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Olivia Rodrigo
via Instagram (@olivia.rodrigo)

How Olivia Rodrigo became Disney’s first Gen Z music superstar

The 17-year-old’s debut ‘drivers license’ has become a modern pop phenomenon, with a rise compounded by Gen Z social media sensibility and widening avenues to teen stardom

“I say that’s my baby and I’m really proud,” Taylor Swift commented on Olivia Rodrigo’s Instagram, under a post celebrating Rodrigo’s juggernaut debut “drivers license”. For a 17-year-old at the beginning of their pop music career, this can feel like the gilded seal of approval. Just last month, Rodrigo was mostly known for her Disney channel roles. Her shot up to top of the charts may have felt, for many outside of that world, pretty unprecedented. “drivers license” has topped 150 million Spotify streams and reached number one in the US, UK, and across the world. Not bad for a teenager with no prior musical output, High School Musical soundtrack and Walt Disney Records aside. 

Of course, Disney stars crossing into mainstream music is nothing new. In the mid-to-late 2000s, they gained a monopoly on pop, bolstering the teen idol industry: Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and the Jonas Brothers dominated the teen-pop market. The cherry on top was the emergence of a young Justin Bieber by way of early YouTube and an Usher co-sign – though still very much in the pristine pop pulmonary vein of the American brand. Since Cyrus and her contemporaries however, there hasn’t been a breakout Disney music star. The most successful Disney alum of the 2010s is Zendaya, who began on the channel’s Shake It Up series and has since gone on to carve an acting career, starring in Euphoria, The Greatest Showman, and the forthcoming Dune blockbuster.

Disney is no longer the cultural behemoth it was in the noughties; contemporary shows like Bizaardvark, A.N.T. Farm, and Liv and Maddie haven’t had the same impact on a generation as Hannah Montana or Wizards of Waverly Place, while the music careers of Sofia Carson, Sabrina Carpenter, and China Anne McClain, among others, haven’t had the expansive impact of their predecessors either. That said, Carpenter has gained a large social media following since her Disney days and is certainly popular among Gen Z (with 6.5 million TikTok followers), and orbits the “drivers license” saga. Ariana Grande, coming out of rival kids channel Nickelodeon, straddles both generations, and by the end of the 2010s cemented her status as one of the biggest pop stars on the planet.

Enter Olivia Rodrigo – Disney’s first legitimate Gen Z music star. Born in 2003, she’s over a decade younger than Cyrus, Gomez, and Lovato, with her Disney Channel debut in 2016 as Paige Olvera in Bizaardvark. She’s got a large online presence, with 5.7 million, 4.7 million, and 1.35 million followers or subscribers on Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube respectively.

Today there are more nebulous and ever evolving avenues for a teenager to become famous, teen stardom becoming more meritocratic as a result. Anyone with a YouTube or TikTok account can theoretically shoot to fame; many of the most prominent teen idols today are famous first and foremost for being internet personalities.

“Today there are more nebulous and ever evolving avenues for a teenager to become famous, teen stardom becoming more meritocratic as a result”

Of the top 20 most-followed TikTok accounts, 12 are controlled by people aged 23 or under. Charli D’Amelio, 16, is by far the most-followed with 106 million followers, and her older sister Dixie is at number eight with 48 million, pushing into the mainstream with a TV series and Spotify podcast. Over on YouTube, popular Gen Z stars include Emma Chamberlain, who boasts just under 10m subscribers. A recent study found Gen Z YouTubers were among the most trusted celebrities for Gen Z. They aren’t so much singers, dancers, or actors as simply vloggers, giving fans an insight into their lives. 

Olivia has succeeded by using social media in much the same way. This generation of Disney kids – Rodrigo, Jenna Ortega, and Rowan Blanchard among them – are the first to be true digital natives. They've combined their Disney fame with a muscle flex on social media that's inherently natural to them. Back in October, Rodrigo did an IGTV with Maisy Biden, granddaughter of current president Joe, while last year Carpenter used TikTok to give fans sneak peeks of her movie Work It, juxtaposed with clips of her celebrating her birthday and dancing with her friends like any other young woman. In short, it feels like their social media accounts are authentically ‘theirs’, rather than being looked after by a ‘team’ or corporate label.

On the cusp of adulthood, they aren’t trying to shed their association with Disney like some former stars. We’ve not had a Cyrus doing a bong of salvia or a “Can’t Be Tamed” pole dance generational moment just yet, and we’re not likely to get it. This is, perhaps, because there’s less for today’s Disney kids to rebel against. Whereas previous Disney kids were often tied into long, airtight contracts and pressured to cultivate a family-friendly image, today’s stars seem to have a little more creative freedom – they’re more vocal on political and social issues, for a start. Rodrigo herself shared one picture of herself dressed up as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and another of herself wearing a sweater with the slogan ‘Hot Girls Vote’ in the run-up to last year’s presidential election. 

Another interesting Disney case study is Zendaya’s former Shake It Up co-star Bella Thorne. She’s taken a more unconventional route post-Disney, and has often courted controversy as a result. 23-year-old Thorne has built a solid base of acting credits, dabbled in directing with an adult film, and released some electronic-inflected records. Last year, she joined OnlyFans, marking a significant moment for celebrities emerging on the content subscription service utilised by sex workers and original creators. She made $1 million in her first day, though many sex workers accused her of gentrifying the space. Her tumultuous love life and Instagram antics see her more regularly on TMZ than Billboard. Thorne has created a rift as deep as her OF wallet between her career and her Disney beginnings.

“Rodrigo, like many of her contemporaries, frequently broadcasts her life on social media, and her presence on these platforms allows her to get closer to her fans than her Disney predecessors; they get to see how a similar-aged celebrity lives her life”

Rodrigo, meanwhile, is still heavily associated with Disney. When we consider the premise of Bizaardvark, the show that propelled her into the public eye, the whole thing becomes ever so slightly meta. Bizaardvark is about two best friends who make it big on a video-sharing platform, reflecting a trajectory similar to what Rodrigo has been able to do in real life. Of course, she also plays one of the main characters in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, of which the second season is still to air.

Like many of her contemporaries, Rodrigo frequently broadcasts her life on social media, and her presence on these platforms allows her to get closer to her fans than some older Disney alum; they get to see how a similar-aged celebrity lives her life. In many ways, she's a typical teenage girl, hanging out with her friends and fangirling over Taylor Swift – it’s just that she also chats to Biden’s granddaughter and hangs out with director Judd Apatow’s daughter, all while teasing her burgeoning music career. 

“drivers license” was heavily rumoured to be about her ex-boyfriend and HSM co-star Joshua Bassett. A week later, Bassett released a track of his own entitled “Lie Lie Lie”, dissected and deemed a response by fans. Followers suspect that the older blonde girl Rodrigo’s lyrics mention is in fact Sabrina Carpenter, thought to be Bassett’s new girlfriend. Carpenter, both blonde-haired and four years Rodrigo’s senior, then dropped the song “Skin”, with lyrics that appeared to square up to “drivers license”. She’s been vague and soft in her own denial of this.

Whether this love triangle is real or manufactured, it’s nothing new for millennials who lived through Britney/Justin. This call-response pattern mimics another 00s drama, Frankie and Eamon: Eamon’s “Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back)” and Frankee’s response of “F.U.R.B. (Fuck You Right Back)”. Frankie and Eamon’s tumultuous romance, laid bare in their songs, came about at a time of tabloid frenzy and celebrity gossip. Now, the Olivia/Joshua/Sabrina triangle proliferates when we’re at our most bereft of gossip and scandal amid national lockdowns. How couldn’t we be invested?

“drivers license” is also, very simply, a very good song. Scroll through TikTok and you’ll hear it, on the car radio, yearning Spotify playlists. It captures a melancholic nostalgia Gen Z in particular is living through, unable to live their coming-of-age years in a pandemic-hit world. It’s got the bedroom pop feel that’s proven successful time and time again, and follows a tried-and-tested power ballad structural formula. Alongside pop-producer heavyweights Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen, producer and co-writer Dan Nigro has previously worked with artists like Carly Rae Jepsen, Sky Ferreira, and Caroline Polachek and knows just what it takes to create a pop song that combines indie sensibilities with mainstream appeal. It maps out a moment in music for a generation just like predecessor Taylor Swift’s music once did resonating with millennials.

TikTok is now a significant arbiter of new music’s success. A catchy hook or well-considered lyric can go a long way to making a song popular on the platform and subsequently bleed into the charts; from dances to challenges to memes, music is a key component of TikTok videos – Ashnikko, Benee, Lil Nas X, Roddy Rich are testament to that. Pop music producers and stars like Rina Sawayama and Declan McKenna have all shared that they can make music with TikTok in mind, and Sawayama saw the “XS” challenge around her eponymous song proliferate. She told The Guardian last year that she uses the platform, but has “no idea what I’m doing” – for artists who didn’t grow up with the platform, it’s proving to be a slight learning curve.

These pathways to pop superstardom are something that Rodrigo and her contemporaries get. Make no mistake: while her music career is still in its infancy, all the signs point to her becoming the next true Disney music star.