Every once in a while, a completely unheard-of artist will drop a track that instantly tops the Billboard Hot 100 and becomes a worldwide phenomenon. In 2019, for example, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” remix (featuring Billy Ray Cyrus) did precisely that, breaking Mariah Carey’s record for consecutive weeks at number one. (Carey’s record was 16 weeks, whereas Lil Nas X’s was 19 weeks.) Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” brought her viral fame in 2012 with six weeks at number one; likewise, Meghan Thee Stallion achieved viral fame (through Tik Tok) in 2020, when her song “Savage” became an inescapable trend and received a Beyoncé feature.
These artists didn’t take the conventional path to fame; rather, their rises encapsulate something Taylor Swift said about new artists in 2019: “It feels like the trajectory of their career is being shot out of a canon into a stratosphere they could . . . in no way be prepared for”.
Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” is the latest viral phenomenon. However, for a star who emerged in 2020, her breakout success follows a traditional formula. After all, she’s a Disney star, and the breakout artists of the late 2010s harnessed the internet to become household names. Lil Nas X created his meteoric hit as a college dropout (with a beat purchased online), and Shawn Mendes got famous on Vine. In contrast, Olivia Rodrigo’s rise—partially due to Tik Tok as well—breathes some tradition into this new formula. (Let’s not forget that Disney has been churning out pop stars since the 1990s, with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake being perhaps the two biggest examples.)
However, Olivia Rodrigo has more talent than her Disney peers, at least in the ways that matter. Let’s be honest: Demi Lovato has pipes, but she lacks the star power and lyrical prowess to transcend them. Stunning vocals are only compelling for so long, especially post-Kelly Clarkson. You’d think that whispery Wizards of Waverly Place alum Selena Gomez would have been the antidote for Lovato fatigue, but her relevancy did not last for more than a few album cycles. Nowadays, she mostly makes headlines for her friendship with Taylor Swift. (Rumor has it that Swift ended Lovato and Gomez’s friendship years ago—but that’s ancient history.) Suffice it to say, Rodrigo has something akin to the vocal range of Lovato and the intimacy and whispery-ness of Gomez; however, she also has the X-factor to make her fame last.
That said, she’s no Taylor Swift.
Going back to “Driver’s License”, its narrative finds Rodrigo driving through an ex’s neighborhood (as many pop songs of yore—such as Taylor Swift’s “I Wish You Would”—have done). That kind of track typically rehashes the same tropes shamelessly; for instance, Katy Perry’s “The One That Got Away” peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2012 due to her raunchy appeal and use of Americana clichés to romanticize the suburban upbringings of most listeners. (“Steal your parent’s liquor and climb to the roof”, as Perry sings, is one cliché that most Disney stars are probably contractually obligated to avoid.)
As evidenced in the title alone, “Driver’s License” doesn’t stray from the suburbs. That’s no great shock since getting a driver’s license is a significant coming of age milestone in the suburbs (and beyond), where you can’t get anywhere important without one. Sixteen-year-olds will blast this song in their cars for years to come, and that’s exactly what makes the song successful. It may rehash old tropes, but it does so with just enough originality to make the song work.
And when I say “just enough”, I mean just enough.
Any tune that reuses antiquated bromides—again, most pop songs—needs something unique to be successful. There’s plenty of prosperous radio filler out there that, honestly, does nothing interesting. But, the songs that truly grab the attention of listeners offer vulnerability (even with a sound made for the dance floor). Taylor Swift triumphed this way with “I Knew You Were Trouble”, as well as throughout her career overall. She practically invented the suburbs in pop music. (Anyone remember the “You Belong with Me” music video? In it, a teenaged Swift dances around her bedroom in pajamas while holding a sign to talk to the literal boy next door through their windows.) Slant called Swift’s 2008 LP, Fearless, a “marvel of conventional structure”.
The strength of “Driver’s License” is also in its conventionality. Sure, its lyrics are a little too on-the-nose (such as when she needlessly specifies that she was driving “through the suburbs”). Yet, that’s overlooked when the bridge vaults into a key change as Rodrigo belts out, “Red lights, stop signs / I still see your face in the white cars / Front yards”. That’s her showing us that she’s driving through the suburbs without telling us. I mean, no one wants to be explicitly reminded that their life exists in such a common place. But, when Rodrigo lists off sights from the suburbs in the song’s visceral bridge, she triggers immediate flashbacks for both teenage and adult listeners. The target audience won’t be able to resist conjuring their childhood homes and first heartbreaks when they hear it.
So, where will Rodrigo go from here? Her songwriting skills reveal that she won’t be a just breakout success; the things that make “Driver’s License” successful—its lyrical depth and strong emotional performance—are generally attributed to artists, not just songs. When the strengths of a song are the strengths of an artist, they can be replicated. Compare Carly Rae Jepsen to Taylor Swift: Jepsen is arguably a one-hit-wonder whose claim to fame (“Call Me Maybe”) was catchy yet unable to tell us anything about the person singing it. A Music Row executive could have written it for all we know. Conversely, Swift clearly writes her own songs. (Why else would people care so much about who they’re about?)
The same goes for Rodrigo because you can tell that both she and her audience are emotionally invested in “Driver’s License”. She might not have Swift’s gifts for journalistic detail (“Dancing ‘round the kitchen in the refrigerator light” from “All Too Well” might never be topped), but she has something akin to it. Plus, she has the vocal range to make up for whatever she lacks lyrically.
And so the mosaic of pop stars gets another tile. Selena Gomez had what Demi Lovato lacked, and Taylor Swift had what Selena Gomez lacked. Olivia Rodrigo fits somewhere in there, too, and she won’t need a driver’s license to get where she’s going next.