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Beware the Famefucker: Consumer Girls’ Lament in the songs of Olivia Rodrigo

By Sarah Hajkowski


Olivia Rodrigo as a songwriter is capturing the voice of young people now, many of whom are concerned about their economic futures, interpersonal relationships, and happiness overall. Her songs ‘Good 4 U,’ ‘jealousy, jealousy,’ and more recently ‘vampire,’ personify a burning youth– typically a version of herself–seeking both validation and things, things, things to make her happy, surprised to find they don’t.


Photo: GUTS album cover, courtesy of Geffen Records and Olivia Rodrigo.


Even for Olivia Rodrigo, a budding songwriter, a former Disney cast member not yet twenty-one years old, the state of the world today is uncertain and muddy. Pop stars are upheld by fierce fans for their relatability, for articulating through music what feels impossible to do in spoken words. So it’s no surprise that Rodrigo, Grammy-winning sensation on international charts, comments on the current affairs we so often hear of as buzzwords: “class consciousness,” “hyper-consumerism.”


Depending on the source one consults, the United States in particular is entrenched in the age of “late-stage capitalism,” and being a pop star hardly liberates Rodrigo from awareness of how commodification operates in everyday life.


Rather, she writes on-the-pulse for listeners concerned for their bank accounts, their relationships, and their prospects for a happy future. Personal, even pocket, technologies enable a nonstop flowstream of information unseen in any other age, and while it can be an asset to access so much information so quickly, it can also elicit intense feelings of isolation and hopelessness.


Rodrigo’s speakers critique the nature of being herself amid so much capital and stimulus. She concerns herself with how material goods prove or do not prove some form of success, still susceptible to envying and obsessing over representations of them as seen in social media, and unable to escape linking unhappiness, even clinical depression or other mood disorders, with the potential to have or have not. Taking a cross-section of three of her most popular hits, ‘Good 4 U,’ ‘jealousy, jealousy’ (off debut album SOUR, 2021) and ‘vampire,’ from album number two entitled GUTS, set to release September 2023, this survey aims to bring out the interweaving of consumerism and personal anxieties in Rodrigo’s songwriting.


‘jealousy, jealousy’ - SOUR (Released 2021) - Track 9


‘jealousy, jealousy,’ with Rodrigo’s lowercase preserved, falls near the middle of SOUR. The first four lines read: “I kinda wanna throw my phone across the room/'Cause all I see are girls too good to be true/ With paper-white teeth and perfect bodies/Wish I didn't care” – the visual of our speaker is clear from the get-go: many can just picture their teen selves curled up, fingernails bitten, knees doodle-tattooed and mobile phone in hand.


Even in earlier eras of girlhood, for Western teen girls especially, a bombardment of simulacra (glossy style magazines, sewing pattern packets, newspaper photographs) reinforced the ideal of femininity and saw many girls in introverted, fetal poses poring over depictions of what they could be, should be, according to society.


Rodrigo’s speaker is subject to hypermodern strains of this same toxic messaging in the form of social media. The thirst for commodity: draped in expensive clothing, chromed in “daddy’s nice car” lettering, enjoyed by people who are “living the life,” is inseparable from her idea of success, and more penetratingly, emotional fulfillment.

Photo: ‘jealousy, jealousy’ lyric visual created with Canva.


The idea that under capitalist and other superstructures, one’s desire for material wealth can become a compulsion, a harmful fixation has been synthesized by theorists following the blueprint of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, which coined the term “commodity fetish” in extraction from anthropological studies of symbol worship in cultures such as the Aboriginal populations of Australia. By definition, commodity fetish is “the mistaken view that the value of a commodity is intrinsic and the corresponding failure to appreciate the…labor that went into its production” (Oxford Reference).


What does commodity fetish look like in the life of girls like the speaker of ‘jealousy, jealousy’? Where is she, and the society that influences her, deceived about the intrinsic worth of material things and therefore forgetful of their origins?


From the song’s text, we understand that this act of comparison, the classic ‘having’ vs. ‘having not’ is nothing less than “killing” her “slowly.” She itches to escape her own selfhood and feels like she’s not enough. Material goods (on the “happier, prettier” bodies sporting them and smiling) are not only intrinsically valuable, they’re essentially the nonpareil. The speaker of ‘jealousy, jealousy’ doesn’t know the “kids” whose profiles are setting off such ire in her, their stories, the stories behind what they wear and drive and drink is likewise irrelevant. If she could only access what they’re projecting, the things they have, she could be her ideal self.


This dimension of how desire operates for the speaker is also part of Marx and others’ definition of commodity fetish: the utilization of a substitute. Human connection, especially for young people seeking affinity and acceptance, is intensely vulnerable. To engage with people outside of their screen presence, to risk rejection IRL (in real life) is a scary challenge. The far easier key to everlasting happiness is Balenciaga and Burberry.


The reality is that marketing and commerce have invaded like never before the lives of impressionable young people. Worries about the mental health of youths continue to spike, and many have the gut-feeling that it must wreak havoc on the already vulnerable psyche of a teenager or young adult to be so inundated with commercialism, with the promise of social acceptance at a price.


The phrase ‘on-brand’ is comfortably used by young people to categorize organic, category-defying behaviors in their everyday; natural ambiguities are forced to fall within or outside of alignment with what one claims to be about. To quote child psychologist and author Dr. Allen Kanner, PhD, “It's the meta-message that you can solve all of life's problems by purchasing the right products that's having the most profound effect” (Kersting).


Being twelve or fifteen or twenty-two years of age already guarantees developmental chaos. Opened at once are biopsychosocial chasms of fear and hope, manifested as strange cravings, foreign anxieties, earth-shattering egocentrism. Teens and young adults are already carrying the responsibility of finding how they fit into the world on their shoulders. It’s only natural that a product, a collection of them, which swears to be the cure-all for all that discomfort should find favor with the buyers that literal billions of dollars are sunken into hooking.

Photo: SOUR album cover (back), courtesy of Geffen Records and Olivia Rodrigo.


‘Good 4 U’ - SOUR (Released 2021) - Track 6


The eponymously “sour” rift between a subject who gets “everything you want” and a speaker who is broken without them is central to the plight of ‘Good 4 U.’ Rodrigo’s speaker reviews the realities of her terminated relationship rather like a court trial, and toward evidence she lays out the apparent signs that her ex-partner is thriving not only emotionally, but materially as well.


Among the wealth Rodrigo figures in her ex’s possession are “a new car, and your career’s really takin’ off,” but likely most scathing of all he has found a new girlfriend, “and it only took a couple weeks.” That new relationship seems to be the ember that finally occasions ‘Good 4 U’ as it is the first stanza chronologically.


Here to qualify the comprehension of Rodrigo’s voice in commodity-conscious terms is a relatable killing blow; a real-life interpersonal relationship with another human being ends. Material does not trump all, there are deeper cuts than insta-envy.


But even here, the periodically sinister influence of hyper-consumerism seeps into perception of this new relationship. The new woman in the subject’s life is notably not his “recent partner” or significant other, she is his “brand new girl,” and he didn’t find or fall in love with her, he “got” her.


Rodrigo’s speaker is aware that she is a participant in the ebb and flow of materialism, and yet she remains critical of her ex in ‘Good 4 U’ being enamored, even enslaved, by it. The cognitive distortion of magical thinking (“good things, opportunities, etc. shouldn’t happen to bad people,”) is certainly engaged in the speaker’s assessment of who is getting what amid the fallout of this relationship. But the last straw that finally opens her mouth on the subject, is that her ex-partner seems to have commodified her, as well as what they shared together. Material wealth is at once irrefutably desirable and dangerously corruptive. And Rodrigo’s album cover has her tongue out about it, clearly disgusted.

Photo: SOUR album cover , courtesy of Geffen Records and Olivia Rodrigo.


‘vampire’ - GUTS (Upcoming 2023) - Track 3


Rodrigo, a smash hit almost instantly, continues to hone her perspective on capital, young love, and commodity-chasing exes with her recent single ‘vampire.’ The speaker of the piano and rock song is–like the old adage goes, a sister and not a twin–of the energy behind ‘Good 4 U’ and like the latter is addressing an ex, taking stock of what their relationship really was, and how to encounter it now.


She employs this commanding metaphor, that her ex is a ‘vampire,’ to apply to the way she perceives him emptying her of something (her happiness, her sense of self) and deceiving her with the shadowy manipulation attributed to the archetypal fanged vamp.

Photo: 'vampire' Single cover , courtesy of Geffen Records and Olivia Rodrigo.


This comparison is specifically and loudly intertwined with preoccupations of consumerism and sellable image. The ex in question is thematically thirsty for commodity; Rodrigo’s speaker is burdened in memory with “the parties and the diamonds sometimes when I close my eyes” as a symbol of the hollowness, the bloodlessness, of their relationship in the proverbial light of day.


He, as the song’s subject, is the embodiment of cannibalizing, materialistic consumption, and she strives to separate herself from the world of that impulse with rhetoricals like “How's the castle built off people you pretend to care about?”


With renewed bite, Olivia Rodrigo’s voice is not by any stretch anti-capitalist–she has pop records to sell of course–but she is freshly disillusioned with substitutes and the mindless appetite of commodity fetish. She herself has been victimized by it, as the chorus laments “the way you sold me for parts.”


This metaphor in particular carries the connotation of a material commodity, an automobile. An opportunist might take advantage of a disused car, might even symbolically target its weaknesses and old scars, by stripping what can be sold for profit and leaving the remainder to rot.


If the speaker of ‘vampire’ feels she has been broken down and torn apart this way, it’s logical for her to call out the perpetrator not only as a ‘bloodsucker,’ but specifically a ‘famefucker.’ This snappy bit of wordplay cements the character of her subject as not only a selfish, “emotional vampire” as we so often hear talked about regarding healthy vs. unhealthy modern relationships, but uniquely motivated and excited by commodities and vacuous popularity rather than live, human emotion.


In the name of accruing more, always unsatiated, Rodrigo’s ‘vampire’ will lie (“God knows how”), hide from the light of truth, and pierce and sacrifice those closest to him. She raises her voice in the agony of being bitten once already, not certain in the world she finds available for comment, that she or anyone is safe from ravenous consumerism lurking behind so many pretty labels and faces.

 

Sources Cited


commodity fetishism. Oxford Reference. Retrieved 20 Aug. 2023, from


Kersting, K. (2004, June 1). Consumerism: Driving teen egos--and buying--through 'branding'.

Monitor on Psychology, 35(6). https://www.apa.org/monitor/jun04/driving


Rodrigo, Olivia. “jealousy, jealousy” and “Good 4 U,” SOUR, Geffen Records, 2021, 9 and 6.

Genius Lyrics, https://genius.com/albums/Olivia-rodrigo/Sour.


Rodrigo, Olivia. “vampire” GUTS, Geffen Records, 2023, 3. Genius Lyrics,

https://genius.com/Olivia-rodrigo-vampire-lyrics

 

About the Author

Sarah Hajkowski is a freelance writer based in Western NC. In alignment with Erato, Sarah believes in the power of the written word to change the world, and is invested in mining the human experience both for the depth and pure, fun chaos of it. In her downtime, she will be storytelling with fellow creatives, baking, or listening to music. Find out more at www.sarahhajkowski.com or check her out on social media.



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Guest
Aug 23, 2023

lovely read:)

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Guest
Aug 23, 2023

I love this!!

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