In the past week, the Disney+ show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series has gone from Gen Z pop culture footnote to the center of the love triangle behind the biggest song in the world. That’s the power of “Drivers License,” the debut single from Olivia Rodrigo, which is breaking chart records, dominating TikTok, and exerting a powerful pull over a world that, somehow, after the year we’ve had, is still aching for a breakup ballad.
Rodrigo’s transition from Disney start to pop royalty is a familiar one thanks to the Mileys, Selenas, and Demis who came before her, but 17-year-old Rodrigo is on an unprecedented fast track. One week after its release, the song has debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and smashed streaming records, with 76.1 million streams, according to Billboard. (Rodrigo even broke the record for the globally most requested song in one day on Alexa.) The song’s music video has already been viewed more than 49 million times. It is ubiquitous on TikTok, and the subject of its own #DriversLicenseChallenge:
If the meteoric rise of a teenage singer-songwriter sounds familiar, Taylor Swift agrees—in a comment on Rodrigo’s Instagram post noting the arrival of “Drivers License” on the iTunes charts below Swift’s Evermore bonus tracks, the reigning queen of pop wrote, “I say that’s my baby and I’m really proud.” Written by Rodrigo and produced by Dan Nigro (who has worked with Sky Ferreira and Conan Gray), the glittering ballad chronicles a teen reaching a traditional cultural milestone: getting her driver’s license. But instead of driving to that special someone’s house, she’s driving through the suburbs trying to make sense of their breakup: “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me / ’Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street.” It’s easy to see the winding roads specific to your own adolescence laid out ahead of you when lines like this spill out of Rodrigo’s silky voice.
A veteran of the Disney Channel series Bizaardvark, Rodrigo played the lead on the new High School Musical series—which is also where she met costar Joshua Bassett, the alleged inspiration for “Drivers License.” At the time, she was 15 and he was 18, leaving the young love unrequited. But rumor has it that heartbreak ensued as he moved on to a more age-appropriate Disney darling, Sabrina Carpenter. There’s a “Drivers License” lyric for that too: “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.”
Like so many of Swift’s best early songs, “Drivers License” is specific enough to feel confessional, but vague enough to feel universal. Rodrigo lures you into her world enough to need to google “Drivers License drama” in the middle of the day while you work from home and become emotionally invested in the love triangle of three teenage Disney channel stars whose names you didn’t know last week. But she also leaves enough room to fill in the blanks with your own experiences.
And then there is the small but significant matter of the curse words. It’s something her Disney predecessors and even Swift tended to avoid, but Rodrigo adds a bite, singing, “Can’t drive past the places we used to go to / ’Cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe.” It feels like a way of making her younger fans feel grown-up, like they’ve finally been invited to the party, and reveals to her older but newer listeners a level of emotional maturity that they can relate to. Fellow Disney veterans Aly & AJ know this power too: Last month they released an explicit version of their 2007 hit, “Potential Breakup Song,” and their now grown fans went wild.
But like so many great pop songs, “Drivers License” is strong because it’s timeless, a song of the moment that also sounds like something I would have downloaded onto my iPod Nano. There are no details that suggest that this is a modern love song written in the era of Instagram DMs and online dating. It’s evergreen while creating the illusion of nostalgia that has an undeniable appeal in these early days of 2021.
As musicians, Swift included, release their quarantine-induced masterpieces, Rodrigo’s superpower is almost mundane—just good old-fashioned heartbreak, not of these times but of any time. The success of “Drivers License” is less of a surprise than a reminder of our collective desire for normalcy. After all, what’s more normal than the suburbs and the DMV?
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