No ‘Guts,’ no glory: How Olivia Rodrigo became America’s pop-punk queen

Olivia Rodrigo photographed amid chandeliers
About her Grammy-nominated “Guts” album, Olivia Rodrigo says, “This time, I wasn’t 17 years old, going through my first heartbreak, crying at the piano.” Rodrigo was photographed at George’s Lighting Plus on Hollywood Blvd.
(Sandy Kim / For The Times)

Olivia Rodrigo thinks of herself as a judicious dropper of the F-bomb.

“I always try to keep it to just the essential swears,” says the 20-year-old pop superstar. “I try not to throw a frivolous ‘f—’ in there.”

Her music bears this out: A little less than three years ago, Rodrigo blew up seemingly overnight with “Drivers License,” an instant-classic break-up ballad that builds to a cathartic bridge in which she sloppily confesses to an ex, “I still f—ing love you, babe.” Her recent sophomore LP, “Guts,” unloads another winner in “Vampire,” a miniature rock opera about an unwise Hollywood hook-up that rhymes “bloodsucker” and “fame-f—er.”

Yet because Rodrigo’s audience contains plenty of grade-schoolers — before music, she came up on a couple of squeaky-clean Disney shows — even the most artful of her profanities must occasionally get the chop, as in the clean edit of “Vampire,” in which “fame-f—er” becomes — sigh — “dream-crusher.”

Is there a song on “Guts” she’d think twice about performing were she booked for, say—

“The Kids’ Choice Awards?” she asks, finishing the question. “Lots. Probably wouldn’t play ‘All-American Bitch’ — ‘All-American Chick’ would suck. I guess I could play ‘Vampire’ with the ‘dream-crusher.’ But that in itself is a dream-crush right there.”

For Rodrigo, even hypothetical disappointment is a novel experience these days. In September, “Guts” became her second straight album to enter the Billboard 200 at No. 1 (after 2021’s quadruple-platinum “Sour”), while tickets sold out almost immediately for the arena tour she’ll set out on early next year. Now, she’s up for six prizes at February’s Grammy Awards, including album of the year for “Guts” and record and song of the year for “Vampire.”

“I hate to hit you with the ‘It’s an honor just to be nominated…,’” says the singer named best new artist at the Grammys in 2022. “But it really, truly is.”


Though it’s oriented, as “Sour” is, around her emo-theater-kid vocals, “Guts” builds on Rodrigo’s debut in a few important ways. For starters, it’s more indebted to the ’90s punk and alternative rock she absorbed as a child, thanks to her parents: Listen for the identifiable traces of Smashing Pumpkins in the shimmering “Pretty Isn’t Pretty” and Bikini Kill in “All-American Bitch,” a sly yet furious critique of impossible feminine ideals with a title borrowed from Joan Didion.

Between albums, Rodrigo took guitar lessons — among the tunes she learned were Radiohead’s “My Iron Lung” and the Beatles’ “Something” — which is why she’s particularly gratified by a nod for the fuzzed-out “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl” in the Grammys’ rock song category, where it’s up against cuts by Boygenius (“Incredible song,” she says of the indie supergroup’s “Not Strong Enough”), Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and none other than the Rolling Stones.

“I love that it’s for the song where I say, ‘Every guy I like is gay,’” Rodrigo says with a laugh over lunch in Los Feliz. The singer, who grew up in Temecula, recently bought an apartment in Greenwich Village and has started splitting her time between New York and Los Angeles; she’s here enjoying a cheeseburger and Diet Coke not long after the premiere of the latest “Hunger Games” movie, for which she wrote a spectral chamber-folk song called “Can’t Catch Me Now.”

Rodrigo credits her producer, Dan Nigro, with pushing her to try out different styles and sonic approaches.

“I sometimes think if it weren’t for him, I would have been writing sad piano ballads forever,” she says, dressed in a collared red dress and dark boots that give her something of a cool babysitter vibe.

The Queens of the Stone Age frontman has recently survived cancer, the deaths of close friends and a protracted custody battle. The result? ‘A flood of emotion.’

Dec. 12, 2023

Yet it’s Rodrigo’s commitment to the character she’s playing — to the subtle variations in tone and attitude — that brings the music to life in a song like “Bad Idea Right?,” a jumpy new wave jam about reconnecting with a guy she knows she should avoid. And, yes, this former child actor does think of her performances on “Guts” as character work.


“That was an idea I was exploring a lot on this album — that the girl singing ‘Bad Idea Right?’ is totally different than the girl singing ‘Logical,’” she says. “This time, I wasn’t 17 years old, going through my first heartbreak, crying at the piano, and a song just flies out. I had to sharpen my songwriting skills and my singing skills. It felt like a different creative experience.”

Olivia Rodrigo in a lighting store
About performing her older songs on tour, Rodrigo says, “Some of them I don’t really love so much anymore... I just feel like I’ve grown out of some of them.”
(Sandy Kim / For The Times)

“Guts” is also funnier than “Sour,” nowhere more so than in the rap-rock banger “Get Him Back!,” in which the singer roasts an ex without breaking a sweat: “He had an ego and a temper and a wandering eye / He said he’s six-foot-two and I’m like, ‘Dude, nice try.’”

None of this is to say that Rodrigo has forsworn the type of emotional melodrama that made her a star. In the pensive “Making the Bed,” she revisits the scene of “Drivers License,” imagining herself behind the wheel of a car as the brakes go out. And one of the album’s most impressive songs is “Lacy,” a haunting and delicate acoustic number about a poisoned friendship that grew out of an assignment Rodrigo completed as part of a poetry course she took last year at USC.

“The line that blows me away is ‘Dazzling starlet / Bardot reincarnate,’” says Noah Kahan, the folk-rock singer-songwriter (and fellow Grammy nominee) who recently covered “Lacy” in a live set for the BBC’s Radio 1. “It’s so vivid and paints such a specific picture. And her vocal performance is out of this world. It’s one of the hardest songs I’ve ever covered in terms of finding ways to accent the words without overpowering them with your voice.”

Like “Drivers License,” which came wrapped in internet gossip about Rodrigo’s alleged romance with a Disney castmate, “Lacy” has inspired widespread speculation regarding the identity of the song’s subject. (The most popular theories involve Taylor Swift and Gracie Abrams.) Rodrigo says she tries to ignore the chatter, though she’s enjoyed the “more creative answers to who Lacy is — like it’s a past version of myself or the voice in my head telling me I’m not good enough.”


At any rate, she adds, “I just think it’s not classy to come out and say it’s about this person. I also think that would set a weird precedent where I’d have to clear the air with every song I write.”

A new documentary celebrates the L.A. session musicians behind classic tracks by Carole King, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, Warren Zevon and countless more.

Dec. 11, 2023

Even so, Rodrigo seems pleased to have learned that Billie Eilish wrote her song “Goldwing,” as Eilish recently told The Times, in part about feeling protective of the slightly younger Rodrigo. “I thought that was so sweet,” she says. “Billie is such a kind, wonderful girl, and I feel very lucky that it’s not about competition — that we’re just looking out for each other. I love that song.”

With a laugh, Rodrigo recalls that the friend who relayed Eilish’s comments to her went on to wonder who’d be the next pop phenom to come up behind Rodrigo. “Obviously, I’m washed up,” she says — a joke with a kernel of truth she explores in “Guts’” mournful closer, “Teenage Dream,” in which she cops to the “fear that they already got all the best parts of me.”

“I think for any young person in the entertainment industry, that’s a little bit of a mindf—,” she says.

Sheryl Crow and Olivia Rodrigo perform onstage together
Sheryl Crow and Olivia Rodrigo perform at the 2023 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
(Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame)

On the brighter side of aging: the fact that she’ll get to vote for president for the first time next November. Rodrigo cast her ballot in last year’s midterm elections — “You could totally mail it in,” she says, “but I went and put it in the thing anyway because I had to get a sticker” — and she’s been vocal on a variety of hot-button social issues.


Onstage last year at L.A.’s Greek Theatre, she advocated for stricter gun-control laws in the wake of the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas; weeks later, she dedicated a rendition of Lily Allen’s “F— You” at England’s Glastonbury festival to the U.S. Supreme Court after the court overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Asked if she weighed the pros and cons of speaking out at a moment of deep political division, she says no. “Especially with something like abortion, it’s so emotional,” she adds. “And I think that’s what artists do: take their emotions and make them into art.”

Says John Janick, chairman and chief executive of Rodrigo’s label, Interscope Geffen A&M: “A few of the many things I love about Olivia are her intelligence, conviction, values and caring nature. She has the courage and confidence to stand up for what she believes in.”

Having visited the White House in 2021 to urge young people to get the COVID vaccine, she has a relationship with President Biden. Would she play a campaign event if asked?

“First off, what a crazy sentence: ‘You have a relationship with the president,’” she replies. “But I mean, yeah, totally. I think it’s a really noble cause.”

Olivia Rodrigo stands by chandeliers at George's Lighting Plus on Hollywood Blvd.
(Sandy Kim / For The Times)

Before that, she’s got a tour to launch on Feb. 23 in Palm Springs — just a couple days after her 21st birthday. “I’m either not gonna do a party or I’m gonna be really hung over for the first show,” she says, laughing. “We’ll see.”

Rodrigo, who joined Sheryl Crow to sing “If It Makes You Happy” at last month’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, says planning the production “is really making me examine my identity as an artist, because I love going to a show that’s big and awesome, but I’m also not the type of girl who’s gonna break into a dance routine. That’s not me. So I’ve got to figure out a way to make it my own.

“I need to work on my death-metal scream too,” she adds — something she appeared to have done in time for a rowdy, cake-smashing rendition of “All-American Bitch” this past weekend on “Saturday Night Live.”

Among her opening acts will be the Breeders, whose 1993 hit “Cannonball” she ranks as “one of those songs where I look at my life as before I heard it and after I heard it.” She caught the veteran alt-rock band’s gig at the Wiltern in October and hung out backstage afterward. “I hope I get all the stories out of them that they have,” she says of the upcoming dates.

On tour last year behind “Sour,” she says, “I didn’t know anything about performing. I was so green.” At the time, she said she’d elected to play theaters (instead of the arenas she could easily have filled) because she didn’t want to “skip any steps” in her development as a live performer. Reminded of her rationale, she smiles. “If they’d put me in an arena back then, I would’ve been terrified,” she says. “I wouldn’t have known what to do.”

So what did the road teach her?

“That jumping around and singing — just the physical act of it — is the hardest thing.”

Our top albums of 2023 come courtesy of a diverse group of women: an R&B superstar, a rising Colombian American and a sassy country newcomer.

Dec. 6, 2023

Going back to her old songs now in rehearsals has been another learning experience. “Some of them I don’t really love so much anymore,” she says. For instance? “Oh, I don’t want to tell you that. People get so sad because it’ll be their favorite song. But I just feel like I’ve grown out of some of them.”

She’s happy to report that “Drivers License” isn’t one of those, though she does hear her breakout smash differently today.


“I remember putting the song out, still super-heartbroken, and people would come up to me and say, ‘Wow, this takes me back to my first heartbreak,’” she says. “Now, I listen to it and I totally get it. It actually does transport me back to when I thought I was never gonna love anyone else.

“I’m like, Awww — that’s so cute.”