For this year’s update of our ongoing Greatest Pop Star by Year project, Billboard is counting down our staff picks for the top 10 pop stars of 2021 all this week and next. Before that, a tribute to the rookie artist who blew away all the other first-timers this year: the rapidly ascendant singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo.
Olivia Rodrigo’s seemingly instantaneous rise to the top is a tale that dates back less than a full calendar year. The world had the joy of experiencing the arrival of pop’s new It Girl unfolding in real time in those early weeks of January – though the sequels that followed the blazing success of her debut single “Drivers License” have considerably aged the memory. It wasn’t some contrived effort cooked up by executives and higher-ups that catapulted a then-17-year-old Disney actor-turned-singer-songwriter into global visibility, but rather it was the raw emotional honesty of a love-scorned teenager ravaged by heartbreak that won audiences over.
Billboard’s Greatest Pop Stars of 2021:
Introduction & Honorable Mentions | Comeback of the Year: Willow | No. 10: Bad Bunny | No. 9: Dua Lipa | No. 8: Justin Bieber | No. 7: Drake | No. 6: BTS | No. 5: The Weeknd | No. 4: Doja Cat | No. 3: Adele | No. 2: Lil Nas X | No. 1 Taylor Swift
Rodrigo had written “Drivers License” in her bedroom at home at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. The world may have suddenly started to fall apart, but internally she was already way ahead of it. Reeling from a breakup, the singer hopped in her car and drove aimlessly around her suburban neighborhood for an hour – lost in the music of pop newcomer Gracie Abrams’ coming of age debut EP Minor, a project tackling the uncertainty and confusion of young love. When she returned home, Rodrigo made a beeline for her piano.
What materialized from that spark of sudden revelation was a despairing address to a past partner, detailing the inescapable reminders of a future full of joint plans that had suddenly been diminished to a cloudy, lonesome journey. She’d uploaded a snippet of what she came up with to Instagram a few days later: “I got my driver’s license last week, something we always talked about / ‘Cause you were so excited for me to finally drive up to your house / But today I drove through the suburbs, crying ’cause you weren’t around.”
It was an early version of the first major new hit of 2021, before Rodrigo linked with writer-producer Dan Nigro to shape “Drivers License” into the unmistakable, car door-sampling mega-ballad the world has become intensely familiar with. That official recording wouldn’t come for another few months, taking the new year by storm as the singer-songwriter’s debut single on Geffen Records. As a familiar face on Disney, she had already built up a hefty audience, responsible for the virality of her first Hot 100 entry “All I Want” – performed and co-written by Rodrigo for her character on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. It was only right that “Drivers License” got the TikTok treatment, too.
Rodrigo told the New York Times that she had written the cinematic “red lights, stop signs” piano transition into the bridge of “Drivers License” with future TikTik videos in mind. Within its first week of release, the song’s official audio had been used in over 250,000 videos with over 23 million views. Now, it’s soundtracked more than 1.8 million videos. In that same week, “Drivers License” sped its way to streaming records, earning the biggest weekly debut for any song in U.S. Spotify chart history, with more than 30 million streams. It has since surpassed 1.1 billion streams and spent eight consecutive weeks at No.1 on the Hot 100.
The saga of “Drivers License” was a pop anomaly, but the social conversation around it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. For months before its release, inquisitive fans had been piecing together bits of information that pointed towards an alleged love triangle between Rodrigo, her HSMTMTS co-star Joshua Bassett and fellow Disney actress Sabrina Carpenter. Some had even dubbed the trio the next Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Nick Jonas. But Rodrigo kept quiet, insisting whenever possible that the focus should remain on the music. Anyone looking to speculate about the rest of the story would have to listen to Sour – the singer’s full-length debut, shared in late May.
The album’s foundation was further built on her two subsequent pre-release singles, the spectrum-spanning “Deja Vu” and “Good 4 U” – layering a lowercase aesthetic over the wildfire of teenage melodrama, and sparking comparisons to fellow Gen Z whisperer Billie Eilish. Rodrigo was steadfast in putting a stop to the one-hit wonder conversations before they even had a chance to truly set in.
“Deja Vu” arrived as a sweet follow-up that showed off the lingering creative effects of the decade Rodrigo had spent being raised on the music of Taylor Swift. Littered with the familiar, hyper-specific detailing found in her debut, her sophomore single release shed the winter blues for the warmth of a blooming spring. The punchy yelling of the bridge was inspired by a similar structure used on Swift’s Jack Antonoff-produced track “Cruel Summer” – so much so that the pair, plus co-writer St. Vincent, were retroactively added to the writing credits of “Deja Vu” in July. Rodrigo didn’t seem too bothered by sharing credit; it was minute to the grand scheme of what was to come.
Rodrigo didn’t even whip “Deja Vu” out for her debut performances on Saturday Night Live. – instead, she made her mark with a full band pop-punk show for “Good 4 U.” The angst-ridden track veered away from both of its preceding singles: Here, she wasn’t somberly heartbroken or spitefully sweet, she was in livid disbelief. The Petra Collins-directed music video was marked with flames and cult film references. It became her second single to debut atop the Hot 100, adding fuel to the fire of pop-punk’s mainstream revival. While there were other artists pushing this sound to the forefront on radio in 2021, most weren’t topping the charts with it. This was the draw of Rodrigo as a young female musician – this unabashed inclination to dwell in every heightened and contradictory emotion, instead of putting on a front for anyone else’s benefit.
When Sour arrived in full, it only leaned into this further. Seething new album cuts “Jealousy, Jealousy” and “Brutal” steeped themselves in the damning cycle of comparison and obsession that comes with existing as any young person, let alone in front of a sudden audience of millions. Heart-shattering ballads “Happier” and “Traitor” stole the show both in vocal performance and lyrical honesty, leaving in all of the moments of uncertainty, shifting cadences and gasps of breath with complete transparency. Over the course of 11 songs in 35 minutes, Rodrigo made a point of validating her own experiences with a poignant conviction that couldn’t be discredited.
And it paid off. Sour debuted at No.1 on the Billboard 200 with 295,000 equivalent album units. At the time, it marked the second-largest streaming week for an album by a female artist, and became the first debut album in history to have two singles debut at No.1. The early months of Rodrigo’s achievements coincided with the conclusion of her high school career: She’d been homeschooled, so the world’s switch to remote learning wasn’t entirely jarring, but it was unusual to not be able to play shows or see the physical manifestation of her recent success. In the interim, she shared Sour Prom, a dreamy 27-minute live concert film. It was a charming introduction to Rodrigo as a grand-scale performer, adding longform visual aid to the words of a gifted songwriter.
2021 has undoubtedly been the year of Sour, and Rodrigo is ending this whirlwind of a rookie season on a high note. In January, she’ll attend her first Grammys as a nominee, where she’s up for each of the Big Four awards. Then, she’ll have a chance to emerge to a full audience as she embarks on the international Sour Tour. From April to July, the singer will make stops in the U.S., Canada and Europe with special guests Baby Queen, Holly Humberstone and – for a full circle moment – Gracie Abrams. When she eventually moves on from theaters and ballrooms to sold out arenas, with more elaborate shows and even more music, this explosive first year of Rodrigo’s career will continue to feel further and further away. But it’ll feel like even more of a privilege to have watched it all happen.
Tomorrow: The top 10 begins, with Billboard‘s No. 10 and No. 9 Greatest Pop Stars of 2021.