Olivia Rodrigo Is Re-Defining The Cool-Girl Pop Star

She's building a legacy brick by brick...

18 months after her breakout with ‘Driver’s License’, Olivia Rodrigo has finally made her UK live debut with a modest round of theatre shows, and, of course, a comparatively massive set at Glastonbury. For one of, if not the biggest pop star in the world right now to be playing venues with capacities in the low thousands feels wild. Especially in the wake of more than the capacity of the entire headline tour turning out to watch her middle-of-the-day Glasto set. Olivia chose not to play arenas this time round not because she couldn’t, but because of a legacy she’s building for herself already: she’s defining the cool-girl pop star for her generation, and for that, she needs to go brick by (boring) brick.

At just 19, Olivia Rodrigo is perhaps the first Gen Z popstar to hit this level of fame at this age. She’s not only the first of her generation, but also the first to reach this stratosphere in the streaming age, smashing through multiple Spotify records as well as topping charts. The hype surrounding her is less like the likes of 2010s popstar breakthroughs like Ariana Grande or Rodrigo’s Disney contemporaries – and more like that surrounding the likes of Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, artists breaking through at the turn of the millennium and the turn of a generation. For those in their teens in 1998, these were the artists defining what a pop star was. And now, for teens in 2022, Olivia Rodrigo is doing the same, with careful nods to her predecessors, and a careful deliberateness that sets her apart.

Olivia Rodrigo Is Re-Defining The Cool-Girl Pop Star

Britney, Christina &and co. were adored on immense levels, but what set them apart wasn’t just the fact they were aspirational to their fans: they were accessible. They were polished, but not too much – they felt like they could be emulated. They were the cool girl next door. Now, in the Y2K revival, the cool girl is back with a heavy dose of late 2000s emo, and Olivia has tapped into that to craft a style that’s relatable, aspirational, and so distinct that half breakthrough emo-pop artists are taking it as a blueprint.

Though ‘Driver’s license’ was the immediate promise of huge things from Olivia, it established her as a stunning singer-songwriter. ‘Déjà Vu’ confirmed that she could do sunny pop magic. But Olivia’s foray into the emo-pop renaissance with ‘good 4 u’ was what cemented her as a star. After the last two singles, who expected a gold standard Gen Z Hayley Williams to take us by storm? But clad in her cheerleader’s outfit with pop-punk riffs in tow, Olivia didn’t just prove that she had a stunning voice and could turn out a top-tier sad love song – she rounded out her attitude, delivering confessional, emotional writing in her fiercest form yet.

At the time, we were deep in lockdown – alt was a trend, dyed front bangs were in, eyeliner sales were at their highest since ‘07, and a searing pop-punk-pop-rock banger from the world’s most hyped popstar was gasoline on the fire… But then, Olivia transcended the microtrend – ‘good 4 u’ remains her set closer, and joins covers from Avril Lavigne and Republica, cementing her rocky side within a setlist of piano ballads and pop tunes. By taking cues from all corners of cool, she’s found the blueprint for what seems like universal appeal, and she’s made it last.

On her Sour UK tour, Olivia’s coolness manifests as intimate venues (for her), a well-chosen cover or two, and a surprise trip to a dive bar for an impromptu karaoke moment that slots seamlessly into the narrative of nostalgia she keeps swirling around her. Even beyond the immediate exclusivity created by her venue choices, with tout tickets going high into the hundreds for a ticket with face value £40, Olivia’s run of shows have done what no arena performance ever could: they’ve made her feel accessible. Rather than being 200m away and up in the gods, or even for those willing to queue for barrier, still significantly separated from the stage, she’s in touching distance. After rising during lockdown using the power of the internet to build her fanbase, Olivia seems determined to maintain that closeness even as big as she is now.

Olivia Rodrigo Is Re-Defining The Cool-Girl Pop Star

There’s also a sense of legacy to live up to – though she could be selling out arenas, Olivia’s determination to do things the right way, and earn those stages, shines. Though she’s up in the highest echelons of celebrity right now, Olivia is not too good or too big for anything. Without even trying, she’s one of the most relaxed, effortlessly cool celebrities that people her age and younger have to look up to – worlds away from the Met Gala-level outfit expectations for Harry Styles’s tour, or the relentless sleuthing and constant analysis that Swifties get up to.

Olivia, despite being as big as the former two, can walk into a Manchester dive bar at half past midnight, buy a drink, asks the cover band if they know ‘Torn’ and give the performance of her life just for fun. Even the choice – Natalie Imbruglia, 2000s it girl, number one in 1997 speaks to the legacy Olivia is emulating. The artists Olivia is taking cues from were in their heyday when Olivia and many of her fans were barely walking. So, with her own twist and by combining them all with her own distinct, striking musicianship, Olivia is becoming these icons for her generation.

Words: Ims Taylor
Photography: Lindsay Ellary

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