Olivia Rodrigo’s debut single Drivers License made headlines on its release in January 2021 for breaking some stratospheric records in quick succession. Within four days, it had the most single-day Spotify streams of all time (other than Christmas songs). A day later, it broke that record. Lovelorn and vengeful against a treacherous ex, it propelled the teenage songwriter and then-Disney star to No 1 around the world: her first ever public performance was at the Brit awards, swiftly followed by one on Saturday Night Live.
It was a remarkable rise, though perhaps what’s more admirable is how Rodrigo – who was 18 when she broke out – turned that virality into a more sustainable kind of career. Rather than blast straight into the enormo-domes she could easily fill, she toured smaller venues to allow herself to develop as a performer. She avoided spreading herself thin, declining expectations to release a traditional expanded edition of her acclaimed debut album, Sour, in order to preserve it as a time capsule of the formative heartbreak that inspired it.
And when the demand is for stars to be omnipresent online, and stoke their stature with canny PR moves, her media and public appearances were strikingly sparing: speaking out against the repeal of Roe v Wade at a well-judged Glastonbury set that got Brits onside by bringing out Lily Allen; the odd guest live performance; rare awards ceremony appearances; walking the red carpet at the Met Gala in a sophisticated look that indicated how she has moved on from her breakout aesthetic of stickers and Clueless kilts. She seldom makes headlines of her own accord (though naturally she’s still stalked by the tabloids).
The implication is clearly that the music should speak for itself and that Rodrigo’s private life is private (a decision she may have come to as a result of the insane media obsession with the supposed Disney love triangle behind her debut single). It’s a clever strategy, both in rendering her comeback a Proper Event, and allowing Rodrigo, now 20, to live her own life. Going by Vampire, the lead single from second album Guts, there’s been a lot of living.
It starts all heavy, Beatles-y piano chords. The hum of the room is intact, creating an image of a young woman alone at the keys with her thoughts. But they quickly overtake Rodrigo as she reflects on a relationship with a leeching ex who subjected her to “six months of torture you sold as some forbidden paradise”. She remembers infraction after infraction, and her vocal performance races from rueful rumination to bitter crescendo, the piano galloping alongside her, and the song feels like it’s approaching liftoff. The pre-chorus has a dreamy lightheadedness to it that’s quickly become a Rodrigo trademark – as has her way with a punch to the gut. The music dips, and she wails the blow, seething with rage: “Bloodsucker! Fame fucker! Bleeding me dry like a goddamn vampire!”
It only thunders harder from there, Rodrigo indicating that this guy was significantly older (“girls your age know better”) and hating herself for ignoring other women’s warnings about him and agreeing with his characterisation of them as “crazy”. It’s as laden with words as a Gilmore Girls script, delivered with a spit and a stomp at truly exhilarating, breakneck pace that ends in a furious, battered exorcism: imagine if Tidal-era Fiona Apple was performing a Dear John on a piano being towed by a runaway truck and you’re somewhere close.
It’s depressing that much of the media coverage of Rodrigo’s comeback will inevitably dwell on who it’s about. To do so undersells the strength of her songwriting. Vampire is an elegantly executed conceit: “I should have known it was strange you only come out at night … you sunk your teeth into me,” she sings. Skewering a guy only there for “the parties and the diamonds”, it flips the sexist stereotype of the female gold digger and acknowledges Rodrigo’s forever-changed status without coming off as a classic second-album whinge about celebrity. And the piano-led arrangement dodges current chart trends (for one thing, it rescues the bridge from pop’s dumper), establishing that this is Rodrigo’s lane to keep refining.
More significant than its subject are the women that Vampire puts Rodrigo in conversation with. Apple is there musically, but also spiritually: that line about the man calling the women who are worried about Rodrigo crazy connects directly to her 2020 song Newspaper (“I wonder what lies he’s telling you about me / To make sure that we’ll never be friends”). The exploitative age difference ties it both to Taylor Swift’s 2010 song Dear John (and last year’s Would’ve, Could’ve, Should’ve, thought to be about the same relationship) and Billie Eilish’s 2021 single Your Power, her own second-album comeback. Rodrigo castigates her ex, but also herself for not having known better (“I used to think I was smart / But you made me look so naive”), a dichotomy that Eilish articulated powerfully to Vogue: “It’s so embarrassing and humiliating and demoralising to be in that position of thinking you know so much and then you realise, I’m being abused right now.”
Vampire will also resonate deeply with a generation of young fans who are alert to abuses of power. Even six years post-#MeToo, those dynamics remain depressingly prevalent in life and in the entertainment industry. Surely that’s the reason behind the current vogue for delicious revenge songs (linking Rodrigo’s vengeful bloodletting to SZA, Miley Cyrus and Lana Del Rey, too): when real justice is hard to come by, the fantasy of public humiliation in a stratospherically popular hit may be the next best available option. The fantastic Vampire bears Rodrigo’s wounds in a reminder of what’s at stake for young women.