The Olivia Rodrigo–Taylor Swift “Beef” Is Really About Something Deeper

The Olivia Rodrigo–Taylor Swift “Beef” Is Really About Something Deeper

Music

On her wittier, louder, and more self-aware Guts, the “Drivers License” singer changes out of Swift’s lane.

The young singer smiles as she closes her eyes and lifts a microphone to her lips, wearing red lipstick and her long dark hair in a center part.

It’s The Anxiety of Influence: Pop Edition.
Rob Kim/Getty Images

I’m not sure how it became a trope to call second albums “sophomore.” But if Olivia Rodrigo’s debut, Sour, hadn’t become one of the biggest releases of 2021, winning her a Grammy for best new artist and putting the kibosh on her post–high school plans, the 20-year-old might be a literal sophomore now. She’d be heading back to campus this week instead of sending out the album’s follow-up, Guts.

In fact, she’d probably be commencing her second year at Columbia alongside her close friend Madison Hu, her co-star in the mid-2010s Disney Channel sitcom Bizaardvark, the show (along with High School Musical: The Musical: The Series) that ensured that Rodrigo also would never attend a regular high school. She both laments and lampoons that off-road voyage on the post-punk-styled Guts track “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl,” portraying herself as undersocialized: “I made it weird, I made it worse/ Each time I step outside, it’s social suicide,” she confesses. On the song’s outro, she squeezes in a last pair of comic examples of her purported gaucheness—“Thought your mom was your wife, ah-ah/ Called you the wrong name twice, ah-ah”—before throwing up her hands in mock exasperation, “Can’t think of a third line/ La-la-la-la-la-la.”

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In real life—or at least in Rodrigo’s extensively media-trained presentation of it in interviews and profiles—the California-bred star betrays no lack of social graces. She comes across as charming, good-humored, and smartly self-reflective, if sometimes understandably shaky from riding out the fame tornado that blew in as soon as the world heard her piano power ballad “Drivers License” at the dawn of 2021 and seized it as a cathartic outlet for collective midpandemic angst. It’s in her songs that she can both express and bless her inner mess, spilling her guts, just as the title advertises—or at least the presentation of them she creates with her producer and usual co-writer Dan Nigro, finely crafted for both pop appeal and intimate relatability.

On Sour, that mostly took the form of melodramatically chronicling her first major teen heartbreak, relieved by a few wittier and harder-rocking rants such as “Good 4 U.” On Guts, that balance is reversed. While each song has a sincere vulnerability at its core, the standouts to me are the upbeat, ironic ones such as “Homeschooled Girl,” the advance single “Bad Idea Right?” (about the risky fun of hooking up again with an unworthy ex), the opening Joan Didion–inspired manifesto “All-American Bitch,” or the rueful “Love Is Embarrassing.” It’s exactly the kind of growth in self-possession and perspective you’d want to find in the interval between late high school (even the home-tutored kind) and mid-undergraduate life. She’s been developing her politics too.

If it were a kid in your own social circle, though, you’d hope to hear a lot fewer stories of exploitative relationships with manipulative older men. Sadly, that’s a risk that comes with the circumstances of pop prodigies, especially young women. Today, at least, they seem to be equipped by #MeToo and a heightened generational alertness of power imbalances to catch on and extricate themselves faster, and often to call such guys out in their music. Witness songs by Rodrigo’s peers and influences, such as Billie Eilish, Phoebe Bridgers, and of course Taylor Swift (on whom more in a bit). The comfort on Guts is that pieces where Rodrigo seems laid low by hurt are outweighed by those that spring back with sarcastic resilience.

Maybe the purest example of her approach is on “Get Him Back!,” where she plays the two meanings of the title phrase off each other to explore the simultaneous impulses to reunite with a lousy boyfriend and to take her revenge: “I wanna key his car/ I wanna make him lunch … I wanna kiss his face/ With an uppercut/ I wanna meet his mom/ Just to tell her her son sucks.” Such self-aware ambivalence was less within her reach on the debut album, let alone with such good jokes. It’s echoed musically by the song’s alternation between hushed rapid-fire recitative verses and expansive cheerleader-chant choruses, which bring to mind Gwen Stefani or Avril Lavigne.

Rodrigo was already at home with such pop-punk gestures on Sour, but the rock songs on Guts also draw on the more sophisticated, artsier sounds of post-punk and indie artists from the 1980s and ’90s—apparently a taste inherited from her parents—through to today. The interweaving guitar and bass riffs on songs like “Bad Idea Right?” instantly call to mind the Breeders, for example, and her and Nigro’s penchant for building song structures around dynamic shifts can’t help but recall the famous “LOUD-quiet-LOUD” stylings of Kim Deal’s other band, the Pixies. The seeds of the spoken-sung conversational vocals Rodrigo frequently uses here come from many places, including Swift, but at their most sardonic, as on “Bad Idea,” they feel an awful lot like last year’s breakout post-punk U.K. band Wet Leg. Combine that with her avowed love for Billy Joel and Carole King, and it’s just the kind of wide-ranging, spongelike listening that’s to be applauded in an artist at Rodrigo’s stage, though not everybody’s lawyers would agree. (More on that in a moment too.)

Wisely, Rodrigo doesn’t narrow her focus by dwelling too much on the ordeals of adjusting to celebrity, as too many post-fame records do, or taking shots at gossips, critics, or rivals. She acknowledges the oddity of her position here and there, for instance when she calls the guy in “Vampire” not only a “bloodsucker” but a “fame-fucker.” But it doesn’t obstruct the more universal experiences and emotions the songs are about.

At least, unless you want it to. Which a few too many fans do. Instead of the imbalanced romance that “Vampire” seems clearly about on the surface, a lot of online chatter has been devoted all summer to the proposition that it’s actually about Taylor Swift. As of today, many have switched to—or just added on—the suggestion that new songs “The Grudge” or “Lacy” might be about Swift too. (Or else the latter might be about Sabrina Carpenter, who was purportedly the third corner of the Sour love triangle, and with whom Swift has recently seemed close.) I won’t present you with the whole case file, but in short: Swift and Rodrigo were once a public mutual appreciation society. That seemed to chill after Sour came out and Swift apparently demanded credit (and an accompanying cut of the profits) for Rodrigo’s single “Deja Vu,” whose shouted bridge was inspired in style by Swift’s “Cruel Summer.”

It seems utterly plausible Swift’s team would be petty and avaricious (look up the story behind “Bad Blood” if you don’t already know) and that Rodrigo would feel betrayed and undermined. Like a huge proportion of young singer-songwriters today, it’s not just one or two of her songs that are indebted to Swift but her entire songwriting style, from the diaristic direct address to the mixture of narrow and wide leaps in her melodies. The legal environment that enables artists to monetize stylistic influence, as opposed to literal plagiarism of one song by another, is due largely to the court decision in the “Blurred Lines” case eight years ago. The Rodrigo-Swift affair is an illustration of how off-base that verdict’s interpretation of artistic process was. If every Swift-influenced song had to tithe her royalties, Swift would be wetting her beak in half the output of the industry, like some kind of white-girl-pop Godfather.

If these had been the rules in 1964–65, every rock band in the English-speaking world probably would have gone bankrupt paying the Beatles their dues. As Elvis Costello put it when it was pointed out that Sour opener “Brutal” echoed the guitar riff from his 1978 classic “Pump It Up”: “It’s how rock & roll works. You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy. That’s what I did.” (“Pump It Up” itself, he acknowledged, lifted its swag from songs by Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry.) This is especially the case, I’d say, with artists’ early work. At 18 and then 20, Rodrigo may have a recognizable persona of her own, but she hasn’t come fully into a unique songwriting voice; arguably, neither had Swift on her first couple of albums.

There are already grumbles in some corners about the rock artists that Rodrigo borrows from on Guts, like Lavigne or Paramore or even Miley Cyrus, via an early Cyrus single. As if those artists hadn’t also themselves borrowed and reinvented material from predecessors in the first place. I admit that it is a little tempting to speculate whether Nigro is a bit less conscientious than he should be about making sure the arrangements he helps Rodrigo create are not too blatant in their pastiche. In principle, I really don’t think it matters. But that’s not going to satisfy a notorious control freak like Swift.

As an aside, I wonder if Swift would even have bothered to fuss over the stylistic echoes on Sour if it had come out today. In 2021 she hadn’t had a major chart hit for a while, and despite the love and acclaim for Folklore, it could seem as if her prominence in Pop-with-a-capital-P were waning. I’ve always guessed that the “Anti-Hero” line about feeling like “everybody is a sexy baby” is a reference to feeling overshadowed by Rodrigo and perhaps a few others. But in 2023, Swift seems, if anything, more dominant than ever, and she might be much less insecure.

To her credit, Rodrigo has refused to confirm or deny whether any of her new songs are about anyone in particular. As she told Phoebe Bridgers in a recent dialogue, she learned her lesson from the huge fallout that came from the rumors around “Drivers License” and related songs on Sour: Always be careful to separate the real person from the persona in the songs. That’s a lesson it took a lot longer for Swift to apprehend, it must be said. She literally trained her fans to treat artworks as vehicles for real-life secrets and gossip, searching for lyrical Easter eggs as clues to something supposedly more important than the song in itself. It’s only human to be curious about the biographical sources of artists’ inspiration, but it’s upside down to make that the priority.

The only kind of imitation that does concern me on Guts is Rodrigo slightly repeating herself. One of the things I really appreciate about both of her records is their old-fashioned concision, which is in contrast to the sprawling, streaming-platform-gaming approach of a lot of new albums: Sour was around 35 minutes long, while Guts is just slightly longer at 39. She’s said she wrote about 25 songs for it, then winnowed them down to 12. For all that admirable self-restraint, though, it feels as if the selections were influenced by a conservative concern about making sure to satisfy listeners who want another “Drivers License,” even though that’s mostly not where she’s been headed. “Vampire” earns its place by finding some more sonic twists to put on the piano-ballad style, but both “Logical” and “The Grudge” seem like throwbacks, with lyrics that feel like journaling and music that keeps idling in the parking lot. The redundancy of “Logical” in particular is clear in the transition from the much better “Making the Bed” (in which Rodrigo recycles the “Drivers License” car imagery much more cleverly than I just did)—one can’t even tell it’s a different song at first, and then one wishes it weren’t.

Such excessive people-pleasing betrays a bit of lingering immaturity at the expense of Guts’, well, guts. But as the album as a whole confirms, she’s here for the long haul, and she’ll have plenty of time to, I’ll say at the risk of litigation, shake it off.

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