The first major hit song of 2021 so far has been Driver’s License, written and sung by 17-year-old American pop singer Olivia Rodrigo. Although it’s commonplace to see teenagers dominate the Billboard charts with songs they’ve performed, it doesn’t come as a surprise that most of them are written by adults. After all, song-writing skills typically take years to hone. But from time to time a song-writing prodigy comes along and is able to create something that demonstrates they are wise beyond their years. Here’s a look at 8 popular songs over the years that were written by teenagers.
1. Avril Lavigne — Complicated
When Canadian native Lavigne was 2 years old, she’d sing hymns on the family’s way home from church. Her parents recognized her potential and encouraged her to pursue a career in music. Her father bought her a microphone and drum kit, and converted their basement into a studio. She won several local competitions, including one that allowed her to perform on stage with fellow Canadian Shania Twain in front of 20,000. It was her first hit “Complicated” – which she wrote at the age of 17, that made her a star. In 2002, the song reached #1 on the US Adult Top 40 charts where it remained for a then-record 16 weeks. It was also nominated for two Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
2. Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller — Hound Dog
In 1952, Blues singer Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thornton needed a song, and R&B bandleader Johnny Otis decided 19-year-olds Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller were just the guys to write it. As they were meeting with Thornton, they went about crafting a song that suited her personality as a sassy, badass Black woman. It took all of 15 minutes to write Hound Dog but almost 70 years later it remains a legendary song. It was popularized by Elvis Presley, whose career took off as a result. To date, Hound Dog has been covered 250 times and was ranked #19 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
3. Taylor Swift —Teardrops on My Guitar
With 10 Grammy Awards, holder of 27 Guinness World Records, and with more than 200 million albums sold worldwide, Taylor Swift is pretty good. It was her song “Teardrops on My Guitar,” which she wrote when she was 17, that put her on the Billboard charts for the first time, peaking at #13. The song is based on the feelings she had for a high school crush who had no idea she was into him. He would speak about his girlfriend to her and she would pretend to find it endearing, although in reality it made her feel jealous. Years later, he would come by the house to express his feelings for her, but she rejected him. Too late. Oops.
4. Adele — Hometown Glory
With the exception of the Bob Dylan cover “Make You Feel My Love,” every song on Adele’s 2008 debut album 19 was either written or co-written by the singer. “Hometown Glory,” which she wrote when she was 16, was the first song she had written from start to finish. It was inspired by her torn feelings about where to attend university. Raised in the London suburb of West Norwood, Adele wanted to study close to home as she felt dependent on her mother. However, her mom encouraged her to spread her wings and study off in Liverpool. The song was her way of protesting and appreciating a person’s hometown for all its good and bad.
5. Buddy Holly and Jerry Allison — That’ll Be the Day
February 3, 1959 is known as “the Day the Music Died” as a result of the plane crash that took the lives of young, talented rock stars Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. Since it took place in my home state, I suppose it would be accurate to suggest that Iowa is the place where music died. But I digress. When he was 19 years old, Holly and his Three Tunes bandmates Jerry Allison and Sonny Curtis went to see the John Wayne movie The Searchers. The line “That’ll be the day” stuck with Holly, and it inspired Allison and him to write the song that would be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.
6. Lorde and Joel Little — Royals
Nobody cares about baseball in New Zealand. But when you dominate rugby the way the small South Pacific island does, why should they? On the other hand, it was baseball that would shape Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor’s life. Better known as singer and songwriter Lorde, the Auckland native chanced upon a photo of 1970s/80s baseball star George Brett signing baseballs. When Lorde looked at his uniform — he played for the Kansas City Royals — she thought, “Hmm. Royals. I might be able to do something with that.” And at 15 she — along with producer Joel Little — went on to create what is considered to be one of the best songs of the 21st century so far.
7. Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell — Bad Guy
Billie Ellish co-wrote her 2019 debut album “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” at the ripe old age of 15, alongside her brother, producer Finneas O’Connell, who was an ancient 22. The biggest hit on her Grammy Award-winning album was “Bad Guy,” a sarcastic song in which Ellish exaggerates her persona. The electropop singer, born in December 2001, was the first musical artist born in the 21st century to have a #1 hit.
8. Fiona Apple — Criminal
Fiona Apple had a knack for music at an early age, classically trained on piano and writing songs when she was 8. Her first major hit — written at 17 — was “Criminal,” for her debut album Tidal, released in 1996. It reached 21 in the Billboard 100 and won the Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. These days Apple doesn’t prescribe any meaning to the song, basically saying that it continues to pay the bills. Indeed, it does. It reemerged in 2019 as a featured song in the Jennifer Lopez movie Hustlers.