How Olivia Rodrigo Flipped The Disney Script
Many Disney alum have gone on to become successful, autonomous pop stars — but Rodrigo has done it while still employed at the House of Mouse.
Olivia Rodrigo can say “fuck.” And she seems to revel in saying it.
In the music video for her pop-punk anthem “Good 4 U,” the 18-year-old star of the Disney+ series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series sings about an ex-boyfriend who is enjoying the fruits of the narrator’s emotional labor with his new girlfriend. “It's like we never even happened, baby,” Rodrigo croons as she puts on black latex opera gloves in a locker room. Then, staring straight into the camera, she asks bluntly, “What the FUCK is up with that?”
It’s quite a refrain coming from a current Disney star. Rodrigo has catapulted to pop glory. Her album Sour premiered at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 as the biggest debut album of the year and featured the ubiquitous single “Drivers License.” And her fans aren’t just teenagers. The New York Times gave the album a favorable review, and she performed on SNL. Many cynical millennials have called a truce on the side part wars to stan a zoomer.
Alongside Zendaya’s Emmy-winning acting, Rodrigo has set forth a new direction for Disney celebrities. She is a breakout Disney star who can curse, doesn’t have to mention their TV network in every interview, and outwardly exerts more control of her art compared to her Disney predecessors.
Many Disney alum, most notably Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato, have gone on to become successful, autonomous pop stars — but Rodrigo has done it instantaneously and while still employed at the House of Mouse. Even more impressive, she doesn’t sing saccharine, G-rated empowerment pop songs like her predecessors had to. Her success marks a new era where stars who find initial success through the Disney Channel are rightfully decreed as talented and industrious performers at the time of their arrival, not industry plants. So, truly, how’d Rodrigo do it?
Disney Channel is essentially a vocational school for wannabe triple threats and one of the last remaining vestiges of a Golden Age–type of studio system. "If we can find the right talent, the record group gets an artist, consumer products gets a new franchise, and the cable channel and movie studios get a new actor,” Gary Marsh, then-president of entertainment of Disney Channel Worldwide, said in a 2008 Wall Street Journal profile of 15-year-old Demi Lovato’s arrival to Disney as a successor to Miley Cyrus...even though Cyrus’ show Hannah Montana was only in its second of four seasons at the time.
To retain control over tween culture, the network has essentially created microgenerations for nearly every age, going back to 2000, when Even Stevens premiered. And with every microgeneration comes a new teen icon. Many try their hand at singing.
Often for Disney Channel singers, it takes nearly a decade in the spotlight before they’re free of the network and taken seriously as a stand-alone artist.
Previous Disney Channel stars have been crossover hits from the start. Three of Miley Cyrus’s albums as Hannah Montana went No. 1 on the Billboard 200. But she, like so many of her peers, had to extensively go through Disney to do so.
Disney’s music label is Hollywood Records, where Cyrus, Gomez, Lovato, Hilary Duff, Raven-Symoné, Aly & AJ, the Jonas Brothers, Sabrina Carpenter, and a series of other Disney Channel stars all released music early in their careers.
Hollywood Records arguably hit its musical peak in the early 2010s, when many of the aforementioned tween icons, as well as the High School Musical cast, found Top 40 success. Those in the network’s second wave had to follow a blueprint designed by Duff and Raven-Symoné. “I don’t think I gave a shit about being an actress or a singer. I just wanted to copy you no matter what,” Cyrus, on her Instagram Live show Bright Minded, told Duff last year.
The pseudo assembly line of stars was supposed to make Disney seem fresh. Still, it’s hard not to see this system as one that exploits and overworks children. The rigor and expectation for perfection often cause Disney stars to lash out when forced into retirement as young adults. "There's a very flat learning curve," Marsh told the Wall Street Journal. "We know these kids grow up, evolve, experiment. And sometimes they take the right path, and sometimes they take the path that they know is a mistake."
Often for Disney Channel singers, it takes nearly a decade in the spotlight before they’re free of the network and taken seriously as a stand-alone artist. Even then, if your career is still prosperous, there’s no guarantee the public will let you move on from your adolescent identity.
In 2013, Miley Cyrus released Bangerz with RCA Records, tarnishing her old image (with an assist from Robin Thicke) through a controversial VMA performance. A year later, it was Selena Gomez’s turn. Her final album with Hollywood Studios was a greatest hits album, For You, in 2014...at age 22. Less than a year later, she released Revival. One of the album covers features her sitting cross-legged and naked. She was reborn. Five years, another album, several films, an HBO Max cooking show, and a Spanish-language EP later, Gomez fears she can’t fully shake her Disney image. “I still live with this haunting feeling that people still view me as this Disney girl,” she told Vogue earlier this year.
At just 12 years old, Rodrigo booked the lead role in Bizaardvark, the 2016 Disney Channel’s tween sitcom about musical influencer teens, which allowed her to sing funny songs. In 2019, Bizaardvark ended. Rodrigo stayed with Disney to launch a mockumentary series, a spinoff of High School Musical, on its new streaming service, Disney+.
With HSMTMTS, Rodrigo could finally sing earnestly and with precision. In fact, she wrote her first solo single, the Season 1 ballad “All I Want.” The song became a moderate TikTok hit, and several record labels courted Rodrigo. As the self-described “hugest Taylor Swift fan ever,” Rodrigo knew the importance of not taking just any deal, and for whatever reason Disney hadn’t already signed her preemptively.
This allowed Rodrigo a chance at autonomy, and her team actively struck out on their own. “When the time came to look at labels, we were lucky enough that we had created the freedom for her to be able to meet with different potential partners who would be the best fit for Olivia,” Rodrigo’s manager Kristen Smith told Billboard last month. Rodrigo opted for Interscope Geffen, who she said prioritized her songwriting. And, yes, ever the Swiftie, Rodrigo maintains control over her master recordings.
It’s worth noting that it’s because of Rodrigo’s Disney affiliation that she had a brief run of public notoriety. In January, she released her debut non-Disney single, ”Drivers License,” and caused internet chaos about whether she was singing about a certain Disney costar.
Ever the Swiftie, Rodrigo maintains control over her master recordings.
These days, however, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series only merits a brief mention during press runs and so does the “Drivers License” drama. Her Instagram lacks any mention of the show, but it’s clear she’s not avoiding the topic. Earlier this month, she did an interview with Entertainment Weekly about HSMTMTS.
This makes it all the more remarkable that Rodrigo managed at just 18 years old to find artistic authority outside of Disney while still working as an actor for the company. It’s nearly counter to the network’s operation, especially considering it jump-started her musical career.
More recently, Rodrigo seems intentionally focused on keeping her singing and Disney acting careers separate. Her predecessors who’d entwined their two claims to fame, like Cyrus, have publicly expressed how difficult these dueling identities became to manage. On the podcast Rock This With Allison Hagendorf in March, Cyrus recounted the subliminal “concept” of Hannah Montana: “When I looked like myself ... when I didn't have the wig on anymore, no one cared about me. I wasn't a star anymore." She had to let Hannah Montana die to discover herself.
Rodrigo seemingly wanted to avoid this fate. “When ‘Drivers License’ came out, everyone was like, ‘I have no idea who this Olivia Rodrigo girl is, but I love this song.’ That is the absolute dream for me, because I've always wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter,” she told Nylon in May.
As a representative of third-wave Disney Channel, Rodrigo had a dozen career paths to draw from, but she ultimately chose to create her own. “It’s been something I’ve given a lot of thought to, that Disney-girl archetype,” she told Interview in April.
Rodrigo is adamant that her biggest influences aren’t fellow Disney stars; they’re Taylor Swift and Lorde. The first two vinyls she owned were Swift’s Red and Lorde’s Pure Heroine. These two artists are the core of Sour into which Rodrigo has imbued their modern, extremely online teen angst. Her final track “Hope Ur OK” combines Swift’s lyricism with the breathy cynicism of Pure Heroine.
The confluence of influences, as well as a general malaise coming out of the pandemic, has helped Rodrigo’s music find an audience beyond a teen crowd. “Even if I didn't always hear it affirmed in my own adolescence, it's heartening to now hear Rodrigo asserting, from the top of the charts, that girls have plenty to be emo about,” Lindsay Zoladz wrote for NPR.
It’s all very pleasing to Rodrigo. “I feel like they can see me for who I really am, not this character that I’m playing or this script that I’m reading,” she told Interview about having adult fans.
If a comparison to her teen-pop predecessors must be made, Rodrigo’s career is more akin to Ariana Grande’s. From 2010 to 2014, Grande starred on Nickelodeon (Disney Channel’s rival network) as Cat Valentine, an oblivious yet sweet teen in Victorious and later Sam & Cat. Like Rodrigo, Grande secured a recording contract as a side hustle outside the network. Yours Truly, released in 2013, went No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and solidified her as the new face of pop music.
Nearly eight years later, Rodrigo is mirroring this journey, though through an indie singer-songwriter lens. Sour ranges from riot grrrl influences ("Brutal") to a soft piano ballad ("1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back") to an industrial pop track ("Deja Vu"). ” “I suppose I’m considered a pop artist, but I’ve never felt like one,” Rodrigo told the Face. She has called ’90s alt-rock her favorite genre, listing Alanis Morissette, Fiona Apple, and the White Stripes as inspiration. Her first concert was Weezer. Her sound is also the result of producer Daniel Nigro, who has worked with the likes of indie darlings Sky Ferreira, Caroline Polachek, and fellow Gen Z’er Conan Gray.
It’s unthinkable that Disney could have somehow let Rodrigo slip away — but it’s all the more impressive that as just a teenager she is standing firm with a company she still works for. As she sings on the opening track of Sour, “God, it’s brutal out here.” This time, though, it looks to be brutal for Disney, not its artist. She’s seemingly using the company for her benefit, and that ingenuity is what the fuck is up with Olivia.●