How the Hell Did Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Drivers License’ Become the No. 1 Song in America?
How the youths catapulted an unknown singer to No. 1 in her first week using TikTok, Disney gossip, and other methods that sound exhausting to us olds.
There comes a time for every generation to acknowledge a painful reality: the youths are running things now. For many millennials, that turning point happened this week.
You’d like to think you’re still able to connect with the Bradens and the Paxtons and the Madisons and Brynnlees. If something’s not exactly your taste, you can at least understand its appeal and why it’s popular. Things still make sense to you, even if you’re married to your ways. You’re not one of the kids, but you’re in touch with their spirits.
And then that flipping “Drivers License” song comes out and you throw your hands up and admit defeat. Lil Nas X was one thing. It took a while, but you got on board. TikTok was another, and you were just starting to come around to that. Euphoria terrified you, but it was brilliant. But this? THIS?! Godspeed, children. It’s your world now.
In a bit of a shock this week, “Drivers License,” a new song from relatively unknown performer Olivia Rodrigo, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. (The song title is technically styled in all lowercase letters, but I refuse.) I say relatively unknown because I actually know her; she stars on Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a deceptively sharp and entertaining sitcom spun off through the looking glass from the 15-year-old Zac Efron/Vanessa Hudgens franchise.
She is a tremendous talent on the show, so the shock isn’t that she’s found more mainstream success. It’s that it happened in a way that is both under-the-radar and all-encompassing, and isolating to so many people who hear her name and the song and are completely clueless.
The nuts-and-bolts explanation of how the song and Rodrigo skyrocketed so quickly is a fascinating microcosm of the entertainment industry in 2021, who it benefits, and who it leaves out (us olds too confused to bother to pay attention).
Rodrigo, who is just 17, wrote the piano ballad herself about six months ago, previewing the writing process on her social media account. Among her millions of followers on TikTok and Instagram, there was rampant excitement for its official release on Jan. 8. Within a week, it was streamed 76.1 million times, the highest total since Cardi B and Meghan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.” It broke the single-day Spotify streaming record on Jan. 11, and then its own record again the next day. It now holds the service’s record for most worldwide streams in one week.
In its first week, the number of TikTok videos that featured the song doubled each day. Its music video has over 55 million views on YouTube. That is a very high number. I am supplying all of these statistics because they are astonishing, breaking records left and right, and yet, anecdotally, many of my contemporaries are not even aware that this song exists.
It’s incredibly rare for a song by a pretty much unknown entity, at least in the mainstream, to debut at No. 1 in such explosive fashion. In some ways, it’s benefitted from a feedback loop of confusion and astonishment that’s only amplified its success.
One crucial key to its rise is the rampant speculation among fans of Rodrigo and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series that the breakup piano ballad is directly inspired by a long-rumored relationship she had with her Disney co-star Joshua Bassett. The lyrics are spectacularly and specifically teenaged when it comes to its depiction of love and heartbreak, which has only made more thrilling the parlor game among young fans to dissect it for more clues about their apparently dramatic romance.
The gossiping brought more attention to the song, which earned more attention from news outlets, which brought more attention to the song, which made it more popular, which again brought more attention to the song. And now this nice girl you’ve never heard of is 2021’s biggest pop star.
This is one of those overnight success stories that keeps the romanticized perception of Hollywood and show business afloat in the clouds. It’s nice! How is the song? It’s fine! Like… fine.
Does it sound like Taylor Swift is doing a Billie Eilish impression in order to amuse her fans during a concert? Could you be convinced that it is in fact Lorde sight-reading a ballad that Lana Del Rey decided not to include on her last album? Is it completely innocuous, “this sounds like ‘now,’ whatever the hell that means” inoffensiveness precisely why it’s gone viral? Yes, to all. The easily imitable blank slate is the point.
I wish I could express to you how exhausting it was to figure out and make sense of all that information for you. The truth is, the most tiring part was getting up the energy to care in the first place. And that’s why I surrender. I’m too old. I’m on like my fourth or fifth driver’s license already. The world is for the youths now. Enjoy.