The Meaning Behind “Traitor” by Olivia Rodrigo and the Real-Life Drama Behind It

Olivia Rodrigo’s exceptional rise from High School Musical: The Musical: The Series to the record-breaking voice of her generation is extraordinary.  

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Her first single, “Drivers License,” a journal entry on teen pain, consumed TikTok and pop culture before she released an album. Moreover, the self-righteous “Traitor,” whose subject may or may not be a famous actor, speaks to her unrelenting pain.

But heartbreak consumed the singer, and most relate to how nothing else matters after a breakup.

Carole King’s Tapestry and Joni Mitchell’s Blue are the confessional blueprints to Rodrigo’s Sour, and “Traitor” is the rambling inheritor.

He Moved on Quickly

Rodrigo’s sad ballad follows a former lover who quickly moves on to someone new. She feels betrayed and wonders if the other girl consumed his mind while they were still together.

Brown guilty eyes and little white lies
Yeah, I played dumb, but I always knew
That you’d talk to her, maybe did even worse
I kept quiet so I could keep you
And ain’t it funny
How you ran to her
The second that we called it quits

Amidst the relationship, Rodrigo suspects her boyfriend has wandering eyes, but he convinces the singer that his relationship with the other girl is platonic.

It took you two weeks
To go off and date her
Guess you didn’t cheat
But you’re still a traitor

Real-Life Drama (and AWOL Punctuation)

Curious fans speculated that Rodrigo’s ex in “Traitor” is her former High School Musical co-star Joshua Bassett. The two actors dated in 2019 while filming the Disney+ musical drama but separated the following year. The “her” in “Traitor” is reportedly another Disney star.

Bassett is also suspected to be the inspiration behind Rodrigo’s aching single “Drivers License.” (The required and missing apostrophe is absent from the song’s title, though it would be interesting if multiple drivers shared the same license. Still, the title would then be “Drivers’ License.”)

Vogue asked Rodrigo about the omitted apostrophe, and she said, “Oh, my gosh. I definitely got that wrong. I also put a double negative in the song when I say, ‘I’ve never felt this way for no one,’ which is completely grammatically incorrect. The song is all over the place [laughs].”

Is It Really Josh?

Rodrigo kept things vague with Vogue: “I completely understand why people are curious about the specifics of the song, but, to me, who and what the song is about is not important. People are resonating with the song because it’s so honest, raw, and emotional.”

She continued, “I was talking to my therapist just before this interview, and she said, ‘I listen to this song—I’m an adult woman, and I’m your therapist, but I relate to everything you’re going through.’ It’s been insane to see people’s genuine reactions, no matter what situation they’re in.”

Rodrigo’s partner in “Traitor” may have moved on, but she felt differently.

I still hear your voice in the traffic; we’re laughing
Over all the noise
God, I’m so blue; know we’re through
But I still f–kin’ love you, babe

Emo for the Next Generation

Rodrigo co-wrote “Traitor” with Daniel Nigro, who produced her 2021 debut album, Sour.

The emo roots of Sour reach Nigro’s former band, As Tall as Lions. The Long Island indie rock band released three studio albums before breaking up in 2010. Meanwhile, Nigro moved to Los Angeles and began collaborating with other artists.

Nigro also produced Rodrigo’s follow-up album Guts in 2023 and received a Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album for his work on Sour.

A Definitive Breakup Album

After releasing a chart-topping album at 18, Rodrigo also earned comparisons to Taylor Swift and Alanis Morissette, two artists known for perfecting the breakup songwriting form.

The albums often discussed in conversations about Sour are Swift’s Red and Morissette’s searing, Jagged Little Pill. Rodrigo’s coming-of-age album resonated with music fans in a profound way, and she shares Swift’s ability to speak with fans like they’re close friends.

Her Generation’s Voice

Consistently releasing the year’s biggest singles isn’t the only thing Rodrigo has accomplished by age 21. Because of her influence, President Joe Biden invited Rodrigo to the White House in 2021 to urge young people to vaccinate against COVID-19.

“Traitor’s” opening choir of voices sounds like catharsis, and soft rage follows it. Rodrigo foreshadows the emotional release because healing can only follow resignation. That’s what the opening voices sound like—capitulation.

She submits to pain, and “Traitor” is the real-time healing process through gotta-get-this-off-my-chest release.

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Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images

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