Olivia Rodrigo’s Gen-Z Gospel

In 2021, Olivia Rodrigo was the dominant figure in the music industry. Her piano-driven “Driver’s License” and the rock-inspired “Good 4 U” both hit number one on national and international music charts. While best known for her young love heartbreak anthems, her debut studio album “Sour” also wrestles with weightier themes, winning her both critical acclaim and a rabid young fan base.

I was initially drawn to the aesthetics of Rodrigo’s music as a seamless blend of Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Hayley Williams, but soon found that her lyrics cover many of the same topics I discuss with my Catholic high school students. Catholics can learn from Rodrigo as we Catholics struggle to reach and keep young people in a church that is notoriously difficult to reach.

In the album’s opening track, “Brutal,” she laments how her teenage years have not lived up to the happy-go-lucky stereotype often portrayed in popular media.I’m so sick of seventeen/ Where’s my [expletive] teenage dream?/ If someone tells me one more time/ ‘Enjoy your youth!’ I’m gonna cry,” she sings. Referencing the Katy Perry song “Teenage Dream,” Rodrigo signals she is a different kind of pop star—one who understands what it’s like to feel life passing you by. She relates feeling like, “I’m not cool, and I’m not smart, and I can’t even parallel park.” For Gen Z, which USA Today has called “The Loneliest Generation,” Rodrigo’s disillusionment resonates.

On several occasions, I have had students tell me something similar along the lines of, “Mr. Tenney, I’m jealous of your high school stories. We just watch Netflix on the weekends.” What if our church, like Rodrigo, found ways to verbalize and validate the emotional experiences of youth? What if the church prioritized mentoring and fellowship opportunities for youth? They need guidance in building deep relationships that go beyond social media.

What if the church found ways to verbalize, validate, and validate youth’s emotional experiences, just like Rodrigo?

Speaking of social media, in “Jealousy, Jealousy,” Rodrigo details her self-destructive thoughts while browsing her phone: “And I see everyone getting all the things I want/ I’m happy for them, but then again I’m not/ Just cool vintage clothes and vacation photos/ I can’t stand it, oh, God, I sound crazy.” Most of us can relate. Who hasn’t felt a twinge of envy and insecurity when happening upon the carefully curated feed of a friend or influencer portraying a perfectly filtered life?

Those of us who had religious education classes growing up may remember learning the commandment to not “covet thy neighbor’s belongings” and that envy is one of the seven deadly sins. We still scroll mindlessly, comparing ourselves with others who have the lifestyles, looks, and things we desire. This leads to self-loathing and resentment in our hearts, particularly for those less emotionally secure. Rodrigo explains why and how social media-fueled envy can lead to suicide: in our self-understandings, our relationships, and our mental health.

Rodrigo also adopts a semi-prophetic voice in “Hope Ur Ok,” in which she tells the story of a boy whose abusive parents “cared more about the Bible than being good to their own child/ He wore long sleeves ’cause of his dad.”This cautionary tale is all too familiar to me, having spent my whole adult life in ministry.

Like a modern day Qoheleth from the book of Ecclesiastes, Olivia Rodrigo looks at the preoccupations of her world and cries “vanity!” In doing so, she is pointing her listeners towards something more eternal.

This song brings back memories of a student who visited me in my classroom a few years back. He would often stop by to discuss a political or ethical topic. Several times we even discussed the church’s teaching on sexuality and marriage, on which we disagreed but understood each other. But that morning he caught me off guard when he said, “Mr. Tenney, if the crowds ever come for me as a gay man, just make sure they hang me with a Michael Kors belt.”

Although I suspected he was gay, he hadn’t ever spoken out about it to me so openly. I looked at him and said, “If they come for you, they’ll have to hang me first.” He ran over and squeezed my hand.

As his religion teacher I felt honored that this was something he shared with me, especially considering our disagreements over sexual ethics. However, I was also horrified that this young man thought Christians were a threat to his physical health.

I have mostly lost touch with him after he graduated, but if he reads this, I want him to know in the words of Rodrigo’s lyrics: “I love you, and I hope you’re okay.”

Rodrigo names God at least 12 times on the album. Some mentions are clearly meant in exasperation and not as prayers, but sometimes she blurs that line: “God, I don’t even know where to start”; “God, I’m so blue”; “God, it’s brutal out here”; “God, I wish I could do that.”

Rodrigo mentions God more than 12 times on the album. Some of her mentions are clear indications that she is referring to God in frustration and not as prayers. However, sometimes it blurs the line.

These lines resonate with me because I too have gone through painful times where I have cried out “GOD!” and it’s not clear, even to myself, if I am cursing or praying. Even my non-religious students have a general sense and desire to call out…something. Someone? The universe? This spiritual restlessness can be fertile ground to develop an inner life. As St. Augustine famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God.”

When I listen to Rodrigo’s music, I marvel at the wisdom of this young woman. She reminds that I won’t find inner peace or happiness by getting the right things, right look, right relationship, or having enough adventures. She reminds me so much of the young people I’ve had the privilege to work with over the years. They are often struggling, looking for something better than what they have. Rodrigo shows the emptyness that comes with a materialistic, individualistic society.

Like a modern day Qoheleth from the book of Ecclesiastes, she looks at the preoccupations of her world and cries “vanity!” In doing so, she is pointing her listeners towards something more eternal.