Olivia O’Brien is Part of the Simulation
Her debut album "Was It Even Real?" is out on April 26th
Her debut album "Was It Even Real?" is out on April 26th
Styling: Hannah Hightman
Purple-haired pop princess Olivia O’Brien contrasts the bright, otherworldly artificiality of her visual sensibilities with the raw realism of her lyrics. This juxtaposition also perfectly describes the intense introspection of adolescence. She aptly named her debut album Was It Even Real? which serves as a statement not only on the surreal nature of fame, but also teenagedom itself. Her songs are rooted in the routine peaks and pitfalls of being young; her music is so specific and personal that it also earns a profound universality.
“I get inspiration from my life and that’s about it,” said Olivia, awkwardly laughing. The old adage “Write what you know” seems appropriate, as Olivia’s ability to articulate on her personal-- even unremarkable-- activities, like break ups and being left out, is what resonates with her fans. “If nothing’s happening, then I’ll try and write it from the perspective of one of my close friends or something. But I have trouble writing about something that’s not actually happening to me,” she continued. Inspiration can strike during unusual times too. “I’ll be running around in the middle of the day and have an idea, and I’ll write something in my notes,” she said. “It’s hard to schedule a time when you’re gonna be creative y’know? It’s hard to say ‘Oh, I’m going to write a song on this day!’ You never know if you’re going to be inspired or not.”
Though many of the events Olivia writes about appear ordinary, for teenagers who are experiencing them for the first time, these somewhat mundane occurrences can feel , and she attributes her relatability to her success. But Olivia truly demonstrates her talent as an artist through her ability to force listeners to look at life through the perspective of a teenage girl. Her music reminds the listener that the things they’ve become desensitized to are still raw and painful. “I don’t walk around acting like I’m anyone else. I just say whatever I feel. I feel like young girls can relate to me because I’m not some unattainable human being,” she explained. “I’m just normal. When I go onstage, it’s not an act. I just talk like I’m talking to my friends. I don’t try to be some big pop star whose perfect all the time, y’know?”
And both Olivia and her story are easy to relate to, yet also just fantastical enough to be thrillingly aspirational. From making SoundCloud covers in her bedroom to now headlining a tour, her success is enough to make any aspiring pop star tingle with excitement. Though it might seem like a fairytale, Olivia actually has faced adversity. “When I was little I wanted to make music, but when I got to middle school and high school it didn’t seem like that could be a reality anymore, so I kind of gave up,” she said. “I would just make SoundCloud covers in my room secretly without telling my family. My sister is a singer too, so whenever she heard me sing she would come into my room and say ‘You sound soo bad. Stop singing!’” Still, Olivia persisted and her hard work paid off after prominent singer and producer gnash found her on SoundCloud. “He asked me if I had any original stuff so I sent him ‘i hate u, i love u,’ and he asked me to record with him in LA. So I went and recorded it with him. The song came out and it was really big, and then I was like ‘Oh, I guess I could do music if I wanted to,’” she laughed.
Olivia remains humble despite her celebrity; however, in a self-aware way, she also relishes in the absurdity of the limelight. From joking in her Instagram bio that she’s “part of the simulation,” to creating a fake tabloid magazine cover filled with gossip about her, it’s clear that she approaches her fame with a sort of humorous artistry. The album cover of Was It Even Real? depicts Olivia as a Barbie doll, an artistic representation of how pop culture is able to pose/frame her in whatever way they please. In addition to the relatable jams expected from Olivia, many of the tracks on the album also draw on similar themes/concepts of the inevitable falsity of being an it-girl. In reality, Olivia could care less about the amount of people she reaches, and she’s aware her fifteen minutes of fame might be up soon. It’s all about the depth of the connections she’s formed. “I don’t care about being remembered,” she stated matter-of-factly. “I guess I want to be remembered for being nice to people and being a good person. It’d be nice to be remembered for my music, but it’s not the number one thing I care about. I kinda just do it for myself and for the people who relate.” To her, being able to see her impact on people individually has been the best part of her success. “A lot of people will DM me and tell me that my music helped them with their anxiety, or their depression, or something that they’re going through. It’s like a lot of people, which is so crazy. It makes me feel like I’m doing something right.”
Though she has an affinity for the aesthetic of the trappings of fame, it doesn’t extend so far as to overshadow her distinctive personality. In fact, she often boldly goes against what’s expected of her. After all, her songs are about feeling controlled by the oppressive nature of fame, but also, what it feels like to be an outsider. Her discography describes the conflict of wanting to be a part of something, but also viewed as completely separate from it. This sentiment is even reflected in her fashion choices. She opted for purple hair this past June instead of the blonde she used to have. “I was just bored. I didn’t want to have blonde hair anymore. I looked like an Instagram model. I looked basic. I wanted to be more myself and do what I wanted without thinking about what anyone else wanted me to do,” she commented.
And even though she’s got plenty of admirers, Olivia still struggles with confidence. Her song, “Love Myself,” expounds upon her journey of self acceptance. Far from a sugar coated, body posi anthem, “Love Myself” employs a painfully real and poignant tone. Olivia belts the lyrics “I need to love myself before I love anyone else” with a sort of desperation. She sings not as someone who has come out the other side of the tumultuous road to self love glowing, but as someone who has just stumbled on this incredibly complicated yet pertinent realization and is unsure of what to do except voice her problems to the world. In keeping with her refreshingly honest demeanor, she doesn’t pretend to have the answers. She’s not sure how one begins to love themselves. “I can’t tell anyone anything because I don’t love myself either. It’s kinda really hard,” she said. “I would say not to like put down yourself if you don’t love yourself, because it’s not the most normal thing. It’s normal not to love yourself and it’s a journey. It takes time to learn how to love yourself and not be so hard on yourself all the time.”
Olivia is not abiding by the rigid conventions of fame. She’s not allowing herself to be boxed into a particular style or look, musically and otherwise. She’s allowing herself to grow on her own time, and she’s making room for the revelations she might have. She’s able to write so effortlessly about the everyday, because she thrives on the day-to-day epiphanic hysteria that is characteristic of adolescence/teenage girls, but that we are all, in fact, susceptible to. “I feel like I change all the time and I’m always learning stuff about myself. Everyday I have different realizations about life, so everyday for me is a transformative experience,” she finished.