Most seventeen-year-olds have spent the past year sitting in their bedrooms, getting to grips with the particulars of zoom classes and virtual proms, and waiting for this all to be over. Not so for one Olivia Isabel Rodrigo, who exploded onto the pop scene at the beginning of January with her single ‘Driver’s Licence’. The song is everywhere right now. It has just spent its fourth week at number one on Billboard, and at this point, if someone hasn’t heard about it, I’m inclined to believe they live under a rock. As musical debuts go, it’s a pretty meteoric rise, and that sort of thing comes with as many risks as it does rewards. For a newcomer like Rodrigo, the pressure to equal or even outdo a hit like that can make or break an artist’s career.
As with many sudden chart-toppers of late, Rodrigo’s success was aided in part by the ‘invisible hand’ of the TikTok trend. She already had something of a fanbase – thanks to her role in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+ – comprised of the same tweens and teens who make up TikTok’s most active demographic. Within a few days of its release, the audio from ‘Driver’s Licence’ was sweeping the app, and, at the time of writing, #driverslicence tallies around 1.8 million videos. But TikTok fame doesn’t necessarily translate into staying power. The way songs get popularised on the platform is often completely random. Someone somewhere decides to make a cover of an old song, or use a few lyrics for a gag, and before you know it, hundreds of thousands of fifteen-year-olds inexplicably know the lyrics to a whaling song from the eighteenth century or ‘Babooshka’ by Kate Bush. It’s rare, though, for an artist to have more than one of their songs distributed in this memetic fashion, even if they do gain some new listeners from it. Arguably, this is a tick in the one-hit-wonder column, as social media prominence is pretty much an evolution of the kind of brief ubiquity you might expect from any number one.
The difference here is that ‘Driver’s Licence’ has a lot more going for it than a 60 second soundbite. For one thing, the song is damn good. The production is smooth, deftly mixing steady, simple piano with confident vocals from Rodrigo, thick with barely restrained emotion, and the sound of her mother’s car for that extra hint of authenticity. Rodrigo has a very rich voice for someone so young, and her real triumph is the way she manages to carry off the song with technical precision without ever losing the sense of intimacy. There are echoes of Lorde in heavily layered vocals of the bridge, and ‘Drivers Licence’ has certainly had crossover appeal with fans of the singer, who are currently going on three years without new music. The lyrics, too, are honest and mature – particularly for a Disney kid. It’s hard to imagine fellow Disney alums like Zendaya or Selena Gomez getting away with dropping an f-bomb so early in their own careers, let alone while still under contract. It’s not just the swearing that lends the song its maturity though. Rodrigo’s lyrics are neat and impactful in their simplicity, and at times just this side of gut-wrenching. It is in fact not unlike the earlier work of Taylor Swift, an artist who Rodrigo cites as a formative influence on her song writing.
The Swift comparison is rather apt to other aspects of the excitement, perhaps unfortunately. Celebrity gossip is eternal, and the media frenzy over just who Rodrigo might be writing about in her song is not all that different from the type of gossip that surrounded Swift back in the day – it would seem that talk show hosts and tabloids are just as fascinated by the love lives of seventeen-year-olds as they ever were.
Regardless of what might inspire her to write, between ‘Drivers Licence’ and the two songs she penned for her character Nini in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (and let’s all be thankful that Rodrigo herself is given to less wordy titles), it’s clear that the seventeen-year-old has what it takes to make good music. While for some, fifteen minutes of TikTok stardom may be all they get, every major artist has to get their start somewhere. Those fifteen minutes are all you need when you have the talent to back it up. And, like Swift before her, it’s clear that Rodrigo has that talent.
Image: Alisa Stoten on Flickr.