Driving will never be a tired muse for pop music. The history of pop spans from the Beatles’ “Drive My Car” to Taylor Swift’s “Getaway Car,” from Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” to the tropical house cover that proved even more popular. Olivia Rodrigo, star of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, is now carving her own spot in pop history with another coming-of-age story indebted to the DMV: Her debut single, “drivers license,” is currently poised for the first No. 1 debut of 2021 based on early projections. That’s a pretty weird sentence to get past. Pop history? Made by a 17-year-old Disney star?? With a song about learning to drive??? But Rodrigo’s song only got here thanks to a legacy of teenage singles before it.
Well, that and the fact that it is at the center of a controversy involving multiple of her HSMTMTS co-stars (joining Disney also fast-tracked her music’s popularity). In short, Rodrigo allegedly dated and broke up with HSMTMTS’s Joshua Bassett last year, after their characters also dated on the show; Bassett then (also allegedly) began dating another co-star, Sabrina Carpenter; on top of it all, Bassett is releasing his own single, “Lie Lie Lie,” on January 14. “drivers license” makes the underlying plot easy to piece together because Rodrigo is so literal. Past the car door and beeps that open the song, she sings about a “blonde girl” who’s “so much older than me,” two things that are true of 21-year-old Carpenter. “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me” isn’t just the sort of jab Taylor Swift would write, it’s obviously pointed toward Bassett, who sang that he was “done pretending I want anyone else” in 2020, and whose upcoming song is clearly about falsehoods.
Speaking of Swift: The song closely follows the footsteps of the pop star’s current barer-bones singer-songwriter period. Rodrigo blends the intimate arrangements of folklore and evermore with the high stakes pop of Lover, tying it all together with a dramatic, Swiftian bridge. It makes sense that someone like Rodrigo, with crisp vocals and a warbly voice that may be more suited to musical theater, would gravitate toward a singer like Swift, whose “Cruel Summer” she covered last year. (Swift endorsed both that cover and “drivers license.”)
But “drivers license” isn’t Swift imitation — it’s more like a Frankenstein version of the past decade or so in pop. Rodrigo’s quiet moments recall Billie Eilish and her anthemic ones recall Lorde, with bits of Alessia Cara in between. She’s also, of course, grappling with a teenage and suburban angst that Eilish, Lorde, and Cara have each individually made their calling cards and trying to make it all as stylistically cinematic as the 1975. (The video shoots for “aesthetic,” generally, with no action to compel it.) As such, there’s something for nearly every sort of pop listener to grab onto in “drivers license,” packaged in a song that draws on the widely relatable rite of passage that is learning to drive, with all the freedom and growth that it brings. Sure, it’s a derivative variation on many themes, but it’s also why musicians have continued for decades to lean on driving as both storytelling device and creative spark. So, if “drivers license” tops the charts next week, Rodrigo will only join a history of 17-year-olds working through shit from the driver’s seat on the road to a hit. Just, seatbelts please!