‘drivers license’ finds crux of catchiness and honesty

By Nina Ng

Courtesy Photo

I remember spotting “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo on my YouTube sidebar. As musical trends often come and go, I brushed the recommendation off after giving the music video a 30-second try. But two weeks later, it’s still there. In fact, “drivers license” is everywhere. It’s on my friends’ Spotify accounts, viral on TikTok and currently crowned number one atop Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. With the way “drivers license” rose to prominence, I knew I had to go back. Did I overlook a diamond in the rough?

If I’m completely honest, I don’t know if I did. I’m not particularly drawn to the lyrics nor the melodies, and I think the bridge is stiflingly disparate from the song itself. However, in spite of my criticism, I wouldn’t mind another replay. “drivers license” isn’t what I normally gravitate toward, but it’s true to Rodrigo. In “drivers license,” she aspires not to capture her emotions palatably, but accurately. It’s honest, unapologetically plaintive and creates a mood that pulls listeners in — perhaps explaining why it’s so popular.

For starters, listening to “drivers license” is pretty fun. Rodrigo is remarkably good at telling the story, painting a clear narrative of her memories. The song begins with the jingle of keys as you hear a car turn onto a road. Gentle, pulsing noises of ignition blend into the primary beat. Rodrigo then comes in, singing about her newfound independence with the lines, “I got my driver’s license last week / just like we always talked about.” Two common rites of passage for young adults like herself — heartache and obtaining a driver’s license — dovetail in the song, serving as leitmotifs of a simple yet relatable narrative. 

Her voice fades out at the end of every line in the first two verses, evocative of a timid, fresh heartbreak. With her rasp, Rodrigo almost seems to speak to listeners rather than sing during the opening verses. The structure of the song helps evoke a picture of her coursing through hills and bends on a long drive. The sounds of driving are lightly interspersed with piano notes and a grooving synth, all of which are layered beneath Rodrigo’s voice. At the song’s apex, her singing deliberately cracks right before she belts, “[Guess] you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.” Rodrigo hits an array of dactylic, satisfyingly high notes, balancing out her previous low, dulcet tones. She proves her singing ability, no problem — not a surprise, given that she stars on Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

“drivers license” is a story that belongs to Rodrigo. There’s substantive personalization, like the reference to a specific blonde girl who makes her insecure and vignettes from her dead relationship. Regarding the former, it should be noted that interest in “drivers license” could be bolstered by the real-life drama between Rodrigo and her co-star ex, Joshua Bassett. All of this results in certain listeners living vicariously — albeit a bit too much — through the artist. The song is unifying, especially with the variable of recognizable celebrities in the mix. Any dive into a YouTube or TikTok comment section proves as much; people are moved by her bluntness and vulnerability. Having others invested in the plot even when the story isn’t theirs is a commendable skill of songwriting. Rodrigo herself acknowledges that her bonding with her audience influenced the process of finishing “drivers license.” She notes how the song’s immediate popularity was unprecedented, crediting part of her writing to having posted a draft on Instagram that was met with widespread support.

With its overwhelming versatility, it’s not surprising to see how taken everyone is with “drivers license.” One one hand, it’s as simple as finding a catchy trend to hop on. On the other, there’s enough melodrama and grit for everyone to enjoy. At a time when we listeners are in isolation due to the pandemic, Rodrigo’s vivid storytelling provides a way out, inviting us to see a part of her memories and momentarily live through her.