Olivia Rodrigo has got a thing about revisiting the scene of the crime. On ‘drivers license’, she fantasised about pulling up to the house of a first love, wistfully showing off her new-found skill. ‘Hope ur ok’ pondered what past friendships were up to now, while ‘Brutal’ perfectly captured the fundamentals of jealousy and FOMO, reliving past mistakes and inadequacies over bratty punk-rock. Even as recently as ‘Vampire’, her head has been firmly stuck in the ruminations of newly-gained wisdom: “Six months of torture you sold as some forbidden paradise / I loved you truly / Gotta laugh at the stupidity.”
On her newest single, her instincts remain the same, but the narrative has shifted somewhat. Instead of looking back in sadness or regret, the Olivia Rodrigo of ‘bad idea right?’ is willfully determined to backslide, to relive those relationships in real-time. Delivering her vocals with the breathlessness of someone who knows they’re on the road to ruin, she hurtles her way headfirst into a drunken hook-up with an ex, unravelling the conversational detail: “Haven’t heard from you in a couple of months / But I’m out right now and I’m all fucked up / And you’re callin’ my phone, you’re all alone / And I’m sensin’ some undertone…” It’s messy, silly, honest, angsty — and it might just be her finest work to date.
To understand Olivia Rodrigo’s songwriting brilliance is first to understand her as an excellent performer. ‘Bad idea right’ works so well precisely because of how the vocals are delivered — the spoken verses, the excellent one-liners (“And I’m sure I’ve seen much hotter men / But I really can’t remember when?”), right through to the hurried self-comfort punchline, perfectly designed for TikTok meme: “fuck it, it’s fine”. Clearly inspired by the likes of Hole, Wolf Alice and Lindsay Lohan’s Confessions of A Teenage Drama Queen Even the melodic ‘aahs’ are perfectly designed, mimicking the gentle hum of a brain trying to ignore its own red flags. Many artists could attempt a song like this, but by twisting her vocal into theatrical gymnastics, Rodrigo is a deeply characterful narrator, knowing exactly how to self-deprecate to full effect.
As the second single from a sophomore record, however, the genius of ‘bad idea right?’ goes even deeper in terms of what the song represents. When Rodrigo took over the world with ‘SOUR’, she was still only 18, splitting her time between solo stardom and a leading role in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Though the album talked about relationships, they were metaphorical and purposefully open with their detail, allowing the listener to colour in the lines with their own experiences of heartbreak. Two years later, and with the show currently airing its final season, this is arguably Rodrigo’s true coming-of-age moment, able to properly distance herself from a Disney context. If ‘SOUR’ came into the world under the remit of Sad Girl Summer, then upcoming album, ‘GUTS’, seems to be aiming for something sassier and willfully empowered, moving into the college dorms and setting its sights on new experiences.
As musical history well shows, breaking free from the shackles of the Mickey Mouse franchise often involves sex. From Britney to Christina, Demi to Selena, a risqué single (and accompanying outfit) marks the moment where a Disney girl becomes a popstar, positioning thinly-veiled innuendo as independent autonomy and rebellion. It’s a model as old as time, and one that Rodrigo isn’t fully immune to after all, she still isn’t legally old enough to drink in the US, so the influence of booze in her lyrical “trip and fall into his bed” should be enough to ruffle conservative feathers.
But by focusing on the emotion and decision-making of her sexual agency rather than the sex itself, Rodrigo’s songwriting manages to toe a more seamless line towards adulthood, less vulnerable to exploitation or fetishisation. Rather than portraying herself as an infallibly confident vixen, ‘bad idea right?’ keeps her feet firmly on earth, reassuring fans that even in the advent of wealth, fame and impeccably retro-grunge Liv Tyler wardrobe, she still rides the bus of insecurity and indecision, making things up as she goes.
To note that the Disney girl’s path has changed over the years is not intended to slut-shame Rodrigo’s predecessors, or to deny that Sabrina, Miley or Ariana’s more overt experiments with sexual agency haven’t yielded some all-time empowering pop. In the climate of great musicianship, there should always be room for young women to express themselves and grow up in public however serves them best. But in the interests of choice feminism, it’s reassuring to feel that an artist like Olivia Rodrigo can carve out her own coming-of-age without being pressured into the dramatic raunchy reveal that seemed almost compulsory in the 90s and 00s. Masterful in its delivery, ‘bad idea right?’ tells us plenty about the artist’s maturity without compromising her individuality, or prematurely abandoning the excitable naiveté that any 20-year-old should still hold close. After all, with ‘GUTS’ containing track titles like ‘Get Him Back!’, ‘Ballad of A Homeschooled Girl’ and ‘Love Is Embarrassing’, it seems that Rodrigo’s twenties will contain plenty more relatable revelations and misadventures for fans to enjoy.