TikTok, the video-sharing social networking app that has swept the world during the pandemic, has brought new meaning to internet virality. The app has launched musicians, dancers, fashion influencers and more into overnight worldwide stardom. One of its most recent targets is Olivia Rodrigo and her emotionally saturated, painfully relatable heartbreak anthem: “Drivers License” (2021). The song is a phenomenon that has become almost impossible to avoid. In its first week, Rodrigo’s lead single debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 and set Spotify’s record for most streams in one week worldwide. The music industry has its eyes on Rodrigo, as the song shatters previous notions of what a breakout single is capable of and shows no signs of slowing down.
Rodrigo is a proud member of Taylor Swift’s school of music, as seen through her heartfelt, honest lyricism and storytelling. “Drivers License” catalogs the experience of Rodrigo getting her driver’s license, something she and the boy who broke her heart had “always talked about.” She describes driving alone past his house and even cathartically admits in the song’s harmonious bridge, “I still f—–g love you.” However, producer Dan Nigro’s complex production and inventive arrangements make her stand out against other young female singer-songwriters, leading fans to dub her the lovechild of Taylor Swift and Lorde. An early contender for the 2022 Grammy’s Song of the Year award, the single reads like an intimate journal entry and plays like a cinematic masterpiece.
The viral sensation that is “Drivers License” can be attributed to a perfect storm of factors: the quality and relatability of the song itself, support from celebrities such as TikTok star Charli D’Amelio and Taylor Swift that maximized its reach and — potentially the most powerful catapult to virality — a compelling scandal. Rodrigo, a seasoned teen TV actress, currently stars in the Disney+ series, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Some believe that Rodrigo’s co-star, Joshua Bassett, is the boy in “Drivers License.” Fans combed through each line, piecing together a story of an alleged love triangle between Rodrigo, Bassett and Sabrina Carpenter, another Disney star thought to be Bassett’s new love interest and, as Rodrigo supposedly identified her in a now-famous lyric, “…that blonde girl/Who always made me doubt.” The details of the supposed love triangle sparked widespread debate and conversation, as social media detectives each contributed their research, theories and opinions to the case — predominantly over TikTok.
Less than a week after the release of “Drivers License,” Bassett dropped “Lie Lie Lie” (2021), a song whose lyrics seem to match up with the speculated narrative, even though a demo was posted in 2019 and their rumored breakup is thought to have occurred sometime in 2020. “Lie Lie Lie” stirred up rumors of it all being a publicity stunt, with its fishy timing and suspiciously similar music video to that of “Drivers License.”
Then, on Jan. 22, Sabrina Carpenter made her grand appearance. She dropped a surprise single, entitled “Skin,” featuring very pointed lyrics to Rodrigo’s “Drivers License.” Carpenter’s bubbly melody and soft tone, reminiscent of Ariana Grande, address Rodrigo directly through lines such as, “Maybe you didn’t mean it/Maybe ‘blonde’ was the only rhyme.” Carpenter’s response tells the story of triumphing over criticism and a publicly constructed narrative that she feels strays from the truth. As fans pit the three songs against each other, choosing sides and contemplating the rights and wrongs of each actor in the love story dominating popular culture, they continue to soar in the charts.
At the core of this frenzy lies the near-universal experience of teenage heartbreak. Rodrigo’s plea has been heard and echoed by young people nationwide, as they fit themselves into the narrative, identifying as the heartbreaker, the heartbroken or maybe even “that blonde girl.”
It has long been argued that teenage girls are the driving force of the pop music industry despite the harsh criticism that teenage fandom may elicit. According to a survey conducted by Morning Consult, young adults are twice as likely to prefer streaming music than adults. If one looks back on truly viral musical phenomena, such as Beatlemania or the Rolling Stones, they are often carried by the earnest, obsessive admiration of a predominantly young female fanbase. “Drivers License” and its responses speak directly to these young people, and are thus being carried toward infamy.
However, one is forced to wonder what the long-term impact of such a fast and drama-filled rise to fame will be on these three burgeoning stars. Rodrigo’s own inspiration, Taylor Swift, was the victim of widespread public criticism regarding her character and dating history. Has the story of “Driver’s License” shifted too far away from the celebration of Rodrigo and her powerful and heartfelt debut, and instead toward the media trap of pitting two talented women against each other? Regardless, one thing is clear above all of the noise: Rodrigo is a pop powerhouse and this is only the beginning for her.