Many who take pride in a music taste that avoids mainstream trends may want to shrug off Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license.” After giving the song a chance, however, listeners are likely to find themselves behind the wheel with tears streaming down their faces, belting out the lyrics.
Rodrigo made a name for herself with her 2020 hit “All I Want” from the “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” soundtrack. And yet, the success of “All I Want” pales in comparison to that of “drivers license.” Her first single has skyrocketed through the charts, debuting at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and breaking records across streaming platforms. Social media is overflowing with memes, covers, and versions of the song written from alternative points of view. All of this attention raises the question: What makes “drivers license” so special?
No conversation about “drivers license” would be complete without a summary of the drama that fueled its rise to fame. The single came after Rodrigo’s alleged breakup with her onscreen love interest Joshua Bassett. Signs point to Bassett as the subject of her heartbreak anthem, given that he taught her how to drive and has been involved in dating rumors with actress and singer Sabrina Carpenter, who speculation has deemed “that blonde girl” Rodrigo wrote about. To make matters more complicated, Bassett and Carpenter released singles of their own shortly afterward, seemingly in response to Rodrigo’s.
Instrumentally, “drivers license” isn’t anything that hasn’t been heard before, straightforward in a way that doesn’t distract from the hard-hitting lyrics, similar to Phoebe Bridgers and Lorde. The steady piano line and minimal percussion that accompany Rodrigo’s vocals are pared back for each verse, becoming slightly more robust in the chorus. When the bridge arrives after a brief moment of silence, glorious harmonies and a symphonic background erupt to create what is arguably Rodrigo’s most euphoric moment as she describes the nostalgic sights she passes by while driving. Here, she sings with a vulnerable tone of heartache, which highlights her anguished admission of unrequited love and carries through to the end of the composition. Anyone who’s tried to sing along will also recognize the impressive breadth of Rodrigo’s voice, gentle yet crystal clear in upper registers and powerful in a lower range.
Despite the song’s lack of instrumental originality, Rodrigo’s lyrics resonate in a way that few recently-released breakup songs have, her confessional songwriting following in the footsteps of Taylor Swift. Though describing her personal experience, the lyrics feel universal, brilliantly capturing the sadness that comes with watching an ex find new love. Struggling to escape the past, she sings, “I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone,” presumably comparing herself to Sabrina Carpenter with the disheartening lyric, “She’s everything I’m insecure about.” Rodrigo also beautifully articulates the difficult resurfacing of old memories after a breakup when she sings, “I still hear your voice in the traffic, we’re laughing / Over all the noise.” Her vulnerable lyrics reflect the unique opportunity to release emotions without judgement that comes with driving solo.
Is this all just one big publicity stunt intended to boost the careers of those involved? Probably. Regardless, “drivers license” remains a pop triumph. Rodrigo turns the mundane act of driving into a heart wrenching, metaphorical drive through now bittersweet memories, her success well-earned after her experience became the perfect song for every breakup playlist.
—Staff writer Nina M. Foster can be reached at [email protected]