Everything I’ve learned about this song, I’ve learned by force.
When Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” was released in January, it debuted at No.1.The song first became viral on TikTok’s star-making algorithm, then went on to break streaming records and top the charts.
Who is Olivia Rodrigo, the then-17 year old singer of this surprise hit? And why should we care about her Driver’s License? I personally do not, but the song titillated its audience enough to permeate the news and reach beyond the self-contained TikTok bubble.
And while I hoped this song would meet the fate of most other TikTok spawned hits and disappear within a week, it has remained embedded enough in the cultural psyche to warrant an SNL sketch.
But let this be the end of it. I beg.
Olivia Rodrigo – drivers license (Official Video) www.youtube.com
When Disney+ announced its first original series, High School Musical: The Musical, I knew I wanted no part in what was to follow.
The show’s concept is a convoluted attempt to capitalize on the enduring success of the High School Musical franchise with a new generation. Predictably, its cast (which includes Miss Rodrigo herself) have become the faces of the Disney brand, and so has their drama.
Like any Disney era, there was bound to be drama. At this point, it’s part of any Disney’s star’s rite of passage: a successful show, off-screen romantic strife, and a tumultuous transition into adulthood.
The ’90s iteration of the Mickey Mouse Club starring Ryan Gosling, Christina Aguilera, and, yes, Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears apparently featured a “love square,” which is still paying its drama-dividends today (and was also a passing joke on a skit in this week’s SNL that featured Ted Cruz in vacation-cornrows and Pete Davidson as a surprisingly good Cuomo).
The 2000s era Disney wrought a more public wealth of teen drama and inter-show entanglements – who could forget the Miley/Demi/Selena drama with each of their respective Jonas Brothers?
None of this was for nothing. The Disney machine, and the music industry in general, has profited from whatever goes down on the Disney studio lots for years. From the Justin and Britney fallout that gave us “Cry Me a River” and its slightly murderous music video to Miley Cyrus’s “7 Things” and The Jonas Brothers’s “Lovebug,” music careers built on teenage breakups are not new.
However, with the shared space of the internet and the power of social media, the drama of the new Disney is transcending their generation. I’m too old to feel implicated in some high school drama, yet somehow I know the whole story. Thanks to Olivia’s car-themed confessional, we all do.
If you somehow managed to avoid the story, I commend you, but here it is: Olivia, 17, was in a questionable relationship with her fellow High School Musical: The Musical star Joshua Bassett, a 21-year-old man … until he dumped her for someone closer to his age: Sabrina Carpenter, 21.
The song is a play-by-play of the ensuing events. Olivia is sad and insecure, comparing herself to the “older,” “cooler” “blonde chick” (yes, these are the lyrics) and can’t even celebrate her driver’s license without thinking about her ex.
So she wrote a song about it. And, months later, the dominoes have landed in the shape of an SNL sketch starring Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page, of spoon-licking fame — try explaining any of that to the June versions of us, I dare you.
The SNL Sketch
Drivers License – SNL www.youtube.com
SNL skipped talking about “Drivers License” when it first hit the internet, so why revive it now — when I was just hoping we could move on?
Perhaps it’s a symptom of the same phenomenon that has kept media outlets talking about the song: Everyone in the writer’s room is too perplexed by the song’s fame to understand it.
I imagine it’s taken the SNL writers this long to first parse out exactly why a driver’s license was going viral, then unravel the whole drama themselves, before being able to concoct anything resembling a joke from its elusive teenage ephemera.
But they finally managed it, and Saturday’s sketch satirized the emotional effect the song has had on… seemingly everyone. While it makes sense that the tween audience would resonate with the simplistic track, its widespread appeal has been baffling — perfect fodder for an SNL joke.
In the skit, Regé-Jean Page is talking big game at a bar with his equally braggadocios friends when he plays “his song” and the game is forgotten in lieu of discussing the emotional, thematic, and musical implications of the Rodrigo track.
The scene ends with the whole bar in an embrace, reduced to tears and reminiscing about their own lost loves and driver’s tests.
And while the SNL sketch was kind of funny (in the lukewarm way all SNL sketches are) and even got the seal of approval from Olivia herself, we need to finally admit: Just because the song is emotional, we don’t have to pretend it’s good.
The Love Triangle in Question
So Can We Cool It with the Taylor Talk?
Just like me, you, and the SNL writer’s room, media outlets have been trying to make sense of the Gen Z banger since its release. In their attempt to categorize the song and its impact, many have resorted to the kind of hyperbolic praise that relies on streaming statistics to prove a song’s quality, rather than saying what they must know to be true: The song is bad.
Esquire called the song the Gen Z equivalent to “what ‘You Belong With Me’ was to millennials”; but, as an elder Gen Z who grew up to the tune of Taylor Swift’s acoustic guitars and teen-girl angst, I’m not convinced by Rodrigo’s attempt at autobiographical transcendence. The song offers nothing more than the vicarious thrill of celebrity gossip to the tune of a reverb-laden piano.
Taylor’s careful songwriting may have set the precedent for the rise of Rodrigo, but the upcoming 18-year old has a long way to go before she can really earn any substantive Taylor Swift comparison.
Taylor Swift has been problematic, paternalistic, and frankly, annoying at times (I’ll never get over her phase of hiding in suitcases), but the woman can write a song. While Folklore and Evermore have been career-defining pivots, even the beginning of her career showed her mastery of making mundane details transcend beyond her own life. It’s the art of poetry. An art that artists like Phoebe Bridgers have mastered in the indie-folk/rock sphere — but it’s harder than it looks.
Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” does not have similar glimmers of wisdom. Things happen and she reports them, but she’s not at the stage as a person or songwriter to really reflect on them in a meaningful way. The song’s emotional crux rests on the line: “You said forever, now I drive alone past your street” — a shallow observation that is not anchored by the rest of the song, and serves as an empty substitute for any real catharsis.
These are not the musings of the next bard of our time and Olivia Rodrigo does not have her finger on the pulse of some esoteric truth about teenagehood that eludes us adults. The song is sonically satisfying because it builds to a crescendo that shows off Rodrigo’s admittedly impressive belt — making it a well-engineered pop song, not an exhibition of songwriting genius.
Taylor Swift is famed for her ability to find meaning in seemingly frivolous observations. She earns the harder sells of lines like “I felt like I was an old cardigan” (which, out of context, is quite an unforgivable lyric) because it’s the title of the song but not the emotional center of it — lines like “I knew everything when I was young” give the Folklore lead single weight beyond the admittedly tenuous cardigan simile.
The core of any Taylor Swift song is not empty voyeurism or a gossip session between her and the world. Each autobiographical track is a lesson learned, a new way to make sense of the world.
In the SNL sketch, Regé-Jean Page proclaims that Rodrigo’s effort is a lesson that “pain can be creatively generative,” which is true. But Rodrigo is too close to the wound to have taken anything substantive from this experience yet.
Rodrigo on the cover of the NYT Arts Page following her No.1 Hitvia NYT
What This Means For Rodrigo’s Career
If anything, the exaggerated praise for “Drivers License” is reductive of everyone: its audience, who deserve more than self-indulgence marketed as high art and wisdom; and even Rodrigo, whose art will not benefit from empty adulation.
And besides, Taylor Swift did not write the bridge of “Cruel Summer” or “All Too Well” for SNL to refer to the lyrics “Red lights, stop signs” as “the bridge of a lifetime.”
Olivia Rodriguez said “red lights, stop signs” and some of you actually burst into tears…… be ashamed
— 𓄀 (@𓄀)1612123140.0
That kind of hyperbolic praise is ubiquitous when it comes to commentary on this song — both by fans and critics, grasping for straws to justify the unmatched success of an emotionally flaccid first attempt such as this.
So it’s impossible to compare Rodrigo’s impact to that of Swift’s — not before a few more years pass, hopefully paired with monumental artistic growth.
Rodrigo has called herself “the world’s biggest Swiftie,” and songs like Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me” and “All Too Well” are what she ostensibly aspires to write. But saying she’s already there only does her a disservice in the long run.
And Rodrigo is not stupid. While she might be reveling in the rewards of being loved after sharing her vulnerability and knowing that, in her fabricated feud with Carpenter, the masses are siding with her, she just turned 18 and with time, “Drivers License” will inevitably embarrass her.
Every artist has to go through growing pains, and excessively praising this personal but barely artistic effort might do wonders for Rodrigo’s confidence, but it doesn’t leave her craft much room to grow.