Why Olivia Rodrigo Is an Essential Gen Z Voice

The Grammy Awards are often maligned for being out of touch with mainstream culture. But the 2022 Grammys proved its cultural relevance by giving three awards to Olivia Rodrigo, including Best New Artist, Best Pop Solo Performance, and Best Pop Vocal Album for her breakout album Sour.

Along with Billie Eilish — who won four Grammys in 2021 — Olivia Rodrigo represents the attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs of the swelling Gen Z population. This is significant because Gen Z comprises 20.2% of the US population — 68.2 million tweens, teens, and young adults ages 9 to 24. As the third-largest cohort, Gen Z is the most racially, ethnically, and sexually diverse generation in history as well as the third-largest generation behind Millennials and Baby Boomers. They are also a generation shaped by trauma. According to the Pew Research center, 70% of teens across all gen­ders, races and fam­i­ly-income lev­els say that anx­i­ety and depres­sion are sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems among their peers.

Rodrigo’s Sour blew up in 2021 because it connected with Gen Zers traumatized by a pandemic, school shootings, and an uncertain economic future. She did not sing about those topics explicitly. Instead, she explored internal trauma in other ways — such as the insecurities of comparing herself to others on social media and always coming up short (in the song “jealousy, jealousy”) and the heartbreak of loss, most famously on the single “Drivers License.”

As Heather Phares of Allmusic wrote, “Rodrigo nails what it’s like to be 17, heartbroken, and frustrated, and updates the traditions of the sharp-eyed and sharp-tongued songwriters before her for Generation Z.” That heartbreak is deeply traumatic in its own way. And she is not afraid to share it. “I’ll tell my Uber driver all of my deepest traumas and insecurities, and so I just think songwriting for me is an extension of that aspect of my personality,” she once told Nick Reilly of NME. Those deepest traumas were on full display in her show-stopping performance of “Drivers License” during the 2022 Grammy telecast.

She is known as a voice of a generation coming to terms with mental health unlike generations before them. As Sarah John of MSN noted, “As other Gen Z artists have stated, their generation is delivering more rawness than their predecessors. Rodrigo, a self-proclaimed oversharer and the child of a therapist and teacher, weaponizes that emotionally open generational rawness especially well. Rodrigo understands the demand for authenticity from her generation.”

Olivia Rodrigo is responding to Gen Z trauma in her own authentic way. The Grammys got it right.

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