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The New Queen Chameleon: Olivia Rodrigo

I’ve always regarded innovation as a one of the most important aspects when judging a musicians catalogue and I think it’s really the most important thing in music, to be an innovator, a free thinker, a person who knows the rules so well that they can bend and distort them to put new angles on old tales, think Kurt Cobain and how he was basically playing grunge versions of Beatles tunes, same chord progressions, entirely different sound. In my scale of judging music, I’ve given most merit to these types of artists and recently I’ve started to decide that it isn’t necessarily the only way to create because as cultures build upon each other, so does music, and many of the best artists out there are chameleons, they adapt to the times and this is there artistic sense, to understand and create in many dimensions.

These thoughts all started the other day when I was listening to the new Olivia Rodrigo album, Sour. Now she’s quite the fascinating case study to me because with “Driver’s License” being such a huge success, she’s clearly the breakout star of 2021 and while it’s lame for a 32 year old man to take fascination in this budding pop star, I think she’s done something really interesting, she’s brought indie girl band rock into the mainstream. Now this probably means the death of the genre as anything of substance but with the two follow up singles, “deja vu” and “good 4 u”, she went straight to that sound and I think what you can see in her, even at this young age, is an ability to adapt to the times. With a voice as angelic as her, I’d have thought she’d probably found her way into a far more pop star sounding first album but she sees what’s going on in the trendy scene and is able to pull influence from it and put it into her own songwriting.

The opposing characteristic here is to be innovative because while Rodrigo is making good of the times, she isn’t exactly doing anything innovative but rather a take on what some of the best innovators like Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Barker are doing, taking the indie songwriting formula and incorporating them with sounds from different genres. That would be my biggest critique of the album and the only other being that, lyrically, it is all break up songs and that’s just a little too in the vein of one of her biggest influences, Taylor Swift.

Now Swift, who I consider to be one of the great queen chameleon (you could anoint it to Beyoncé or Lady Gaga all the same), at least after her transition into folk on her last two albums, is a perfect example. Swift has gone from Country to Pop to fucking Dub Step and now to a folk, probably indie-folk sound and probably countless other sub-genres in between but the fact is she is able to adapt her songs to the various sounds of the time while still making it work.

It would be easy to dismiss the three artists listed above as they are all just huge mainstream successes and influencers are inferior talent wise and I wouldn’t blame you, I’d probably still agree with you but these days I’m starting to see the skill in the transformation as the sign of a truly transcendent artist. This is, after all, what we give the Beatles credit for, they took the popular music of the time, first with Rock n’ Roll then Psychedelic into that later phase of their career where they were taking to the much more traditional elements of music. And it’s not just the Beatles, Keith Richards even claims in his autobiography that the Stones were doing disco tunes in the Eighties and it’s why their body of music still holds so true today.

I still stick with many of the innovators, people like Elliot Smith and The Velvet Underground can’t be ignored, they created new sounds and styles that people are still taking influence from today. And I still think it is a very important aspect of music but I’ve started to see the importance of the adapting. Bowie essentially invented it and many still reference his three album rule for pop stars, essentially saying that if you don’t change it up every three albums, you get pegged in a certain genre. I think Bowie and the Beatles were really standard setters in that regard because even Elvis never really transitioned out of the King of Rock mantra and while being ‘The King’ may be cool, I am starting to find equal merit in the chameleons of music.

Photo Credit: Kenny Gouts

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