Topical tunes for a dying democracy, who needs ‘em! Talk to anyone who closely follows popular music trends and they’ll tell you Olivia Rodrigo, a Disney Channel child, is set to have 2021's first No. 1 debut with a melodramatic pop ballad about the sting of a first breakup and learning to drive, released January 7, titled “drivers license.” (All lower case, as is the trend of this time period.) Give the DMV royalties!
According to Billboard, in the first three days “drivers license” was made available, the song sold 16,000 copies and had been streamed 21 million times in the U.S. As of press time, the music video has been viewed over 19.6 million times. Rodrigo’s profile is clearly rising, and fast.
The song is gloriously angsty pop with a theatrical arrangement usually reserved for stars further along in their career—but there are no rules anymore, why not come straight of the gate with larger-than-life production, a big Taylor Swift-influenced bridge, and a devastating crescendo? The first breakup can feel world-shattering; driving by an ex’s house or seeing them in the hallway at school can feel harrowing—shouldn’t a song about it do the same? Or, at the very least, offer some cathartic release? “drivers license” does both.
I like Justin Curto’s description of the song’s sonic touchstones over at Vulture: “‘drivers license’ [is] like a Frankenstein version of the past decade or so in pop. Rodrigo’s quiet moments recall Billie Eilish and her anthemic ones recall Lorde, with bits of Alessia Cara in between. She’s also, of course, grappling with a teenage and suburban angst that Eilish, Lorde, and Cara have each individually made their calling cards... there’s something for nearly every sort of pop listener to grab onto.” Sure, it is derivative—name any contemporary and confessional singer-songwriter and there’s sure to be remnants here—but it’s also a banger—a very challenging thing for a power piano ballad to become.
But, like, who is Olivia Rodrigo? I’m so glad you asked.
Olivia Rodrigo is a fashionable 17-year-old from California who began her career like many teen talents who crop up on Spotify playlists and TikToks seemingly out of nowhere: on the Disney Channel. From 2016 to 2019, she starred as Paige Olvera, “a guitarist who makes viral videos with her BFF, alongside co-stars Madison Hu and [YouTuber] Jake Paul,” according to Billboard, on the Disney TV show Bizaardvark. She also landed the lead role of Nini Salazar-Roberts in the reboot, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, the Gabriella Montez/Vanessa Hudgens character of the original. Season two is currently under production, so it doesn’t look like Rodrigo will quit acting anytime soon.
Also, apparently there’s some real drama between Rodrigo and some other Disney starlets, which fans believe to be the source material for the song “drivers license.”
Because Rodrigo’s hit is clearly about a breakup, listeners have theorized that it is about 20-year-old actor Joshua Basset, her ex-boyfriend and co-star in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. According to Glamour, they broke up last year and Basset was soon “spotted” with 21-year-old actor Sabrina Carpenter, another Disney alum. Considering some of the lyrics of “drivers license”: “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 / Yeah, today I drove through the suburbs / ‘Cause how could I ever love someone else?” the fan reading checks out—and adds a juicy, gossipy dimension to the single.
It’s just one song—a debut hit single—that has made Rodrigo noteworthy to those of unfamiliar with Disney Channel’s original programming, and that’s power and influence to me, baby!
“When I came up with ‘Drivers License,’ I was going through a heartbreak that was so confusing to me, so multifaceted,” she said in a statement about the song. “Putting all those feelings into a song made everything seem so much simpler and clearer—and at the end of the day, I think that’s really the whole purpose of songwriting. There’s nothing like sitting at the piano in my bedroom and writing a really sad song. It’s truly my favorite thing in the world.” It certainly worked on “drivers license,” but is that enough of an equation to sustain a full career?
I’m curious about the origins of all hits, and I’m curious to see if “drivers license” is a one-hit wonder. With the Disney machine behind her, I doubt it will be. And it’s fun to see a song released one week become an instant hit the next, sue me.
Also, apparently Taylor Swift is a fan, which is a big deal to Rodrigo herself, as a self-described Swiftie. “next to taylor on the us i tunes chart i’m in a puddle of tears,” she wrote on Instagram January 9, as “drivers license” hit number three just below Swift’s sleepy Evermore tracks “it’s time to go (bonus track)” and “right where you left me (bonus track).” Swift commented, “I say that’s my baby and I’m really proud.”
Now, of course, Rodrigo’s “drivers license” is No. 1 on iTunes and Spotify’s U.S. daily chart.
That’s between you and god, but prepare yourself to hear “drivers license” everywhere soon enough if you’re not already hearing it everywhere. Also, Rodrigo’s debut EP is expected later this year, so get on board or get out of the way.
Correction: A previous version of this post quoted Pop Crave, which reported that “drivers license” had the “biggest single-day streams for a song by a female artist in US Spotify history with over 5.688 MILLION.” That is incorrect. According to Spotify, “on January 11th, Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘drivers license’ set the Spotify record for most streams in a day for a non-holiday song with over 15.17M global streams. On January 12th, the song continued to beat its own record with over 17.01M streams.”