Shots fired: Sabrina Carpenter, pop nemesis of Olivia Rodrigo. Image: Associated Press / Alamy

The summer of Sabrina

The ‘Espresso’ hitmaker, Sabrina Carpenter, is taking on her pop rivals. What if she worked with them instead?
July 10, 2024

Shortly before Sabrina Carpenter played this year’s Coachella festival in California’s Indio Valley, her record label marketing team invested in a billboard sited along the desert interstate. It showed Carpenter pouting at the oncoming traffic beside a large-fonted promise: “She’s gonna make you come… to her Coachella set.”

You may have missed the ascent of Carpenter from Disney Channel star to roadside temptress. The singer has racked up six albums in a little under a decade, but the past two years have turbocharged her career—chart-topping singles, a stretch supporting Taylor Swift on the Eras tour, perfume launches, and a flourishing TikTok presence, where she is fêted particularly for comically ad-libbing new verses for her hit “Nonsense”.

Carpenter has also been defined by the rumoured rivalry with fellow ex-Disney popstar Olivia Rodrigo. Having allegedly dated the same guy (another Disney star, of course) in quick succession, Carpenter was cast as the bad girl, and supposedly derided in Rodrigo’s 2021 mega-hit “Drivers Licence”. The following year, Carpenter described the fall-out in her own song, “Because I Liked a Boy”: “Now I’m a homewrecker, I’m a slut/I got death-threats filling up semi-trucks.”

Pop music likes to trade on such oppositions, particularly when it comes to its female stars. Two decades ago, Christina Aguilera found herself in a similar position to Carpenter, designated the era’s pop strumpet next to Britney Spears’s chaste young maiden. It’s a wearisome trope, restrictive and reductive, and when we look back today, there is something deeply unsettling about the concocted battle between the pair, as if each became trapped forever in the aspic of male fantasy.

Still, Carpenter has leant into the role. She swears readily, is quick-witted, and wholly unapologetic about her sex appeal. Her latest single, the damnably catchy “Espresso”, is a case in point. The song hinges on the refrain “That’s that me espresso”, which doesn’t make a great deal of grammatical sense, but gets across the essential point that Carpenter is potent enough to keep you up all night.

What’s most appealing here is the humour and the knowingness and the all-out confidence. It’s a fundamental shift from the dominant trend of the last few years: an era in which the introspective singer-songwriting of artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Mitski and Lana Del Rey has been the mainstay.

Carpenter represents a fundamental shift from the dominant trend of the last few years

There is little room for such melancholy with Carpenter. Consider her take on romantic rejection in “Please Please Please”, in which she notes how a suitor’s wayward behaviour might make her cry, and crying in turn would ruin her make-up. “Heartbreak is one thing/My ego’s another,” she hisses. “I beg you, don’t embarrass me, motherfucker.”

Carpenter is not the sole proponent of this new confidence. One of the huge successes of the summer is Brat, the new album by Charli XCX, in which the British singer might well sing of her insecurities around success, jealousy, motherhood, but she does so with a kind of musical fearlessness—late-night swaggering through each tune, announcing how she only wants to dance to her own music, as if high on her own “me espresso”.

On the single “Girl, So Confusing”, Charli explores comparisons often made between her and another female popstar, rumoured to be Lorde—their similar hair, their sort-of friendship, their vague talk of recording together. But then, too, their differences: how they “don’t have much in common”; how “You’re all about writing poems, but I’m about throwing parties”; how “Sometimes I think you might hate me/Sometimes I think I might hate you.” In the chorus, a conclusion: “Girl, it’s so confusing sometimes to be a girl.”

A couple of weeks after the release of “Girl, So Confusing” came a new version of the song, featuring a guest turn from Lorde herself. “Well honestly I was speechless/When I woke up to your voicenote,” the New Zealander sings. “You told me how you’d been feeling/Let’s work it out on the remix.”

It made a surprising twist in the familiar popstar rivalry saga. A reclamation of the narrative by the two central characters; a rejection of the binary of good girl and bad girl, and instead an acknowledgment that one can hold a lot of conflicting feelings about another woman.

In 2003, the purported feud between Spears and Aguilera was finally laid to rest at the VMAs, in an on-stage three-way kiss with Madonna. It was a strange cultural moment, in which one male fantasy was obliterated in the enactment of another, and to look back on it today is to feel disappointed the pair didn’t simply work it out on the remix. However the Carpenter-Rodrigo quarrel might end, one hopes it is in music; that they find the confidence of the poem-writer and party-thrower to unite for the common good.