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 2023 all this week. At No. 7, we remember the year in Olivia Rodrigo — who avoided the sophomore slump and continued to define both pop and rock stardom for her generation with one of the year’s most acclaimed albums.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Olivia Rodrigo admitted to Billboard upon the June release of “Vampire” — the lead single to her sophomore album, which was one of most anxiously awaited albums of 2023. “I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel that.”
It’d be one thing if Rodrigo had followed Sour — her 2021 debut featuring smashes like “Drivers License” and “good 4 u,” which turned into one of the most successful pop albums of the decade — with any sort of stopgap singles or deluxe-edition goodies for fans. But her decision to limit her studio output, as the rare pop star content to hole away until their next full-length statement is ready for unveiling, built enormous anticipation (and expectation) for its follow-up. “It’s very nerve-racking,” Rodrigo continued. “I haven’t put out music in, what, two years now?”
“Vampire” dramatically ended that drought. After some social media teases, the single arrived as a gut-punch to a bloodsucking, fame-f–king ex at the end of June, and demonstrated that Rodrigo wasn’t going to trend-chase with her sophomore effort. A theatrical piano ballad with a slow build-up, halting refrain and multiple tempo changes, “Vampire” sounded unlike anything else on pop radio upon its arrival — but fans reveled in the outsized scale, critics were on board, and the song debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100, officially announcing that one of the decade’s brightest new stars had returned.
“Bad Idea, Right?” followed in August, and scratched the itch for “good 4 u” fans hoping that more guitar-heavy punk leanings were on the way. In addition to scoring a top 10 debut on the Hot 100, the second single refined Rodrigo’s pop-rock aesthetic — the guitar chugs and blurted-out verses a bit more delicious, the backing harmonies and chorus flare-up a little more immediate.
And when Guts, Rodrigo’s sophomore album, arrived in full in September, the full scope of that artistic evolution was clear. Once again working alongside producer-songwriter Dan Nigro, Rodrigo made sure every post-childhood fear, romantic agitation and cynical realization landed with emotional clarity and instrumental force, whether through a thicket of guitar fuzz or beautifully restrained balladry. Guts scored a No. 1 debut on the Billboard 200 with a slightly higher equivalent albums unit total than Sour, while also receiving rave reviews upon its release; fans kept the new full-length on repeat, while critics confirmed that Rodrigo had avoided the sophomore slump.
Building upon the momentum of the album release, Rodrigo announced the Guts World Tour, which will bring her around the globe as an arena headliner for the first time, with one of the hottest tickets of 2024’s touring slate. Meanwhile, she stayed visible after the album’s release – particularly with third single “Get Him Back!,” which harnessed a similar guitar-crunch energy as “Bad Idea, Right?” “Get Him Back!” received a pronounced promotional push, complete with an MTV Video Music Awards performance, Apple iPhone commercial synch and even an appearance in the trailer for the upcoming Mean Girls musical film adaptation.
The accolades piled up for Guts as 2023 started to wind down: the album is all over critics’ year-end list, including at the top of Billboard’s staff list of the best albums of 2023. After winning best new artist at the Grammy Awards in 2022, Rodrigo will try to snag the other three Big Four categories: Guts is up for album of the year, and “Vampire” is nominated for both record of the year and song of the year, as part of Rodrigo’s six total 2024 nominations. Rodrigo spent December showcasing her Guts material on platforms like Saturday Night Live and NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert – although Rodrigo has already provided a stopgap single that she resisted between Sour and Guts. “Can’t Catch Me Now,” the heartfelt soundtrack single from The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, continues to grow as a hit outside of the film franchise following its November release.
The pressure that Rodrigo felt at the beginning of 2023 was understandable: Sour was the type of debut album that checked every commercial and critical box for a new pop star, and nothing was promised as she prepared to follow it up. With her second album era well underway, however, Rodrigo has proven herself as a durable, consistently exciting voice at the forefront of popular music. She is still only 20 years old, but Rodrigo had demonstrated remarkable poise as she has crafted a singular career, continued to score hits, transcended genre and deployed her artistry across a variety of mediums. Early next year, she’ll compete against Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, Billie Eilish and Miley Cyrus in key Grammy categories, and she has adeptly absorbed pieces of those artists’ respective careers — from the uncompromising songwriting, to the chart consistency, to the ability to rock out for pop fans and have them clamoring for more.
Time and again, Rodrigo meets, and exceeds, the expectations placed upon her. And because of that, her future couldn’t be brighter.