What The Career Directions Of Olivia Rodrigo And Addison Rae Tell Us About Pop Music In 2021

Olivia Rodrigo and Addison Rae have taken their first steps into music - and their approaches couldn't be more different.

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Infinite Pop is a Music Junkee column about the past, present, and possibilities of pop music.

Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘drivers license’ isn’t just the biggest song of 2021 so far — it’s one of the biggest debut singles in history.

In pop music, there’s no such thing as a guaranteed hit. But in hindsight, ‘drivers license’ is the kind of song we’re always craving, that comes around once in a blue moon: like ‘Rolling in the Deep’ or ‘Somebody That I Used to Know’, it’s a heart-stopping ballad with an attention-grabbing arrangement, sung by an original, yet comfortingly familiar voice. So how do you force lightning to strike twice in a row? The answer is: you don’t.

Last week, with ‘drivers license’ still in the Billboard Hot 100’s top five, Rodrigo released her follow-up single ‘deja vu’. Like ‘drivers license’, it opens with twinkling synths and a car metaphor, but the destination feels very different. In the song, Rodrigo recalls her formative memories with her ex — “Car rides to Malibu/Strawberry ice cream, one spoon for two”, then imagines him repeating all of her moves on his new girl — “So when you gonna tell her that we did that, too?/She thinks it’s special, but it’s all reused!”

She sings the titular chorus several ways — first softly, as a question, then almost yelling it, hoping that her ex’s memories of their relationship will sour like hers have: “Do you get déjà vu when she’s with you?!” But ultimately, the song feels as playful as it is angry; like a hot-flush outburst that feels embarrassing in the moment, but leaves you feeling relieved.

Daniel Nigro’s production leans towards the organic-pop style that’s emerged in the last few years (think Harry Styles, Troye Sivan, HAIM), but despite the big live drums and one distorted synth, it’s surprisingly understated. The song shies away from any obvious, forced hooks in the production or vocal melodies — in fact, Rodrigo sells the moody, low second verse so well that she almost sounds bored. It’s a distinctly un-pop move, with a long, slow build to the climactic bridge – but it’s a pop song nonetheless. You won’t mistake it for Phoebe Bridgers.

‘deja vu’ isn’t as immediate or dramatic as ‘drivers license’, but that arguably shows us more of who Olivia Rodrigo is as a songwriter. She’s always feeling multiple emotions at once. “Watching reruns of Glee/Bein’ annoying, singin’ in harmony” — she sings, recalling a happy memory with a tinge of sadness. What makes Rodrigo unique, even two songs in, is that her self-conception isn’t static. She writes lyrics about the past, sung as if in the present, on songs that are released with an eye to her future. As a student of the Taylor Swift school of songwriting, Rodrigo understands that whatever she’s singing about — love, relationships, exes — the real subtext is her own personal and emotional growth.

The music video, directed by Allie Avital (Kesha, Moses Sumney) is phenomenal. It’s not a direct translation of the lyrics — it’s more ambiguous. Deploying classic Hitchcockian imagery, Rodrigo shadows another woman, played by actress Talia Ryder. In theory, Ryder’s the copycat, but it’s Rodrigo who’s cast as a voyeur; a doppelgänger obsessed with her replacement. Crucially, there’s no hero or villain, no Swiftian ‘Bad Blood’ angle that could stoke any real-life female rivalry.

‘drivers license’ could have served up a gossipy celebrity love triangle to the media on a silver platter — but it’s a blessing that the drama never once threatened to outweigh the music; that neither Rodrigo nor the other parties have been typecast as, well, anything.

Some listeners are already responding to ‘deja vu’ more than ‘drivers license’ — perhaps it’s easier to appreciate, removed from all the hype. But on its own, ‘deja vu’ doesn’t quite feel like a complete artistic statement, even if it is a confident next step.

Most expected some kind of debut EP, but Rodrigo’s already announced a yet-unnamed 11-track debut album for May 21. From interviews, it seems like she’s done every song with Daniel Nigro, with little outside A&R involvement. Disney’s granted her an unprecedented amount of freedom. Though she just turned 18 in February, and will remain one of the leads of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, perhaps they recognise that her star’s too bright to hold onto for much longer.

Will listeners be willing to emotionally invest in Olivia Rodrigo the person, beyond the one megahit? Whether the album dazzles or is just solid, it’s significant that she’s already committed to putting herself out there entirely. As her own lead songwriter, Olivia Rodrigo will succeed or fail entirely on her own merits.

But the truth is, there isn’t a full story yet. “Talented young singer achieves her dreams” isn’t a great pop narrative arc – not without tension, conflict, obstacles to overcome – and ultimately, growth. It’s only a beginning.

Go Girl, Give Us Nothing!

Now, imagine a slightly different scenario. You’re 20 years old with 79 million TikTok followers, and you’ve already ridden that wave to a beauty line, a New York Times profile, and a starring role in a Netflix remake of She’s All That. The world is your oyster… what do you choose to do?

That’s Addison Rae, TikTok’s second-most popular influencer-turned-singer. Like Britney Spears, she’s a lifelong dancer originally from Louisiana. Born in 2000, that puts Rae among the first cohort of aspiring popstars to be born after ‘…Baby One More Time’.

Rae surprise-released her debut single ‘Obsessed’ in March to…mixed reactions. Let’s lay out the positives first: ‘Obsessed’ is a perfect 2021 pop production, a rhythmically intricate dance track that could’ve come from the last Selena Gomez album. Its collaborators include top-level songwriters and producers Benny Blanco and Captain Cuts. The music video, by Diane Martel (‘All I Want for Christmas Is You’, Miley’s Bangerz Tour) elevates Rae’s pretty-good choreography with phenomenal staging and editing.

In theory, that ticks every box you should need for a solid pop song… and yet, the core is completely empty.

In theory, that ticks every box you should need for a solid pop song… and yet, the core is completely empty.

‘Obsessed’ is the vocal equivalent of the Dua Lipa “go girl, give us nothing!” meme. On first listen, you’ll immediately notice that Addison Rae doesn’t have much of a vocal range. That in itself has never stopped anyone – Selena Gomez, Janet Jackson and many others have done great things with their small voices. Even Billie Eilish’s unfairly maligned whisper-singing is a distinct style — one that Rae has far from mastered.

A vocal performance is about how you choose to tell your story through your delivery. Rae’s chosen nothing at all, enunciating every line with the same flat inflection. It’s the way she barely commits to the higher notes in the pre-chorus, like she’s avoiding them; the gaps she leaves between each syllable of the chorus, as if she’s reciting a menu. Rae’s thinness doesn’t communicate anything. She just sounds hypnotically vacant, like a fifth-generation knockoff of Aaliyah.

In the lyrics, Rae recalls a real event: she was driving through Sunset Boulevard with her then-boyfriend, who confessed that he was obsessed with her – to which she responded, “me too!” The way she describes it, she was being sincere — it was just a humorous way to accept a compliment.

Rae told Vogue, “One could take it as being vainly obsessed with yourself, but that’s not what I’m trying to communicate. It’s more I can love myself as much as you love me, and that’s important… That message was so strong, and I wanted to communicate it.”

That may feel true for her, but that doesn’t feel like the performance she’s giving. Her robotic delivery of the faux-personal lyrics amplifies the song’s most narcissistic elements. The chorus feels like a circle: be obsessed with me because I am me.

Vanity is a perfectly good subject for a pop song, and all of this could work if there was the slightest bit of cheekiness, irony, or camp to it. Hell, look at the second verse – “I did my hair like waves on the beach/This dress so tight, you can’t even speak” — those would actually be great lyrics for a song like this, if Rae sold them at all.

If you took ‘Obsessed’ to its logical conclusion, revving it up to 200 km/h, you’d get Charli XCX’s ‘Vroom Vroom’. As it is, “Addison Rae” comes off like a Gossip Girl character; the kind of LA rich-girl stereotype who’d unironically sing “you know I love fast cars” in a song about self-empowerment.

It feels both apathetic, and desperate. Apathetic, because it’s treating music as little but another brand extension of Rae’s celebrity (which would be fine if the song was good!). Desperate, because of the time and money sunk into a track, visuals, choreography, promotion — all for a song where she displays no emotional investment whatsoever.

This is a song that I want to like. It’s appealing on the surface, and any aspiring popstar’s debut should be an exciting event. But the disconnect is just too great. It’s far from the worst or most mediocre song of 2021 so far, but it is uniquely bad in a compelling way.

You may ask, are we too harsh to judge a 20-year-old’s debut single so? Does Addison Rae deserve credit for trying at all, or critique for not trying nearly hard enough?

Rae’s recent turn on The Tonight Show left many unimpressed. Her performance of ‘Obsessed’ was, of course, beautifully staged and edited. Her vocals were just flat enough to sound like a new recording, if not an actual live mic — but hey, that’s pop music for you.

On another segment, Jimmy Fallon awkwardly held up cue cards as Rae demonstrated several popular TikTok dances, while soundtracked by the wildly overqualified Roots. Outside of her own specific environment — tightly curated TikToks for iPhone screens — she seemed to lack the enthusiasm or physical charisma of a truly great dancer.

The backlash was immediate. They weren’t her dances — she’d neglected to credit the original creators — and as a viral tweet showed in a side-by-side comparison, she wasn’t even doing the moves well! It seemed like yet another example of how a conventionally attractive white person of middling talent can get opportunities at the expense of gifted POC creatives.

Of course, Rae soon addressed the backlash with some grace, and Fallon later devoted an entire segment to the dances’ creators. Maybe in the end, it’ll have been a net positive for all involved.

It’s never been easier and cheaper to make music, but it’s clear as ever that pop isn’t a level playing field. Rae’s fellow TikTok megastar Dixie D’Amelio, 19, makes songs that are similarly well-produced, yet feel even more singsongy and amateurish. No one really takes either seriously as a musician (yet) — it’s wallpaper pop.

But even wallpaper music still gets millions of streams, takes up slots on prominent playlists, commands attention on social media…Who really deserves their level of exposure? When they’re given every opportunity by the mainstream music industry, or can buy their way in (Rae’s an independent artist), we can only imagine who’s still being gatekept out.

With all that said, the point of this article is not to set up a false binary: the “authentic” Olivia Rodrigo vs. the “fake” Addison Rae. We could just as easily compare the reverse: every dull Spotifycore singer-songwriter to K/DA, a fictional video-game girl group with more dazzling music than most “real” K-pop groups.

Nor is it a reflection on Rodrigo or Rae’s moral character, either. More than any other genre, pop music is about the choices you make. It’s about your artistic vision, regardless of what level of natural “talent” you’re deemed to have.

There’s nothing more appealing in pop than a narrative overturned: Charlie Puth’s stunning reinvention in 2018; Madison Beer’s surprisingly great new debut album; or Lil Nas X going all the way with ‘MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)’, easily 2021’s best video to date. There’s plenty of time to right the ship.

When the floor of pop music is so low, it’s no wonder that the likes of Olivia Rodrigo and Lil Nas X shine so bright. As for Addison Rae? Prove us wrong.

Richard S. He is a pop songwriter, producer, and award-winning journalist. He tweets at @rsh_elle.

Photo Credit: Addison Rae by Amy Sussman/Getty Images, Olivia Rodrigo by Erica Hernandez