Don't Be Surprised by the Success of 'Drivers License'
by Larisha Paul
14 January 2021
A week ago, the words "driver's license" evoked cursed memories of teenage trips to the DMV. Now they immediately trigger the grandiose bridge of Olivia Rodrigo's debut single.
"Red lights, stop signs / I still see your face in the white cars, front yards / Can't drive past the places we used to go to," the 17-year-old Disney star sings, haunted by reminders of the person she thought she'd have forever. "Drivers License" paints a picture of Rodrigo driving through the suburbs while reeling in the wake of a breakup. At the song's pinnacle moment, she concedes: "'Cause I still fuckin' love you, babe."
A sudden viral success, over the weekend of its release "Drivers License" surpassed 15 million global streams, breaking the record for the most streams in a single day for a non-holiday song previously held by Ariana Grande's "7 Rings." A day later, on January 12, Rodrigo broke her own record as the track exceeded 17 million global streams, according to Spotify. It currently boasts close to 70 million streams on the platform. Poised to top the Hot 100 next week, "Drivers License" is 2021's first major hit. And while at first glance its massive success seems to have come from nowhere, insiders would have seen this song coming. It's the product of years of pop trends... as well as a long tradition of rumoured Disney co-star romance.
As a student of the modern pop music spectacle, Rodrigo's songwriting feels confessional, in the vein of Taylor Swift and Lorde before her. It's also clear that she comes from the generation of young adults who swayed beneath pink LED lights to The 1975's "Somebody Else." On "Drivers License," she transports listeners directly into her past experiences while making it feel as though they've lived through the same thing themselves, no matter how specific the details.
While skeptics may be quick to write her off as an imitation of her influences, the glimpses of unreleased material Rodrigo has teased on social media — rough demos like the emotionally unsure "Crazy" and the curious "Gross" — distinguish her as a budding artist, writer and storyteller who's just getting started. A potential beacon for her own generation, she's skilled enough to stand her ground beside her contemporaries in music without being overshadowed by them.
Rodrigo's role as Nini Salazar-Roberts on Disney+'s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series has positioned "Drivers License" to be compared to the early releases of former Disney stars like Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez. While there are parallels in the use of the network as a music career launching pad, Rodrigo likely has far more artistic freedom than the generation of Disney kids who came before her, who were locked into a PR strategy that prohibited them from ever growing up. Just look at Aly & AJ: it took them 14 years to release an explicit version of "Potential Breakup Song."
Something that hasn't changed since the Demi and Selena era is all that Disney drama. TikToker Gabe Escobar (@gabesco) was quick to explain why "Drivers License" has been labeled the new "7 Things," in reference to Miley Cyrus' 2008 single about what she loved and hated about Nick Jonas (though you might say the song actually veers closer to Demi Lovato's melodramatic "Don't Forget"). Totaling more than six million views, Escobar's videos utilize screenshots of Instagram likes, comments and posts to support his theories about the timeline of Rodrigo's alleged relationship and break up with her High School Musical co-star Joshua Bassett, and the supposed other girl (fellow Disney star Sabrina Carpenter).
Related | The 2020 Pop Girl Gift Guide
The strongest piece of evidence investigators like Escobar are running with is the lyric, "And you're probably with that blonde girl / Who always made me doubt / She's so much older than me / She's everything I'm insecure about." When Rodrigo initially uploaded the "Drivers License" demo to Instagram back in July 2020, a video that now has over half a million likes, it was played on piano and featured the lyrics "And you're probably with that brunette girl" and "I don't believe you when you say I did nothing wrong." In both versions, she delivers each lyric of the song with the grasping intensity and honesty that drew listeners to her in 2019 with her first Hot 100 entry "All I Want," from the High School Musical series soundtrack.
Countless technological innovations over the past decade and a half have changed the way the music industry operates, but TikTok has completely altered the course. And TikTok loves Olivia Rodrigo. The singer's post about "Drivers License" uploaded on release day using the song's official audio now has over 23 million views and is the first of more than 251,900 videos featuring the track to be uploaded to the platform. The #driverslicense tag has amassed 888.5 million views, and the song itself has basically become its own subsection, known to users as "Drivers License TikTok." Users have taken to writing alternate versions of the song that portray the perspective of the track's subject and the "blonde girl" mentioned in the second verse –– and making the occasional POV video of the license, driving instructor and seatbelt.
All this is to say that even without the drama videos dissecting the love triangle between Rodrigo, Bassett and Carpenter, "Drivers License" probably would have been a hit on the platform purely for its ability to capture the depth and melodrama of teenage emotion.
With an EP written in quarantine set to be released later this year, Rodrigo will be expected to prove that "Drivers License" isn't an anomaly. Anticipation is already bubbling as listeners scour her Instagram for more unreleased songs, like "Pay Grade," in which she refuses to act as an unhinged guy's mother or therapist (think, Chloe x Halle's "Ungodly Hour") and her song "Apocalyptic Crush" that lands somewhere in between Paramore's "Misery Business" and Taylor Swift's "Better Than Revenge." One of Rodrigo's all time idols, Taylor Swift, has already extended her seal of approval, commenting on her Instagram post showing "Drivers License" beneath the latest Evermore bonus tracks on iTunes: "I say that's my baby and I'm really proud."
The narrative of "Drivers License" is still unfolding. But the chance to watch one of pop music's potential next big players emerge so quickly and organically, without needing a push from their label, doesn't come along every day. This feels reminiscent of the rise of Billie Eilish in 2019, or Lorde in 2013, or even an early career Swift, with a kick of TikTok virality.
That isn't to put the pressure of expectations on Rodrigo, but when you have a song like "Drivers License" that resonates with millions nearly instantaneously, it's definitely cause for excitement.
Photo via Getty