wrote this song, so unless that driver’s license was wholly unearned and she’s about to crash into a tree and die, she will love again. I adore this song more than I can express because of this. I too felt this way once and I, despite the profound sadness the song clumsily but masterfully, like a drunk man nailing a backflip, instills in its listeners, would really like to have this teenage feeling again.

Teen artists are also allowed to be incredibly pretentious, openly and unsubtly critiquing the wrongs in the world the rest of us have already accepted as just being a part of existence, they explicitly lay out the mistakes in the modern world like they’re the first ones to notice it. Marina and The Diamonds’, now simply Marina’s, first album, The Family Jewels is a masterclass in this, and an incredible work of art. It somehow pulls off pretentious and genuine in a way where one reinforces the other, I’ve never heard anything like it. Other examples that come to mind are Royals by Lorde, which she wrote when she was seventeen and Price Tag by Jessie J, I mean, sure, Jessie J was twenty-three at this point, but lyrics like “We’re paying with love tonight” and “We need to take it back in time, When music made us all unite! And it wasn’t low blows and video hoes” are the most, ‘I’m not like other girls’-sixteen-year-old remarks I have ever heard.

Lastly, there is a meanness we permit teenagers to exude. The viciousness of children is a frequently broached subject, but in our early teens is where casual cruelty can really peak. You’re socially aware enough to know what really hurts, what will linger in your victim’s mind far longer than any punch can, gnawing away at their self-esteem and self-worth, and you’re not empathetic or self-aware enough yet to keep it to yourself. Pick any quote from Mean Girls to prove my point. My favorite example of this is, again, Olivia Rodrigo, although I should briefly mention Billy Eilish’ Bad Guy, because it captured how enormously terrifying teenage girls can be. In Good 4 U, easily my favorite track by Rodrigo, she sarcastically quips “I guess that therapist I found for you, she really helped. Now you can be a better man for your brand new girl”. Words can’t really describe how unimageable shitty this remark is, especially in an age more hyper-focused on mental health than any other. It is a damn miracle this lyric is present in a hit song, and a massive one at that: I utterly adore it. I mean, Jesus, she belittles an ex’s mental health and his growth as a human being in one fell swoop, branding whatever progress he’s worked hard for, fought for, in conjunction with a caring therapist, as all thanks to her, as meaningless. All your happiness after her is now tainted forever by the fact that she caused it and she fucking hates you. God, I wish I still had the nerve to be that awful once in a while.

These songs transport me to a simpler time and a simpler me. Their unapologetic smallness masquerading as being of cosmic proportions are the audio version of comfort food to me. There are many things we envy of the youth, their vitality and cheeriness, their boundless optimism and fresh faced motivation, their miraculous ability to just be content with their existence. But there are more things to be taken from teenagers than that, their heat-seeking, laser-guided hate; their snarky and misguided all-knowingness; and their ignorant assumptions about the sanctity of love are things that would probably not make the world a better place, but taken in moderation, I think these things would make all of us happier. The ever-increasing existential dread, anxiety, and self-denying depressions most of us shoulder these days would become a little lighter if, just once in a while, we loudly exclaimed ‘Britanny, you did not just make out with Kyle, we were going to be together forever, you skank’.

Written by Arthur Mulder

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