The Literary Inspiration Behind Olivia Rodrigo’s “All-American Bitch”

With the release of Olivia Rodrigo’s sophomore album, Guts, there’s been a palpable shift in her lyrical style to that of the, let’s call it, “Lana Del Rey variety.” Not just because titles like “all-american bitch,” “the grudge” and “girl i’ve always been” smack of the Del Rey brand, but because she’s taken a more literary route on the first track mentioned (which also happens to be the first track on the album). And, as most know by now, Del Rey is nothing if not a great “borrower” of literary phrases and allusions for her own lyrical “world building.” Primarily from Vladimir Nabokov, Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg. 

Indeed, when asked, “Allen Ginsberg was an early influence?” by NPR’s Scott Simon back in 2014, Del Rey replied, “Yes, he was an early influence—the whole beat poetry movement, and Vladimir Nabokov, and Walt Whitman.” So there you have it; Del Rey is an unapologetic acolyte of the standard twentieth century white male canon. Whereas, Rodrigo deviates slightly by being an unapologetic acolyte of the standard twentieth century white female canon. Specifically, in the form of Joan Didion. 

At the very least, Rodrigo being from California (i.e., Temecula) explains her requisite attraction to the author who, to paraphrase Michiko Kakutani, has “claimed California the hardest.” Therefore, it “belongs” to her the most. Until Del Rey came along to align her own “persona” entirely with the Golden State. Especially Los Angeles (about which she has written many odes, including “LA Who Am I To Love You”). The city where Didion also hung her hat for over two decades before finally abandoning the state for good in favor of the place she wrote an elaborate “goodbye” essay to: NYC.

Hypocrisy aside, Didion’s defection for New York only served to highlight that the real “L.A. author” was always Eve Babitz. In any case, it hasn’t stopped subsequent generations of women from gloomily romanticizing California through Didion’s nihilistic lens. As was heavily showcased in the essay that would also serve as the title of one of her seminal collections, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The eponymous essay, originally published in The Saturday Evening Post on September 23, 1967, details the supposed acid-dropping epidemic (though “when Didion’s article came out, only one percent of college students reported having tried LSD”) in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where even kindergartners were subjected to dosing thanks to their parents’ careless, ne’er-do-well ways. 

As Didion heavy-handedly sets the stage, building toward something unspeakably ominous, she offers a description that itself conjures the modern-day image of a worshipful Del Rey praying at the altar of Ginsberg: “Somebody else is asleep on the living room couch, and a girl is sleeping on the floor beneath a poster of Allen Ginsberg, and there are a couple of girls in pajamas making instant coffee.” Informing her reader that all of America’s “lost children” (a.k.a. hippies) have congregated in San Francisco, she opens the essay with portions of W. B. Yeats’ “The Second Coming”:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world…
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand…
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

It was Martin Amis who would refer to that somewhat pompous “elegy” for society by remarking in his 1980 review of The White Album, “The title essay [of Slouching Towards Bethlehem] duly begins: ‘The center wasn’t holding.’ It doesn’t seem to have occurred to her with the necessary force that ‘The Second Coming’ was written half a century ago. The center hasn’t been holding for some time now; actually the center was never holding, and never will hold. Probably all writers are at some point briefly under the impression that they are among the first to live and work after things fell apart.” And Didion was certainly not an exception. Just as Del Rey isn’t when she sings things like, “The culture is lit/And if this is it/I had a ball” and, in the same song, “L.A. is in flames‚ it’s getting hot/Kanye West is blond and gone/‘Life on Mars?’ ain’t just a song/I hope the live stream’s almost on.” That same disaffected, desensitized ennui is present in Didion’s work in general and “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” in particular. 

It is Didion’s bloodlessness (in terms of how she “takes in” the information and scenery around her and spits it back out clinically) that shines through with especial markedness in this essay. And when she reflected on the coup de grâce moment from it fifty years later in Griffin Dunne’s 2017 documentary on Didion, The Center Will Not Hold, the author was merciless and unapologetic when asked, “What was it like to be a journalist in the room when you saw the little kid on acid?” She replied, “Well, it was…” As she trails off in a manner that briefly makes the viewer believe she’s going to express some great sadness over the child’s fate, she then declares, “Let me tell you it was gold. I mean, that’s the long and the short of it is…you live for moments like that if you’re doing a piece.” So while five-year-old Susan was “doing” acid, Didion was “doing her piece.” Mentally filing away all the sordid details to scandalize and appall the proverbial “Goldwater Republicans” and then some.

Ironically, soon after she admits to salivating over this acid-dropping five-year-old, her story of having the biggest party ever at her Los Feliz residence with a lot of “music people” (a distancing term indicative of an easily rattled middle-class white woman) who generally “confused” her because they didn’t want “ordinary” drink orders (evidently, a “tequila neat” isn’t ordinary enough) leads into her remembering to check on the baby she earlier says was “offered” to her, Quintana Roo (the worst name one could possibly choose for their white-hued daughter). 

Upon entering the two-year-old’s room, Didion clutched her pearls at the sight of drugs and associated paraphernalia on the floor near Quintana’s crib. She then tells the camera, “I couldn’t believe that anybody would do that.” Really though? Considering all she had reported on, and told of seeing in California. But no, she assumed it couldn’t happen behind her own closed (/partially open) doors. Such is the nature of ivory tower privilege. And yet, women keep falling head over heels for Didion’s work—with Rodrigo representing the next generation of those who will keep her writing alive…even if they tend to pass it off/claim it as their own (the same way Didion so often claimed California as her own).

Besides, Didion was essentially siphoning other people’s stories from them anyway, so perhaps it’s only fair that Rodrigo can siphon certain dialogue from Didion. The dialogue that the author writes as though from a recording she transcribed. This is how it comes across in the exchange she manipulates to convey that these “societal dropouts” are all lost children, a horrifying emblem of American decay. Their conversation flows after Didion asks them why they ran away from home. One boy, Jeff, responds, “My mother was just a genuine all-American bitch. She was really troublesome about hair. Also, she didn’t like boots. It was really weird.”

There are many other phrases Rodrigo might have glommed onto from the essay (maybe she would have called a song “teenage evangelism” if she didn’t already have the more generic “teenage dream” in mind), but something about “all-American bitch” clearly popped out to her as “the one” to beat. Though perhaps “On Self-Respect” (originally published as “Self-Respect: Its Source, Its Power” in a 1961 issue of Vogue) seeped into her consciousness as well, with “making the bed” easily able to be pulled from the Didion-penned lines, “However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously uncomfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.” The only trouble is, it’s unclear which book of Didion essays Rodrigo actually read, considering she cites The White Album as where she nabbed the term “all-American bitch.” Which is almost as bad as when Britney Spears said she decided to cover “I Love Rock n’ Roll” because she “loves Pat Benatar.”

Maybe she read both tomes though, since it appears that, in the years since Sour was released, Rodrigo does seem to know a bit more about what Didion calls “self-respect” and growing into her skin…as it is said about young women who are too soon sexualized. And even finding camaraderie with more established singer-songwriters. This includes not only Del Rey, who Rodrigo introduced onstage at the Billboard Women in Music Awards before presenting her with the Visionary Award (which, yes, sounds as arbitrary and made up as the Trailblazer Award she received back in 2015), but also Phoebe Bridgers. 

It was Bridgers who provided the questions for Rodrigo’s cover story in Interview magazine, at one point making the query that confirmed her Didion inspiration for “all-american bitch.” Prompted by Bridgers querying, “What was the weirdest thing on this record that inspired a lyric? Like a fucking podcast or on a billboard or—” Rodrigo instantly interjected, “I was thinking about this today. We can cut it out if I’m not supposed to say it, but one of my favorite songs on the record is called “all-american bitch.” I thought that was such a fun title. I was reading—have you ever read The White Album by Joan Didion?” Bridgers confirms she’s not some kind of literary novice by confirming that she has. Rodrigo goes on, “She has so many fucking great quotes.” Indeed, it’s Didion’s “aesthetic” and “quotability” that has made her such an enduring hit on Instagram (but not TikTok). Rodrigo then goes on to describe the portion of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” that is of course not in The White Album (which has its own eponymous essay) when she says, “I was reading this bit about her going to San Francisco to meet all these hippies—five-year-olds were dropping acid and going to Grateful Dead concerts. She was talking to some hippie who ran away from home and he called his mom an all-American bitch. And I was like, ‘That’s the fucking coolest phrase I’ve ever heard,’ so I had to write a song about it.” Bridgers replies, “That’s amazing.” Though perhaps what she found truly amazing is that someone could mix up two of Didion’s only well-known essay collections so overtly. 

No matter. For “all-american bitch” is something of an irresistible anthem. Namely, for women who are belittled when they make an innocent mistake that people then never let them forget. In her sardonic delivery to highlight such impossible pressures on women, Rodrigo faux-sweetly sings, “I pay attention to things that most people ignore.” This being a line that is both dripping with sarcasm, and now, irony—considering she did prove, with her botched literary citation, that women can’t be expected to pay attention to every little detail just because they’re women (and therefore held to a standard of perfection that men simply aren’t). Hence, conflating Slouching Towards Bethlehem with The White Album

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