October 16, 2023

Olivia Rodrigo Is Not “The Next Taylor Swift”

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Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo often make headlines, but now more than ever, the two of them seem to be a major topic of conversation. Taylor Swift’s burgeoning relationship with Travis Kelce has been talked about non-stop in the media, Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour is already reaching record-breaking ticket sales and 1989 (Taylor’s Version) is set to be released at the end of this month. Olivia Rodrigo has largely been talked about in regards to the release of her sophomore album, GUTS, and the announcement of the accompanying world tour.

As we all know, Taylor Swift’s fan base is one of the most influential and robust of any artist. Olivia Rodrigo herself identifies as a hardcore Swiftie and has repeatedly emphasized the influence Taylor Swift’s music has had on her own. This has led many of her fans to call her “The Next Taylor Swift.” While Swift and Rodrigo do share certain similarities, I would argue that by assigning Rodrigo such a title, we are limiting her growth as a creative.

Olivia Rodrigo first shot into the spotlight as the character Nini on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. On the show, she sang the song “All I Want,” a sweet ballad emphasizing the perils of teenage love, which received plenty of attention. Shortly after, in 2021, Rodrigo released her first single unassociated with the show, “drivers license,” which was then followed by “deja vu.” As I am sure you all remember, people went crazy for both tracks, in which she reminisces on a past relationship. It was at this point that fans made the romantic connection between Rodrigo and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series co-star Joshua Bassett. Not only were Bassett and suspected then-girlfriend Sabrina Carpenter completely demonized by the press as a result, but Rodrigo gained a reputation — that of the relatable, angsty teenage girl who understood what it meant to be scorned, who understood what it meant to be us. However, this persona can be a double-edged sword — while it contributed to Rodrigo’s growing fan base, it also created rigid expectations for the album that “drivers license” and “deja vu” were a part of: SOUR. Rodrigo rose to the occasion, though, with songs such as “traitor,” “good 4 u” and “happier” solidifying her ability to sing extremely effectively about past relationships.

As the drama involving Bassett and Carpenter built, the tide started to turn on Rodrigo. She began to receive backlash for the effect her songs were having on Bassett and Carpenter. Many of her fans stuck by her side, but her reputation became complicated. This reputation is not unlike Taylor Swift’s, whose songs about young love put her on the map but also resulted in her receiving much criticism about her supposed “exploitation” of her past relationships for subject matter.

Not long after the release of SOUR, Olivia Rodrigo was crowned “The Next Taylor Swift.” In some ways, this is a huge benefit to Rodrigo’s career — Taylor Swift is one of the most influential and storied singer-songwriters of our time. She was named Songwriter-Artist of the Decade at the Nashville Songwriter Awards in 2022 for good reason; her lyrics display a nuance and thoughtfulness that is rare in today’s musical landscape. Her ability to beautifully transcend the constraints of genre is laudable. Being compared to Taylor Swift is being compared to a legend.

Likewise, naming Olivia Rodrigo “The Next Taylor Swift” is a restriction of artistry. By bestowing this identity upon her, fans essentially prescribe her artistic future. This is especially significant in the wake of the release of GUTS. This album was highly anticipated — many people expected another SOUR, which included a number of ballads that showed off Rodrigo’s vocal range and displayed a heartwarming sensitivity comforting to anyone who has ever been a teenage girl. That being said, GUTS marks a shift away from such content. Rather than leaning into that aspect of her first album, she went in the other direction, which we got a taste of with SOUR songs like “brutal”: the riot grrrl anthem. Songs like “logical” attempt to balance out this quality with a quieter vibe, but it seems forced, like an attempt at keeping the attention of fans of SOUR’s soft side. As aptly put by Cat Zhang of Pitchfork, “The album’s more somber offerings are not always bad on their own, but amid songs that showcase such ripened self-awareness, they can feel stuck in the past, content to repeat the same wounded, wide-eyed disbelief of ‘drivers license.’”

This is the harm in comparing Olivia Rodrigo to Taylor Swift. The whispers of Taylor Swift’s influence that we heard in SOUR, that purposeful prose and instrumental focus, were not just expected but demanded in GUTS. GUTS showcased Rodrigo’s ability to do it all and represented her development as an artist in the past two years, but this was overshadowed and undervalued because of the Taylor Swift designation.

Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo are distinct artists who are talented in their own rights. To conflate them is to define them and limit their potential. As new artists emerge, we must allow them to define themselves to foster change and innovation in the industry, instead of creating a vortex of previously-established talent.

Sydney Levinton is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].