From American Girl to ‘New Girl,’ to Disney Channel and Topping the Global Music Charts
In July 2021, Olivia Rodrigo visited the White House to meet with President Biden to help get the message out about encouraging America’s youth to get vaccinated. Of all the stars to take on this responsibility, the 18-year-old “drivers license” singer/songwriter is an obvious choice. Rodrigo’s fame snuck up so quickly that it does not even predate the December 2020 release of the vaccines that she is promoting. In fact, at this time last year, Rodrigo was in between shooting seasons of the Disney+ reboot of High School Musical, a show with modest popularity, but not typically the preceding step to a No. 1 song and album for the greater part of the year.
Not even the original cast of High School Musical experienced such mainstream notoriety. Nor Disney stars like Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, and Selena Gomez, who had debut albums with mixed reviews. All three were so clearly molded and scrubbed by the Disney machine before hitting their stride and finding their own songwriting voices and public personas. However, Rodrigo has come right out of the gate and straight to the top of the global charts with her gut-punching lyrics that can drag people of all ages into the mindset of a painful teenage heartbreak.
This has left many people wondering, how did Olivia Rodrigo become famous? Meet-with-the-president-to-create-strategic-vaccine-messaging famous? It was the power of the Disney platform combined with revealing and honest songwriting, perhaps fueled by a year of social isolation. This is sprinkled with lifelong influence and inspiration from songwriters like Taylor Swift. Here are the projects that led up to Rodrigo’s current status:
While Rodrigo’s first break was technically in an Old Navy commercial, her first big role was in the 2015 direct-to-video film An American Girl: Grace Stirs Up Success, where she played Grace, an aspiring tween baker who enters a French baking challenge to raise money to save her grandparents’ doomed patisserie. Though seemingly insignificant, other actors who have starred in an American Girl movie include Shailene Woodley (Divergent series), Abigail Breslin (Zombieland), and AnnaSophia Robb (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Carrie Diaries).
In 2016, Disney plucked Rodrigo to star as Paige Olvera in the series Bizaardvark about two teenage vloggers (à la Nickelodeon’s iCarly) who go viral writing and performing comedic music sketches. Though in a comedic setting, this is where Rodrigo first got to have her singing voice heard. In 2019, the show was canceled after three seasons, but Bizaardvark led to her next Disney role.
In 2017, Rodrigo appeared in an episode of New Girl alongside Zooey Deschanel. Rodrigo is one of three students to meet with Deschanel’s character Jess, the principal of their school, and her roommate Nick, to gush about the young adult series that he wrote. Many fans point out that one commonality between Rodrigo and her hero Taylor Swift is that they both appeared on New Girl (on different episodes, but still).
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series
Next Rodrigo moved from cable to the Disney+ streaming service in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. The show premiered on Disney Channel before the launch of Disney+ in November 2019. Rodrigo plays one of the lead characters Nini Salazar-Roberts, who plays Vanessa Hudgens’ character Gabriella Montez in the show. Rodrigo’s original song “All I Want” got some airtime on the show and even charted No. 90 in the US. The second season of the series premiered in May 2021, shortly before she released her first album, Sour.
People share covers of Taylor Swift’s songs every day, but something about Rodrigo’s cover of “Cruel Summer” compelled Swift to leave a comment and share on her page. Not too long after that, Swift’s songs from her album Evermore were charting alongside Rodrigo’s. Rodrigo has said that she is the “biggest Swiftie in the whole world.” According to Rolling Stone, Rodrigo’s song “Deja Vu” is inspired by “Cruel Summer” and even has Swift and Jack Antonoff’s writing credits on the song.
In 2020, Rodrigo signed with Interscope and Geffen Records and released her single “drivers license” in January 2021. It went to No. 1 in a week, with Billboard calling it the “Runaway Hit of 2021.” In a New York Times article, Jeremy Erlich, the co-head of music at Spotify, said that it was “a ton of X-factor that made this the perfect storm.” This includes the gossip surrounding High School Musical costars, Joshua Bassett and Sabrina Carpenter, who may be the subject of the song. Plus support from Swift and TikToker Charli D’Amelio, along with a robust marketing plan from Interscope and Geffin.
Saturday Night Live
In February 2021, Saturday Night Live poked fun at the irresistibility of “drivers license” in a sketch about men at a dive bar pool table talking about the song’s lyrics, High School Musical gossip, and Swift’s inspirations. The scene ends with them all singing what Kate McKinnon calls “the bridge of our lives.” A few weeks later Rodrigo appeared on the show as a musical guest. The sketch is making a joke at the fact that the song is about getting your driver’s license, and yet it’s making people in a much older demographic emotional.
In May 2021, Rodrigo released her full-length album Sour. At this point, “drivers license” along with her other singles “deja vu” and “good 4 u” were already at the top of the charts, and the entire album took the spot as No. 1 globally as well. Olivia Horn who reviewed Sour on Pitchfork said, “In a way, the flattening effect of the internet has worked in her favor, allowing her—someone who has been on TV for roughly a third of her life and is signed with the biggest record company in the world—to slip into the role of the underdog.”
People want to root for the underdog and feel like they’re along for the ride on their ascent to fame. Rodrigo had a lot of factors working in her favor, but Disney and Nickelodeon stars aren’t guaranteed No. 1 albums and songs when they transition into their music careers. Rodrigo was able to skip her squeaky-clean Disney debut and cut right to the grit and turmoil of being a teenager, while still managing to find the universal for folks without Disney+ subscriptions. Plus it doesn’t hurt that her songwriting is so strong that you’ll find yourself saying, “I need to hear that frickin’ bridge again.”