Olivia Rodrigo may be leading the pack of a new generation of young stars.
The singer-songwriter made waves in pop culture after releasing her chart-topping debut album “Sour.” But her blossoming music career runs parallel to her obligation to Disney, as she stars as Nina “Nini” Salazar-Roberts in Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”
“Sour” isn’t your typical album coming from a Disney actress/singer. It’s raw, vulnerable and includes a few f-bombs – a stark difference from the pre-teen music of “High School Musical.”
“I guess I’ve really always thought of myself as a singer/songwriter who found acting, rather than a child star who decided to give singing a shot,” Rodrigo tells USA TODAY.
Child stars of the past made sharp distinctions after their kid-friendly careers in order to establish themselves as adult music artists. In 2021, Rodrigo has made it possible for both sides of her career to exist simultaneously.
“I defend artists for wanting to figure out what they can do, and maybe what they’ve always wanted to do,” former Disney songwriter and producer Robbie Nevil says. “It’s up to them, it’s their album now.”
Miley Cyrus transformed into an average teen who also lived a double life as a rockstar in Disney’s “Hannah Montana.” The show first aired in 2006 when Cyrus was 13 and ran until 2011, right as Cyrus was breaking into adulthood. Before finishing with Disney, Cyrus released her third studio album “Can’t Be Tamed,” an effort to begin the separation from Hannah Montana.
Cyrus, 28, has talked about how the Disney character negatively affected her sense of self.
Nevil, who co-wrote the “Hannah Montana” theme song “The Best of Both Worlds,” says it’s obvious musicians want to break out to find more value in their careers.
“I totally defend the artists for wanting to come into themselves because when they were doing the shows, that’s not them, those songs were (probably) written for them,” Nevil says.
Cyrus physically transformed after the show ended, trading her long brunette hair for a platinum blonde pixie cut in 2012. The next year when she released her “Bangerz” album, twerking onstage, singing about sex and talking about drug use helped fully cement her new post-Disney persona.
Cyrus wasn’t alone in feeling the pressure of her squeaky clean Disney image. Before branching out into more adult acting roles and music, The Jonas Brothers wore purity rings during their tenure; Selena Gomez made family-friendly songs for “Wizards of Waverly Place” and “Princess Protection Program”; and Demi Lovato toured with other Disney acts after their breakout role as Mitchie Torres in the “Camp Rock” franchise – all while under Disney’s watch.
To Nevil, Rodrigo’s approach to work under Disney while creating music with adult themes at the same time is a novelty.
“I don’t know whether that could’ve happened (back) then.” Nevil says. “This is the first I’ve seen it.”
Morals clauses can be found in the contracts of child stars to lay out restrictions of what talent can and cannot do in their personal lives, according to entertainment lawyer Jake Levy.
These clauses, Levy says, may have prevented early 2000s stars from experiencing more artistic freedom outside of Disney.
“Studios always prefer their stars conduct themselves in a family friendly manner,” Levy says. “Companies like Disney are no exception.”
Levy says morals clauses have changed over the years because they subjectively rely on what society sees as the norm, and social media has helped shift those societal standards.
“Social media has also increased the value of ‘authenticity’ versus packaging,” media psychologist Pamela Rutledge says. “The visibility of celebrity has likely made up and coming stars retain ownership of some aspect of their life and image.”
Rutledge says social media has “given performers new ways of achieving success.” Rodrigo’s first single “Drivers License” became a TikTok hit, influencing more than 1.7 million creators to use the song for their own videos.
“Disney can only benefit from the visibility and interest Rodrigo has been getting,” Rutledge says.
Lovato, who started off as a child star on “Barney and Friends” and starred inleading roles in Disney’s “Camp Rock” and “Sonny with a Chance,” has been vocal about how young stardom affected their ability to know their true selves.
The singer said they felt constricted by the expectations set in their early career. While Lovato showed off the sparkling Disney image in public, they said they struggled with addiction and self harm behind the scenes.
“Now that I’m living my truth, my art has just become that much greater because my art is a reflection of who I am,” Lovato, who has since opened up about their sobriety and recently came out as nonbinary, said on an episode of their podcast “4D with Demi Lovato.” “So now that I’m able to be more transparent in the world about who I am, they can see my art better and they can hear it better.”
Child and adolescent psychologist David Schwarz says successful adolescent development relies on aspects such as self-identity and autonomy.
Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album ‘Sour’ is pop savagery wrapped in innocence and we’re obsessed
“Being on the Disney Channel and having everybody turning and looking at you, talking about you: How would that impact how you see yourself?” Schwarz asks.
Schwarz says he doesn’t think it’s as important for teenaged stars to know exactly who they are because the point of adolescence is to partake in self exploration but the issue celebrity stars face can come when they are restricted from exploring.
Rutledge says Rodrigo’s ability and autonomy to live a life outside of her TV roles may not protect her from the psychological challenges of fame, but it could help strengthen her confidence in who she is naturally.
“The key to managing the (developmental) transition successfully appears to be a strong internal sense of self,” Rutledge says. “It increases the opportunities for them to have a stronger foundation and alleviate some of the need to reject an imposed image.”
A strong sense of self seems to be driving Rodrigo’s autonomous success: “At the core of it I really just try to make music that resonates with me and that’s all I can do,” she says. “How people perceive me is really none of my business.”
Contributing: Kelly Lawler, Anika Reed