SOMEWHERE IN A PURPLE VOID — Olivia Rodrigo is a person I didn't know existed until my fellow thirtysomethings started posting about her new album on Instagram with the caveat that "I know I'm too old for this." Catch me three days later singing every song from Sour by heart, and with gusto.
Sure, Olivia Rodrigo is on a very different planet than me, with her size zero teen body and luscious mermaid hair and massive fame thanks to her Disney Channel acting career. But even that didn’t feel like an issue.
As I was listening and enjoying it, I got the distinct feeling of being out of touch, and I wanted to be okay with that. Getting older comes with some perks after all, like a fully developed brain and the ability to stop identifying yourself by what you like, but who you are. I have not seen one second of High School Musical: The Series, because I liked the movies so much I figured it wasn’t worth it to reawaken that particular obsession.
At 17, I watched them film a scene for the first HSM movie in my neighborhood after a football game. My sophomore year of college, I had HSM themed birthday party where I was gifted a Sharpay Barbie. I auditioned for HSM 2. I was an extra in HSM 3 and actively stalked the shooting locations because I was so energized just by being near a film set. The fact that I was jamming out with the windows down to “Can I Have This Dance” like two years ago when my boyfriend and I were dating long distance and the line “even a thousand miles can’t keep us apart” would cause me to sob loudly along to the lyrics is also ... not lost on me.
So what the fuck made Sour any different from the rest of my life of innocent love of things that just make me happy? Why did so many of my friends feel like they had to shout “I KNOW THIS IS NOT FOR ME!!!” about something so simple? Should I be super into this teenager’s breakup album despite being twice her age and in a very happy relationship?
I’m 32, which feels absolutely ancient given that I have friends my age with 3 kids and a decade of marriage under their belt. My belt has what feels like a bunch of false starts and a ton of confusion and self-hatred over not managing to become a Real Adult yet. Even after a pretty remarkable Saturn Return that meant I finally embraced my passions as a storyteller and a performer, I have gotten stuck again.
I do feel like I’m in a suspended childhood. I’ve always liked musical theater (in secret) and fangirly stuff (sometimes in secret too), and that stuff skews “young.” I live in worlds of magic and mystery that have zero real-world analogues. Because of the pandemic I’ve regressed to a toddler who needs naps and loves pink.
But also I feel like I'm not a full adult because of the opportunities that haven’t been afforded me by an underdeveloped society that makes absolutely no space for artists.
The main path to success as a creative has become being “very online” (I see this in so many job descriptions for entertainment journalism jobs!!), so the pressure to remain youthful and not only in touch but at the forefront of digital trends has been building to a frenzy. At first I thought, “I can’t do TikTok, that’s for the teens!” and now my thought process is more along the lines of: “if I’m not relevant on TikTok, I don’t exist.” (I currently have zero posts on my TikTok, so hi, you’re reading a post written by a non-entity.)
Why do I think that? Who said that any of this stuff belongs to the new generation? As much as I love Sour, it’s pretty much a Taylor Swift, Paramore, Bikini Kill sundae — and those people are my age. Not Olivia Rodrigo’s. They’re also not just “influences” of a new and more successful generation, but people who are still making music and making an impact on the world as artists. Their creativity is not dependent on youth or coolness or being ahead of online trends.
I was recently complaining to a friend about YA and how tired I am of the world of fiction being another sector in the world that is youth-obsessed, using teen characters as a symbol for any person who is experiencing new things or a worldview shift. She said that it doesn’t bother her because she can identify them as being less like real-world teens and more representative of that kind of experience. I can’t say that I share that approach.
I’m that teen character in your favorite YA novel who is getting their whole world absolutely rocked by the realities that were denied me by the bubble I was living in. I feel like the expectations of the world right now are for me to figure it out, silently, and go be successful “as an adult,” rather than in any way that would speak to me as an individual. Don’t engage in cultural moments, because those are for the younger generation now. Be silent. Be still. Be old.
I’ve just never been very good at any of those things.