“And I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone,” Olivia Rodrigo howls over the sounds of a repetitious bass beat and a piano in her new lead single, “driver’s license”. As her first single outside of the realm of Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series rises to its second chorus, she sings the line after releasing the airiest of ohhhhh’s. The chorus ends again, a downgrading beat, then a pause. She returns against a choral arrangement describing the pain of transitioning from riding shotgun to driving alone. “Red lights, stop signs, I still see your face in the white cars,” she cries. Then, unexpectedly, the Disney starlet drops a “But I still fuckin’ love you, babe.” It’s a formulaic song to invoke enough emotion in someone that’s decades older than the teenage overnight sensation to take them back to a youthful first heartbreak.
The song debuted at the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 — and rightfully so, because Rodrigo is not a teenage overnight sensation, only to the masses of new fans. To refer to her as such in a professional manner would be to disregard the years of acting and songwriting she’s done (and impressively so, at just 17). She was a blip on the radar after doing a few runs on some Disney Channel series, then rose to prominence on the company’s streaming service as Nini Salazar-Roberts in the 2019 High School Musical reboot. In the summer, I watched as Taylor Swift reposted a cover of Rodrigo singing her song “Cruel Summer” (a feat I would love to possess). Rodrigo told Apple Music Radio host Zane Lowe, “I screamed my head off I was so excited. I’m just the biggest Swiftie in the whole world.” It definitely put Rodrigo on my radar, and I watched through the summer as she posted an acoustic clip in late July captioned, “wrote dis the other day. vv close to my heart. gonna call it drivers license I think lol.” It was a beautiful ballad that deserved a studio treatment.
Fast forward to January 4th, where I was greeted with a stunning photo of Rodrigo draped against a yellow projection that read ‘YOU SAID FOREVER’, and the news it was the cover art to her debut single ‘driver’s license’ that would be out Friday, January 8th. As a music fan, it always feels nice when a song is all yours and you get to show it to friends and play it for them in their car. ‘No one has followed Olivia Rodrigo like I,’ I thought. ‘This song is going to be my new track to show people.’ I was so wrong. Two weeks later as I’m writing this, the Billboard Chart dated Monday, February 1, 2021 has just been posted, and it displays the track at number one for the third consecutive week.
The song describes Rodrigo’s tumultuous feeling of finally getting her driver’s license. It’s useless, because things ended with her love interest, and the only place she wants to go is his house. So, naturally, instead she just aimlessly drives through his neighborhood in the suburbs. And if she’s anything like me, she’s sobbing to ‘Back to December’. It is everything that a first heartbreak feels like, and it’s something you’d expect from someone that’s her age feeling these emotions for the first time. Lyrically, it’s good. Vocally, Rodrigo switches from airy, nighttime shout-singing to slyly speaking punches of heartbreak in just seconds.
But it’s the love triangle in question that’s also making headlines. Rodrigo had been rumored to be dating HSMTMTS co-star Joshua Bassett early last summer. In the fall, he was seen on TikTok videos with Disney Channel alum Sabrina Carpenter, age 21. Fans speculated that Rodrigo referenced the pair in the single, as she pens in the first verse, “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.” Two weeks later, Carpenter confirmed the lyric could be about her when she dropped her single ‘Skin’, where she sang, “Maybe you didn’t mean it, maybe blonde was the only rhyme.” Listeners believed that Carpenter took it a step too far in the chorus when she sang, “You can try to get under my, under my skin while he’s on mine.”
Internet backlash was expected following the number of people that sympathized with Rodrigo. Tweets came the following morning after ‘Skin’ was released. Twitter user @niallinpayne wrote that Rodrigo called Carpenter blonde, and Carpenter “took that personally”. Others suggested the entire thing was a public relations stunt to increase interest in both girl’s music. A fan of Sabrina Carpenter, @DAMNSABRINA outlined their interpretation of the lyrics, stating that the chorus was directed not at Rodrigo, but at the general public that shamed Carpenter for being with Bassett.
If there is any singular take away, it is that Olivia Rodrigo has proven to be a powerhouse in the music industry after only one song, a feat not done with ease. Her older colleagues have taken notice, even inspiration Taylor Swift who commented on Rodrigo’s Instagram after the single went to number one on Apple Music — “I say that’s my baby and I’m really proud”. Rodrigo subsequently green screened with the comment on TikTok mouthing an audio of Swift accepting the Horizon Award at the 2007 Country Music Award, stating, “This is definitely the highlight of my senior year.” Swift was 17 at the time, the same age as Rodrigo is now. Music fans should keep an eye on Rodrigo, and those that dislike pop should be prepared to keep an eye on her, too. She isn’t going anywhere, except, say, the suburbs.