Why Gen X Dads Can Appreciate Olivia Rodrigo

Six-year-olds are careless little obsessives. Some flashy thing—these days, they all seem to involve dogs and the police—grabs their attention and, for a very short period of time, nothing else matters. The fever breaks as soon as you finally pull out your wallet and buy the action figure or lunchbox or whatever else they’ve been asking for. The toy gets tossed, and then it’s on to the next law-enforcement animal trend. My daughter has gone through every fixation, including “Octonauts,” “Paw Patrol,” and Pokémon. She has read multiple book series about moody dragons. Still, every obsession has been entirely disposable to her.

The only thing that seems to have stuck is the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” She has watched pretty much every incarnation of the Ninja Turtles, starting from the 1990 movie—which is how we recently found ourselves at a matinée showing of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem,” the most recent Turtles filmic adventure, from Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. From the jump, there was something intergenerationally gratifying about this trip; I had gone to see the original T.M.N.T. film in the theatre with my parents. The filmmakers must have had viewers like me in mind. The movie’s soundtrack—which included M.O.P.’s “Ante Up,” De La Soul’s “Eye Know,” Blackstreet’s “No Diggity,” and A Tribe Called Quest’s “Can I Kick It?”—sounded like something I would have downloaded on LimeWire in my dorm room in 2001. My daughter has heard all these dad-rap songs because I play them in the car; now here we were, watching characters from both our childhoods.

I was thinking about this type of era-hopping cultural experience while listening to “Guts,” the latest album from Olivia Rodrigo, a twenty-year-old singer whose début album, “Sour,” broke streaming records back in 2021. For listeners born between, say, 1972 and 1985, “Guts” can give you the feeling of being sprayed with a nostalgia hose. There are hints of Weezer, Bikini Kill, No Doubt, Green Day, and Blondie. In a video of Rodrigo performing “All-American Bitch,” a song that borrows from the Breeders, Sleater-Kinney, and Blink-182, she wears a Fiona Apple T-shirt. “Pretty Isn’t Pretty,” the album’s penultimate track, kicks off with a riff that sounds so much like the Cure that I expected Robert Smith to barge in and sing the second half of the song.

As a rule, I don’t like these sorts of projects—the 2015 film “Dope,” about teens who obsess over nineties hip-hop, is a prime example—in which the audience is presented with a thicket of references, and the thrill lies in disentangling where certain sounds come from. It can be nice enough to have that fleeting moment of pleasant reverie over, say, the first time you listened to Mazzy Star while smoking cigarettes behind the Circle K, but I would hope that artists would have loftier ambitions than asking, Hey, do you remember that band?

The twist here is that Rodrigo does not remember that band. Her music and self-presentation—she was recently photographed wearing Todd Oldham clothes from 1995eight years before she was born—suggests that an artist does not have to live through an era to evoke it. Displaced nostalgia, of course, is a mainstay in music. If you walk into a bar in Nashville today, you’ll find men who were born during the second Bush Administration singing songs about troubles that we haven’t seen since the Great Depression.

Although Rodrigo might not be the first musician to inhabit an era that she did not live in, there is a chaos to her reference game that feels both playful and energized. Unlike Greta Van Fleet, a TikTok-famous rock band made up of twentysomethings who mimic Led Zeppelin with the same pedantic self-seriousness that Civil War reënactors devote to the Battle of Antietam, Rodrigo does not seem satisfied to just do one old thing. “Vampire,” for instance, starts out sounding like a complainy nu-metal ballad, and then quickly builds into something that sounds like it’s straight off Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill.” Rodrigo’s work is more analogous, then, to that of Girl Talk, the d.j. who titillated sorority parties in the early twenty-tens by mashing up artists from all types of genres: Electric Light Orchestra, Lil’ Kim, Simon & Garfunkel. Where acts like Greta Van Fleet (or, to some extent, the Strokes) always gave us the feeling that they desperately wanted to be played on vinyl, Rodrigo’s music feels much more like a YouTube playlist of songs that your mom really liked when she was in college.

I am not particularly qualified to tell you what Rodrigo should mean to her core teen-age audience. That is between them and her, and I know better than to interfere. But I do sometimes find myself wondering how young people who have grown up with YouTube and a limitless supply of music from any era actually situate themselves in the present. Their parents grew up in a time when music was attached to specific scenes that were very much of a time and place, whether Seattle’s grunge or the Midwest’s indie rock or hip-hop from New York City. Rodrigo’s album, by comparison, feels entirely frictionless—the expression of someone whose “scene” is the Spotify recommendation algorithm. Start with Babes in Toyland and see how many songs it takes you to get to Blondie.

The references in “Guts” fly by quickly. What makes Rodrigo’s music so infectious is that she speeds through her influences with such dexterity that it almost seems like a sleight of hand. Is she singing like 4 Non Blondes on purpose? Was that Godspeed You! Black Emperor? The album, like the recent “Ninja Turtles” movie, embraces the referential abundance of Gen Z but in a way that reminds their parents of their own youth. Listening to “Guts” while driving my daughter to soccer practice in our van—an activity that can only really be described with self-effacing irony—I could still drag up the vestiges of my own adolescent rage. It was a pleasant experience—me, a quarter century removed from the intensity of teen-age feeling, and my daughter, hopefully at least ten years away from the same, both living through the nineties again. ♦

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