Young women are no strangers to older men. They linger like a stain on your favorite t-shirt or a vampire, Olivia Rodrigo sings. Whether it's a night out with your friends or the super friendly guy at work, they are always around like an all-knowing omnipresence ready to pounce. The 20-year-old Rodrigo, who's an eternal angsty teenager, so perfectly encapsulates this in her newest album "Guts."
Rodrigo isn't the only pop singer ready to call out the problematic age gaps in her relationships with men whom she dated as a teenager.
The former Disney starlet grew to superstardom because of her pandemic-hit album "Sour." In songs like "Driver's license" and "Good 4 u" the then-teenager sang about vile jealousy, her first big public heartbreak and longing for the idealistic teenage dream we are told our adolescence should be. In her sophomore album, Rodrigo spills her guts, figuratively. Between her first and second albums, two years have passed, and she has begun dating older men who do not take her seriously: "When am I gonna stop being a pretty young thing to guys?" She's completely devoid of whatever innocence she had on "Sour" and her flaming, red-hot anger is pointed at "some weird second-string loser who's not worth mentioning."
In her lead single, "Vampire" Rodrigo sings about that same second-string loser. But this time it's through the lens of a shady, blood-sucking older man who only comes out at night. He goes for her "'cause girls your age know better."
She sings regrettably:
I used to think I was smart
But you made me look so naive
The way you sold me for parts
As you sunk your teeth into me, oh
Bloodsucker, fame f**ker
Rodrigo isn't the only pop singer ready to call out the problematic age gaps in her relationships with men whom she dated as a teenager. Taylor Swift's and Demi Lovato's very high-profile relationships have also acted as songwriting inspiration for the artists. In 2009, when Swift was 19, she collaborated with singer-songwriter and consistently gross John Mayer on the song "Half of My Heart," and thus a relationship was born. Mayer was 32 at the time, and if you can do math, that is a 13-year age difference. While that age gap doesn't mean much in general, given that she was not even out of her teens, the age gap amplified their different levels of experience and maturity. They never publically confirmed their relationship but the pair dated for less than a year, and it sparked the two songs "Dear John" and "Would've, Could've, Should've" from Swift in her decades-long career.
"Dear John" is like a handwritten personal note to Mayer. It lists how out of control the toxic troubled relationship between Swift and Mayer left her feeling. She seemingly and earnestly asks Mayer, "Don't you think I was too young to be messed with?" She chronicles "dark, twisted games" that allegedly Mayer played with her as she slowly lost her mind to his hot and cold antics and gimmicks. In "Would've, Could've, Should've" which was written 12 years after the release of "Dear John," Swift is finally the age that her former boyfriend was when he dated her at 19. It brings a full-circle perspective to the song that longs for her stolen adolescence.
Swift sings bitterly:
And if I was some paint, did it splatter
On a promising grown man?
And if I was a child, did it matter
If you got to wash your hands?
The most bruising lyric from Swift is when she sings, "And I damn sure never would've danced with the devil/At nineteen/And the God's honest truth is that the pain was heaven/And now that I'm grown, I'm scared of ghosts." More than a decade after her relationship with Mayer ended, it is still an unerasable scar of a memory and experience for Swift.
The same goes for Demi Lovato in their song "29." The singer also reminisces about a time of their adolescence, and this time it's with their previous boyfriend, "That '70s Show" actor Wilmer Valderrama. The pair met in 2010 when the Disney child star was only 17 and Valderrama was 29 — a 12-year age difference. Again, the gap isn't the point but rather that combined with her young age made all the difference. Lovato and Valderrama didn't begin dating until the former was 18, and the couple would be on and off again for the next six years. They publically dated until they broke up in 2016.
In Lovato's most recent album, they spoke to the glaringly large age gap between the former couple, comparing it to an inappropriate student/teacher relationship:
Petal on the vine, too young to drink wine
Just five years a bleeder, student and a teacher
Far from innocent, what the f**k's consent?
Numbers told you not to, but that didn't stop you
Funny, just like you were at the time
Thought it was a teenage dream, just a fantasy
But was it yours or was it mine?
The star spoke about the relationship in an interview with Howard Stern and said: "For me, I was a teenager . . . I think that when you're in those development years, you should absolutely not be with somebody that is older than you by that much. It's just unhealthy and toxic."
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Evidently, some of the most popular faces in music at integral parts in their girlhood feel they were taken advantage of. Through their music, they have been able to reclaim some of their lost innocence by calling out their ex-boyfriends for their seedy, scumbag behavior. But if someone as young as Rodrigo is continuing to experience the same patterns that Swift and Lovato faced in their teendom more than 10 years ago. . . has anything really changed in a post-#MeToo world? Is it really safe to be a teenage girl if the creatures are still crawling around in the shadows ready to strike?
In a year so wrapped in girlhood reclamations, there is a darker side to girlhood we often overlook — it's coveted.
It feels like it's increasingly more difficult to be a girl. On paper, being a girl has never been better because parts of our youth are easily marketable these days. Maybe that's why we are so intrigued by Rodrigo's own self-examination of an illusory teenage dream we look to her to fulfill. On the contrary, we live in a culture so hell-bent on de-aging women into prepubescent girls. But also so dead set on molding naive, sexless girls into sexpot pornified women. It's almost confusing how we have to be ingenues that are young, pretty and eternal so older men can sink their teeth into our youth and steal our years. I mean, Leonardo DiCaprio has been dating 24-year-olds for almost two decades now – he's literally 48 – and discards his expired girlfriends when they hit the elderly age of 25.
In a year so wrapped in girlhood reclamations, there is a darker side to girlhood we often overlook — it's coveted. Predatory people want it for themselves. They see the joy and wonder in the glint of a girl's eyes, and it's something to be greatly desired — something to steal and appropriate. The dangerous sides of our adolescence still exist, and many of us go through this without ever talking about it even though it's an experience that we all know intimately or if we don't know — it's an experience that we fear. Now more than ever, we have learned how easy it is for girls to be exploited by men, the media or just the world — how easy it is to forget the naivete attached to childhood in favor of a traumatic narrative that is digestible to us. But thankfully, we have figures like Rodrigo, Swift and Lovato to blow up the fantastical teenage dream projected onto teen girls.