Friday, January 15th, 2021

Olivia Rodrigo – Drivers License

Olivia says “Fuck,” and so did your editor when they looked at the amount of blurbs they have to edit…


[Video]
[6.48]
Kayla Beardslee: Good Lorde.
[6]

Joshua Minsoo Kim: The stylized version of the title (apostrophe-less, without capitalization) preps us for the song’s diaristic nature, but also for how calculated it all feels: single-note piano plinks, quaint lap drumming, sudden decrescendo-and-hushed-vox combos. Any good will I have nearly dissipates by the time the bridge arrives: a schoolyard chant by way of Lorde, down to the deliberate use of the word “fucking.” It’s tonally consistent, sure, but even more forced than everything that preceded it. Despite every move on “Drivers License” feeling like shortcuts to emotion, it’s easy to buy into what Rodrigo is doing; the words she sings are suffused with an abundance of feeling — she’s on the verge of tears in the chorus, and sounds knowingly wistful on the bridge. There’s an air of performativity to it all, from the scene-setting to the mannered vocalizing, and you can readily imagine her singing this alone on a stage, spotlight on, audience watching with rapt attention. And that’s the song’s greatest strength: everything feels real because it sounds ready-made for theatre.
[6]

Wayne Weizhen Zhang: A Disney Channel x Lorde teen romance ballad about finally getting your drivers license and voyeuristically driving to your ex’s house was about the last thing that I expecting to fall in love with, but “Drivers License” is the first song in 2021 that I’ve genuinely been wowed by. The underlying story here is unquestionably cheesy, but Olivia Rodrigo sells every second of it, paying clear homage to Melodrama (the lilting underlying piano, the cadence when she sings “I still fuck-ing love you baaa-be”, the emotional climax starting with “red light”) while still managing to sound fresh. (Bonus point for unintentionally inherently queering the plot by making the story about someone who didn’t know how to drive.)
[8]

Thomas Inskeep: Cross Finneas’s production for his sister Billie with Lorde’s songwriting and vocals and you get this next-gen pop. I’m impressed by how much pain I can hear in Rodrigo’s voice; this is frankly rather brutal, and not remotely what I’d expect from a song in this ballpark.
[7]

Asif Becher: Like any honest teen love song, it’s a little overwrought, a little oversung, a little profane. But it also reminds me of being 15, when all my the most dramatic and important moments happened sitting in a car with a best friend, scream singing along to an angsty song, turning dark suburban streets into a playground. The song’s a little embarrassing but so what? Everything’s embarrassing when you’re that age, when every nerve in your body is an exposed live wire bursting with feeling. It’d be easy to make the mistake of writing the song off as a diary entry — nothing but feeling, plain and simple. But that’s not quite right. Olivia Rodrigo has a strong sense for storytelling, for craft, and for production choices that elevate the song from what could have been just a brooding piano ballad into something a little more anthemic. There’s raw talent, yeah, but there’s also ambition pulsing under every note she sings. She’s aiming for stadiums, not coffee houses. It might take Rodrigo a few years to shake off the Disney polish that keeps the track from having the bite of her obvious influences: Lorde, Soccer Mommy, early Taylor. But that’s okay. She’ll have the rest of her career to sharpen her edges.
[7]

Alfred Soto: The romantic entanglements on which Olivia Rodrigo theoretically based this psychodrama adds no pathos with which it doesn’t already throb. The single piano note provides the anchor for Rodrigo’s fancier flights. The singalong in the last third, complete with perfectly rehearsed “fucking,” is a bit much; “today I drove through the suburbs” is perfect.
[6]

Michael Hong: I wished my crush a happy birthday last week despite the fact we didn’t talk for almost six months. Stupid, right? My friends didn’t get it, but I thought I did. Olivia Rodrigo probably does. We’re the types to fixate on things we should have let go of, the types to imagine what could have been instead of looking at what was. The kind of people who imagine we’re realists because we can acknowledge that “we weren’t perfect” but forget that also sometimes means “for each other.” To daydream about plans and possibilities, of road trips and one days and maybe next times. I hear bits and pieces of things we used to love here. Drips of Julia Michaels in Olivia Rodrigo’s vocal stylings and in the turbulence of “Drivers License.” Echoes of “Writer in the Dark” in its chorus, the rest of Lorde in the layers of breathy exhales on the bridge. I hear time moving on without her, the synths dopplering out of focus and leaving Rodrigo behind. But mostly, I hear myself in the way Rodrigo clings onto someone long gone. Sometimes I still open Discord hoping you’ll notice I’m online. That maybe you’d want to talk the way we used to, that this time it’ll be okay. That we’ll be okay. ‘Cause I still fucking love you, the same way Rodrigo does, hanging onto a boy who’s in someone else’s car. They never responded.
[8]

Austin Nguyen: In true High School Musical fashion, the two major vocal leads of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (who actually sing, that is) are also getting opportunities to launch Serious Music Careers, 14 years after Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Tisdale tried doing the same. While screenwriters managed to (somewhat) broach new topics like gay identity and, oddly enough, job application litigation, it seemed that little improvement was made in the recording studio up until now because, well, the formula works. Joshua Bassett, for one, is Peak Disney Marketability from 2014: a celebrity-crush-certified personality limited to innocuous guitar playing, age-of-twink cuteness, and being shirtless in the shower, which will — duh! — land him into a high-profile relationship so romantic that he will claim every song he has ever written is about his muse. But as much as the next person will claim that Olivia Rodrigo is the next Demi Lovato as a TV-music crossover (though the only similarity between the two is that their big breaks come from weirdly meta Disney shows), she is not the gospel-ready, nodule-inducing belter that her predecessor is. Nor does she land on the other extreme of the vocal spectrum with Whisperlena, which is the entire point: Rodrigo is excruciatingly normal (rather than effortlessly so), a suburban teen with slight theater-kid diction and indie-inflected stylings who feels like they lost everything that mattered. So much of “drivers license,” in fact, is about what Rodrigo lacks — someone beside her in the passenger seat, the innocence of not being behind the wheel, her causes for insecurity — and how, in the monotonous blur of places passing by, that droning “Say Something” piano rushed to double turn-signal speed, absence gains a new clarity to become devastation. Here that means walls of sound that crescendo and crumple onto the floor in mere seconds from emotional exhaustion, the first current Disney star in recent memory saying “fucking(!),” sidewalks that Kelly Clarkson was also hung up on, words clipped (“around,” “else,” “street”) from the abrupt realization that some thoughts are too much to bear, and the free-falling night-drive atmosphere LANY never quite found. It leaves me more crushed than I’d like to admit, how her voice becomes softened into the debris of a frail falsetto once the memories — “In the traffic, we’re laughing over all the noise” — fade from the rear view mirror. It also makes me hope that whenever I inevitably have to drive through my suburbs with a tattered heart while retracing the steps of sunset-lit walks and portico-parting kisses (after getting my own driver’s license), guided my dim lampposts and streetlights, I remember this song, just to feel a little less alone.
[7]

Leah Isobel: So much of the chatter around “Drivers License” explicitly or implicitly reflects a bemusement that a star of High School Musical: The Musical: The Show could release a debut single that reads so authentically. If it’s not shock that a Disney girl says “fuck” (which isn’t entirely true, since Olivia Rodrigo is signed to Geffen, not Hollywood), it’s congratulating her for the everygirl Oscar that is Taylor Swift stamp of approval. But the Taylor comparison holds in another way – Swift isn’t just an excellent songwriter, she’s a master of celebrity and cultural narrative, and that technique provides the other hook into this single. The story neatly dovetails with the marketing: from both angles, Olivia is contrasted against the image of the Pop Girl as a polished product. None of this would matter if the song didn’t hold up its end of the bargain, but to her credit, it does. The way she uses an inanimate object as a portal into an emotional world recalls Death Cab for Cutie or, yes, Taylor Swift; the swaying bridge that revolves around aforementioned “fuck” brings to mind Ellie Goulding or, yes, Lorde. Even the bass synth, which vworps and vrooms like a spaceship in widescreen, recontextualizes and domesticates its eerie affect from another source. It’s a smart feat of songcraft, not because it innovates, but because it expertly triangulates the market and then executes flawlessly. But it’s missing a sense of spontaneity, mystery, or camp – the ingredients that separate good pop from great. No matter. With “Drivers License” poised to hit #1, Olivia has plenty of time to plot her next move. I hope she hears this cover while she plans world domination.
[7]

Rodrigo Pasta: Possibly the best teen songwriter to come out of your daughter’s iPhone since Taylor Swift, with an eye for detail that’s impeccable and stunning. She’s still young, and needs some refinement – some lines are a tad oversung, and she needs to learn how to properly end a track – but “drivers license” is a reminder of all those bottled up teenage feelings coming out at once. It’s a recreation of that perfect clear-blue-sky teen melodrama you never had (and if you did, you’re oh so lucky), as every instrument pulses through a composition that shows its teeth, but also realizes it’s too broken to actually use them. This song’s narrator will survive these feelings, but the fact that she isn’t aware of it just yet is what makes this equally heartwarming and empowering. With the stakes being so low yet feeling so high, who could deny this level of despair?
[9]

Al Varela: Who knew that the first big song of the year would be an out of nowhere phenomenon from a cast member of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Show”? Listening to it more though, it doesn’t surprise me that this became an instant hit. Not only is it very well produced with its tense rhythm and aquatic keys over Olivia Rodrigo’s passionate voice, but its appeal is so simple and easy to empathize with. It’s simply a song about feeling hurt over a fractured relationship and the pain of still having feelings is causing her to spiral. The detail of this song is crystal clear, describing not just the streets she passes by or the girl she eventually grows jealous of as their relationship ends, but even feeling like the song that he wrote about her was tainted because it’s filled with lies. Its teenage melodrama can be overwhelming at points, but at the same time, what makes music about teenage melodrama so potent is taking it seriously and feeling that adolescent heartbreak resonates within you. I think this song succeeds in that.
[7]

Alex Clifton: A melodramatic (and great) song about being in the thorny grasp of heartbreak when you’re young. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to go through those feelings myself, but I still have vivid sense memories of how much my body ached any time I went through a breakup when I was in college. Every place we spent time became haunted, every song we listened to was ruined, every word he ever sent me meant nothing. The difference between my heartbreak and Rodrigo’s is that I spent a lot of time writing bad poetry about it and never came close to the devastating line “guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me,” let alone that electric bridge. If this is what Rodrigo can write as a teenager, I’m excited to see how her songwriting develops; she’s got a gift.
[8]

Samson Savill de Jong: Lyrics lifted out of a 15 year-old’s diary is an insult I’ve used on this very site, but this song is an example of it done right. It’s corny, it’s overdramatic, did she really just go full Plain White T’s and say nobody gets it but her, but it’s sincere, and that makes the rest of it all ok somehow. There’s plenty of gossip level background to this, which you may or may not care about, but the result of it is that even without knowing any of it the song comes off as genuine, rather than someone trying to act for the sake of writing a sappy song for the kids. Musically it’s not as strong, as an example I think the Lorde style bridge isn’t overdramatic enough. It needs to bigger, have more stuff going on, it is meant to be this explosion of emotion (saying “fuck” isn’t enough), instead it’s a bit of a plodding funeral dirge. It still is a sappy song for the kids, but for something that could have had me rolling my eyes I buy into it, so it has to go down as a success.
[6]

Vikram Joseph: There’s an ever-shifting musical version of the Overton Window which reflects the extent to which the pop listenership is willing to embrace irony or sincerity at any given moment; while there are always outliers (Billie Eilish comes to mind at present), the pandemic seems to have triggered a notable shift towards sincerity, exemplified by the acute obsession with this middling piano ballad. “Drivers Licence” actually comes quite close to a lot of good things – in its suburban teenage melodrama it echoes Lorde, albeit with neither the self-awareness that undercuts her sadness nor her effervescent production; in her full-throated skyward spiral Olivia Rodrigo recalls Maggie Rogers’ “Dog Years”, but this never comes close to triggering the same kind of butterflies. The thudding straight 4/4 beat in the second verse is a poor choice, weighing down the song when it should be taking off. The swooning bridge is a much better vehicle for Rodrigo’s heartbreak, but the lyrics – mostly rote suburban imagery and “that other girl’s so pretty” tropes – lack character and have been done better by everyone from Taylor Swift to Soccer Mommy in recent times.
[5]

Joshua Lu: Olivia Rodrigo’s meteoric rise over the past week can be attributed to various factors: her obvious vocal talents that have long been on display, general industry goodwill, her not being signed to Hollywood Records, the charts being rather stale right now, and the fact that we went through all of 2020 without any major pop girls emerging, thus leaving us thirsty for someone new. And so she arrived with “drivers license,” a lovely little song with light cussing and without an apostrophe, and it seems the world has gone mad. Fans find themselves repeatedly streaming this song on Spotify or cranking out hundreds of thousands of TikToks set to it, and detractors are going feral trying to find out the real reason behind her sudden success, because of course it’s not due to those aforementioned factors and the possibility that it’s a nice song that people enjoy. These conspiracies are largely being concocted by listeners of a certain age, especially those slowly realizing that they’re past the age of being the pop music tastemakers, and it’s left me feeling oddly protective of this promising young singer with the voice and the stylings necessary to continue making great work; just listen to the way her crystalline voice rings out in that bridge, over those unyielding piano chords and hand claps, and tell me you’re not charmed. But I’m still a listener of that certain age, and I still can’t help but wonder, indeed, why this song is finding this meteoric success — I mean, I liked Lorde a lot when I was a teenager, so I guess I get it?
[6]

William John: Olivia Rodrigo co-wrote “driver’s license” with Dan Nigro, who boasts a sidebar-ready pedigree – he’s worked with the likes of Sky Ferreira, Rae Morris, Empress Of, Carly Rae Jepsen and Caroline Polachek. On songs he’s co-written, like Ferreira’s “You’re Not The One“, heartache is approached with steely defensiveness, while on “I Blame Myself“, that armour resignedly and forthrightly self-destructs. Nigro and Rodrigo broach the subject from a less nuanced perspective; on the page, this scans as a straightforward expression of the raw, empty, embarrassing feeling of being dumped, the kind that inevitably prompts oscillation between silence and distraught wailing. There’s perhaps not quite enough contrast in Rodrigo’s performance for this to completely work; I hear more Phoebe Ryan than Phoebe Bridgers, more Birdy than Billie, and I keep waiting for an eyebrow-raising vocal moment like that in “Writer In The Dark“. But perhaps all of that will come with time. Given this song’s frankly perplexing commercial popularity has come with such speed, one would hope that her label are prepared for a long game, and are ready to sufficiently invest in her future such that she is provided with the opportunity to scale greater artistic heights.
[5]

Rachel Saywitz: One could chalk up many reasons as to why Olivia Rodrigo’s first official single has such massive buzz less than a week after its release: The fame Rodrigo already has as Disney’s next budding teen star, the alleged love triangle at the song’s root, the tumultuous week it was released in, adding a little more emotional-leaden fuel to the fire happening in America’s capitol. But while I, for the most part, enjoy the solemn ambiance and intimate whispers of “drivers license,” the heart this somewhat standard breakup ballad exists in an Instagram video Rodrigo posted last summer. In it, she plays the beginning stanzas of a song rough around the edges, but tenderly poignant. Singing live, with only a pedal on her piano to add a slight sustaining reverb, Rodrigo has no need to pull back her voice as in the way she does in the studio version. Instead she sings out on a misshapen chorus guided by the intensity of her feelings and the gravity of her heartbreak. Watching that older video, it’s no wonder “drivers license” is poised to be the first big release of the new year — Rodrigo’s sincerity shines alight with her music.
[7]

Katherine St Asaph: You don’t need me to tell you “Drivers License” sounds like Lorde, but it’s equally a product of musical (the musical: the series) theater. The patter-song rhythm in the verses, the suddenly belted chorus, and the subtextless, bring-your-own-emoting lyrics are all less Melodrama than drama-club audition. (Conveniently, the “fucking” is in the part you wouldn’t sing at an audition.) I also hear a zoomer version of Anna Nalick’s “Breathe (2 AM)“: temporarily interrupting the sexed-up charts for some self-conscious poetics. And what a sign of the times! The first class of High School Musical alumni interrupted nothing, but tried to merge smoothly into pop radio: Vanessa Hudgens’ “Come Back to Me” and “Say OK” are fluttery Ariana-before-Ariana pop R&B, and Ashley Tisdale’s “Be Good to Me” and “He Said She Said” are respectively ersatz “In Da Club” and “I Wanna Be Bad.” Even as little as five years ago, the Bridgit Mendlers of Nickelodisneyland generally had to wait until after their initial (failure to) launch before recording quasi-artpop. Now Rodrigo’s working with the co-writer of “You’re Not the One” and “So Hot You’re Hurting My Feelings,” releasing a single that sounds more at home at the Hotel Cafe or a tastemaker blog than the charts, and conquering all three. The sheer novelty is already getting people — the same people who sneer at anything Disney or young-adult, and anyone who likes those things — to overpraise what’s basically an underwritten piano ballad after a year of glee club and stimulants. But honestly, this could be so much worse.
[5]

Oliver Maier: A serviceable ballad that’s mostly notable because it’s been so long since serviceable balladry hit it so huge, “Drivers License” is also the first smash hit in a while to complete a deliberate emotional arc rather than hang in the same space for its entire runtime. It’s worth noting that it is still not at all patient: the tempo is brisk, there’s no pre-chorus and Rodrigo scarcely allows the plaintive piano chords a single bar to run on by themselves, always revving into the next section as soon as she can. This hurriedness is to the song’s detriment; it feels thin and self-conscious in spite of its solid hook and Rodrigo’s obvious vocal chops. The Lorde Moment midway through is a pleasant changeup, but it’s not enough to elevate “Drivers License” into something really remarkable.
[5]

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: I wrote earlier in the week that as a teenager I wanted music that took my petty grievances and sorrows and made them larger than life. At the time I found that absolution in bands like Los Campesinos! and My Chemical Romance, over-dramatic and clever takes on prickly rock archetypes. Despite the stylistic differences, “Drivers License” hits that same itch. I’ve moved on now from teenagerdom but I’m not so far removed that I don’t know how this works, every one of Olivia Rodrigo’s deftly written little details adding up to a tragedy that feels incomprehensibly, inescapably big. It’s nothing new, all of its tricks borrowed from prior generations of teen angst (the bridge is more Melodrama than anything on Melodrama.) But “Drivers License” triumphs because it grabs you emotionally even when you can recognize its machinery. Rodrigo’s sincerity in her vocals shakes the song free from being constrained by its tropes– instead, Rodrigo embodies them, not blinking once or even thinking to admit that maybe this high school break up wasn’t that big of a deal. Who cares what it really is? For four minutes, “Drivers License” is as big as the whole world.
[8]

Nortey Dowuona: The way Olivia crests within the shifting pianos and gurgling synths is fragile and keening, as she is struggling to grasp the wilting flowers of her relationship. And as 8 years have passed, I’d never grasp that kids would be surprising me in that Lorde’s work was still continuing, even as Lorde disappeared, Olivia quietly picks up the pieces of shattered pieces of perfect places and mounts them in the backseat of her Corolla, driving away.
[7]

Hannah Jocelyn: Olivia Rodrigo is clearly talented. Listening to HSM:TM:TS devoid of context for the show, the songs Rodrigo wrote are legitimately good ballads, possibly too good for the Disney+ original they’re making. How did the franchise of poorly edited water reflections come to include mournful cellos in every other song? But the proper debut single for Rodrigo, produced by the wildly prolific Daniel Nigro, doesn’t quite measure up. Like every big-budget property of the last few years — you tried, Frozen 2, and you didn’t try at all, Wonder Woman 1984 there’s enough edge to give the impression of depth, but if the movie doesn’t fade from memory altogether that dpeth increasingly feels like an illusion. (Yes, it’s unusual that Elliot Smith is on a Disney star’s Sad Girl Hours playlist, but not that unusual; Smith inexplicably has enough cultural clout to get a namedrop in the second Lego Movie.) I don’t find the lyrics memorable here; she’s just driving and missing her boyfriend. The one stanza that really works for me is “All my friends are tired/Of hearing how much I miss you/but I kinda feel sorry for them/Cause they’ll never know you the way that I do.” It’s honest and clever where the rest of the song is content to just belt out what happened. By the way, the bridge of this song is rhythmically just a na-na na-na-na playground chant, right?
[5]

Aaron Bergstrom: About a week after I turned sixteen, I failed my driving test. It happens. I can laugh about it now, but at the time, it felt like my whole world had ended. I had been fantasizing for months about how everything was going to be different, better, once I had that license. This was going to be an inflection point for my entire life. I had plans. I was going to be a different person. Girls were finally going to notice me. And then it all evaporated. Obviously “drivers license” isn’t really about Olivia Rodrigo getting her drivers license, but her use of that familiar milestone as an entry point into a breakup ballad instantly snapped me back to that teenage mindset, mentally spinning my wheels while competing emotions simultaneously redlined in my chest. Here, a lone bass throb in the first verse hints at something volatile lurking in the depths, and it finally bursts to life on the bridge: after two and a half minutes of pure sadness, she finally breaks through into everything else: she loves him, she’s angry at herself because she still loves him, she hints at accepting that it’s over but she just isn’t there yet. As a cynical adult, the temptation is to dismiss songs like this as melodramatic, overwrought, an exercise in histrionics, and maybe they are, but it’s the same rote criticism that has been leveled at Taylor Swift, Lorde, and just about every other teenage girl writing songs trying to remind adults what it felt like to feel things. I’m so glad I’ll never be sixteen again, but sometimes it’s nice to remember.
[8]

Jackie Powell: To make sense of “Driver’s Licence,” and its success, I thought back to another time in our 21st-century history when Young Hollywood drama manufactured a pop hit. In 2008 Miley Cyrus released “7 Things,” an angsty track about her breakup with fellow Disney crooner Nick Jonas. So 12 years later, not much has really changed. Olivia Rodrigo is singing a song about an ex she met via a slightly different looking Disney machine. She belts the words “‘Cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe,” and at age 17, it sounds a bit too precocious, regardless of how mature her tone is. Earning a driver’s license is usually a symbol of independence, which is ironic here because for her, this accomplishment signified despair rather than liberation. Truth to be told, it took me five different tries to get my driver’s license, and when I did, it was nothing but liberating.
[5]

John Pinto: Those early synth glissandos make for great depth charges, and the whole “turn your life into a movie by driving through the suburbs with the music loud” thing is some tried-and-true middle-class universalism. But the problem with pretending to cruise through Sacramento at the end of Lady Bird is that, y’know, you’re pretending. Eventually you drive home and eat a cereal bar or something and feel better. And unfair as the comparison is to a relative newcomer like Rodrigo, “Drivers License” really does sound like a lesser “Cellophane.” The result is a competent debut that’s pretty middle of the road [a flubbed rimshot sets off an improbable chain of accidents that ends with me dead under a fallen anvil].
[4]

Reader average: [7.55] (18 votes)

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6 Responses to “Olivia Rodrigo – Drivers License”

  1. is this the most blurbs we’ve ever had on a song??

  2. I think that was probably LWYMMD, but this is a surprisingly high score given the number of people who contributed!! Lovely writing from everyone :)

  3. is this the most blurbs and lowest controversy

  4. i had no idea that there was this much discussion about the use of ‘fucking’ lmao

  5. so much good writing from everyone! I didn’t have anything to add other than I shamefully think I like the overwrought ballad from the high school musical series more

  6. also belatedly “more phoebe ryan than phoebe bridgers” is great

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