"Driver's License" is a Conventional Wonder
Olivia Rodrigo succeeds by doing a conventional thing extraordinarily well, like Taylor Swift before her.
Every once in a while, a completely unheard of artist will drop a track that instantly goes number one and becomes a worldwide phenomena. Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" remix, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, did this in 2019, breaking Mariah Carey's record for consecutive weeks at number one. (Carey's record: 16. OTR: 19.) Carly Rae Jepsen's "Call Me Maybe" brought her viral fame in 2012 with 6 weeks at number one. Meghan Thee Stallion achieved viral fame in 2020 through Tik Tok, when her song "Savage" became an inescapable trend and received a Beyonce feature. These artists didn't take the traditional path to fame. Their rise encapsulates something Taylor Swift said about the music industry in 2019: "For new artists nowadays, it feels like the trajectory of their career is like being shot out of a canon into a stratosphere."
Olivia Rodrigo's "Driver's License" is the latest viral phenomena. However, for a star who emerged in 2020, her breakout success follows a traditional formula. She's a Disney star. The breakout artists of the late 2010s harnessed the internet to become household names. Lil Nas X created his number one hit as a college drop out with a beat purchased online. Shawn Mendes went famous on Vine. But Olivia Rodrigo's rise, partially via Tik Tok, breathes some tradition into this new formula. After all, Disney has been churning out pop stars since the 90s. (Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, to name a few.)
Sixteen-year-olds will blast this song from their cars on their first drive for years to come.
However, Olivia Rodrigo has something that many Disney stars don't: talent. 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 would think the whispery Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place Alum) would have been the antidote for Lovato fatigue, but her relevancy did not last for more than a few albums cycles. Nowadays, she mostly makes headlines for her friendship with Taylor Swift. (Rumor has it that Swift broke up 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, the intimacy and whispery-ness of Gomez, and the X Factor to make fame last. Although she's no Taylor Swift.
Rodrigo's viral hit "Driver's License" narrates a drive through an ex's neighborhood, as many pop songs of yore have done. (Taylor Swift's "I Wish You Would" for one.) Most pop songs rehash the same tropes shamelessly. Katy Perry's "The One That Got Away" went number one in 2011 through Perry's raunchy appeal, and her mix of Americana cliches that romanticize the suburban upbringings of most listeners. ("Steal your parent's liquor, and climb to the roof," was one cliche that most Disney stars were probably contractually obligated to stay away from.) "Driver's License" doesn't stay away from the suburbs, evident in the title alone. Getting a driver's license is most significant as a 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 from their cars on their first drive without their parents for years to come. That's 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, I mean just.
The strength of "Driver's License" is in its conventionality.
Any song that rehashes old tropes- again, most pop songs- needs something unique in order to succeed. There's plenty of radio filler out there (that succeeds on that charts) that does absolutely 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 succeeded this way with "I Knew You Were Trouble," and in her career broadly. Swift practically invented the suburbs in pop music. The "You Belong With Me" music video, anyone? (In it, a teenaged Swift dances around her bedroom in pajamas, and holds up a sign to talk to the literal boy next door through their windows.) Slant called Swift's Fearless a "marvel of conventional structure."
The strength of "Driver's License" is also in its conventionality. Sure, the song's lyrics are a little too on-the-nose when she needlessly specifies she was driving "through the suburbs." But that's overlooked when the bridge vaults into a key change and Rodrigo belts, "Red lights, stop signs, I still see your face in the white cars, front yards..." That's Rodrigo showing us she's driving through the suburbs, without telling us. No one wants to be explicitly reminded their life takes place in such a conventional place. But when Rodrigo lists off sights from the suburbs in the song's visceral bridge, she will trigger 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 it.
Olivia Rodrigo is more than guaranteed to transcend Disney, unlike many of her peers.
Where will Rodrigo go from here? Her songwriting skills showcased 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 not just songs, but artists. And when the strengths of a song are the strengths of an artist, an artist will be able to use those strengths to make more songs. Compare Carly Rae Jepsen to Taylor Swift. Jepsen is arguably a one-hit wonder. "Call Me Maybe" was catchy, but it didn't tell us anything about the person singing it. It could have been written by a Music Row executive for all we know. But with Swift, you know she's writing those songs. You just do. Why else would people care so much about who they're about?
The same goes for Rodrigo- you can tell she's emotionally invested in "Driver's License." (And people care who it's about.) Rodrigo might not have Swift's gifts for journalistic detail ("Dancing 'round the kitchen in the refrigerator light" might never be topped), but she has something akin to it. And 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- and she won't need a driver's license to get where she's going.