Beyond The Olivia Rodrigo Backlash: Maybe ‘Guts’ Just Isn’t For You…?

Art in an era of hyper-individuality...

A few weeks ago a TikTok went viral explaining a term dubbed by user Sarah Lockwood as the ‘What About Me’ effect. The much-needed video explored the increasing phenomenon of online users constantly expecting the content they consume to be altered to cater to their highly specific worldview and experiences. Using the example of a bean soup recipe, she discuses how even though the recipe is literally called “bean soup”, the comment section was flooded with individuals asking, “what if I don’t like beans” or if there was a bean substitute that could be used in their place. 

As Lockwood summarises “the what about me effect is when someone sees something that doesn’t really pertain to them, or they can’t fully relate to, and they find a way to make it about them.” They do this “instead of recognising that maybe they are not the target audience for that thing” and moving along. The repercussions for this online are seen in the increasing toxicity of comment sections for posts, with algorithms failing to differentiate between positive and negative engagement which results in innocent, often wholesome content being launched into a sea of discourse and anger. 

Many of the subjects of this toxicity are one off cases, but certain demographics are far more likely to be targeted. When musician Nep shared her new tattoo celebrating the success of her glorious, twee track ‘Soup Song’, she found herself subject to thousands of abusive comments. She later responded with a video describing how the video was being pushed increasingly “towards people who don’t like tattoos, people who don’t like women, people who don’t like indie artists” and explained that this wasn’t her first time experiencing this kind of abuse. 

It is in these cases that the ‘What About Me’ phenomenon begins to become more sinister. Individuals use the premise of their opinion or personal preferences to disguise and promote pre-existing systems of toxicity. Cases such as that of Nep, who was intending to share an innocent tattoo with a fan base she had built through her art, land individuals in the middle of debates and arguments that they never asked to be a part of, often fuelled by misogynistic engagement. 

This brings us to pop superstar Olivia Rodrigo. A few weeks ago she divulged in an interview that she is currently ‘obsessed’ with Rage Against The Machine. For a musician whose recent, blisteringly brilliant album so clearly traverses such an array of alternative inspirations, it is hardly a surprising or controversial choice. Yet, predictably, the comments flooded in. “Imagine trying to name drop literally one of the biggest mainstream rock bands of the past few decades as your ‘new favourite’ to try and seem cool” one individual replied. 

It is hardly shocking for anyone who has been online for any amount of time, particularly in the often snobby and conceited world of music, that Rodrigo received such criticism. But the ‘What About Me’ effect is increasingly being used as a thin veil for pre-existing prejudices in which people use their anger at the content being directed at them to challenge wider shifts in society. For every opinion that Rodrigo shares, such as her love of the movie ‘La La Land’, there is an abundance of cynical, unimpressed comments, snidely noting that “you can tell how young she is” for simply sharing her opinion. “I listened to this whole, sad, pointless ‘anecdote’ expecting I’d understand where the talent is by the end of it” one man wrote in response to Rodrigo describing the inspiration behind her hit single ‘Bad Idea Right’. 

The fact is, despite people constantly claiming they are simply expressing their personal opinions, Rodrigo cannot get it right. If she had cited a more ‘predictable’ pop influence she would have been dismissed and told to listen to ‘real’ music. She will always be a poser, too young, trying too hard, not knowledgeable enough, no matter what she does. And this is, fundamentally, because her art is venturing into territories and gaining her acclaim in spaces previously occupied predominantly by men. From her Rolling Stone cover to multiple Grammy award wins. Sure there are many brilliant women and non-binary acts who preceded her, but her phenomenal success is evident of a larger trend of women dominating in spaces that weren’t open to them before. 

In the discussion around Rodrigo’s latest album ‘Guts’, the singer has found herself subject to relentless comparison to the female icons of alternative in the mid 00s. One tweet, which has been viewed over 32 million times, features a clip of one of Rodrigo’s videos stating; “this is supposed to be gen z’s hayley williams/avril lavigne, there’s truly no hope.” Here misogyny, rose tinted nostalgia and ‘What About Me’ combine in ultimate force. Despite admitting the art isn’t made for her, the user feels justified in projecting her cynical and dismissive opinion onto Rodrigo’s art. 

Perhaps more troublingly, there is a willing amnesia regarding the treatment of these supposed untouchable icons at the peak of their fame. Both Hayley Williams and Avril Lavigne were treated terribly by the press and public as they rose into stardom, accused of being industry plants, divas and being subject to extensive misogyny. Instead of learning from these lessons individuals have begun to project nostalgic glorified narratives onto them as musicians and use their specific significance to justify abuse towards Rodrigo because her art doesn’t have the same effect on them. 

What needs to change is the idea that because we don’t like art or it doesn’t move us, we are open to attacking and personally insulting individuals. Olivia Rodrigo does nothing for so many older generations, or for a significant number of men, because the art she makes is not for them. It is music that, for a great number of misunderstood, angsty, often female teens, is deeply cathartic and empowering. The rage directed towards her success is rooted in a deep feeling of ‘What About Me’ because she doesn’t cater to, or even try to cater to, audiences outside of that niche. 

Art is so brilliant because it impacts everyone individually. For every song that exists, every listen and every listener is unique. We can be in the same room, tied together as an audience but feeling completely different things. When we go online and become angry that not every piece of art we are exposed to, or every artist we see platformed, isn’t interesting or moving to us, that is a reflection of the beautiful variety of art being made. Instead of angrily demanding ‘What About Me’, why don’t we celebrate that it isn’t for us, and simply move on?

Words: Eve Boothroyd
Main Photo Credit: Nick Walker

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