Olivia Rodrigo
Pop

How Olivia Rodrigo Turned a 'Really Painful Moment' Into a Phenomenon

The 17-year-old decided to place “my deepest insecurities in a four-minute song.” With “Drivers License” debuting atop the Hot 100 and smashing streaming records, those vulnerabilities have changed the modern music industry.

Six days after releasing “Drivers License,” Olivia Rodrigo sounds like she’s still trying to catch her breath. “It’s been the weirdest week of my whole life,” she tells Billboard during a call on Jan. 14, her voice giddily jumping before gulping for air. “My entire life changed this week, and also, everything is exactly the same.”

One week prior, Rodrigo was a promising teen singer-songwriter who had just announced a deal with Geffen Records, and was about to attempt the well-worn journey from tween-friendly Disney stardom to an adult music career with her debut single for the label. Now, with “Drivers License” -- a blistering post-breakup power ballad designed to provoke tears, scream-alongs or both -- debuting at No. 1 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100, Rodrigo has created an unwitting, unprecedented phenomenon.

“I have all of these amazing opportunities now,” Rodrigo says, “and so many people that I look up to have reached out and expressed their love for the song, which is absolutely surreal. But I truly am just the same 17-year-old girl, doing statistics homework in my bedroom.”

The song earned 76.1 million U.S. streams in the week ending Jan. 14, according to MRC Data -- a new record for a female artist's first single properly promoted to radio, streaming services and other platforms. It’s also the biggest streaming total for any song in its first week of release since Cardi B's "WAP," featuring Megan Thee Stallion, opened with 93 million U.S. streams last August. Spotify announced that the song had broken its record for single-week streams, Apple declared it the most-played song in the world on Apple Music, and Amazon gave it the distinction of “the most requested song ever in one day on Alexa globally.”

Rodrigo says that she’s experienced a lot of the whirlwind from her bedroom, unable to see her friends in person or perform her song in concert due to the ongoing pandemic. In between watching “Drivers License” soar on streaming platforms and accelerate through thousands of fan-shared videos on TikTok, she has savored the real-world encounters relayed by family and friends. “I’ve gotten texts from people who are going on walks, and they’ll be walking past a house that is just blasting ‘Drivers License,’” she says with a laugh. “Or they’ll be driving and pull up next to a car at a stop light, and the other car will be playing ‘Drivers License.’ You can see all the numbers and all the No. 1 charts, but to see people in their day-to-day lives listening to this song, having it resonate with them? That’s been insane.”

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Only 47 songs had started at No. 1 in the Hot 100’s 63-year history prior to “Drivers License,” and even fewer have done so as debut singles; to launch a single atop the chart typically requires a hefty amount of established star power, as household-name artists like Taylor Swift (“Cardigan”), Drake (“Toosie Slide”), BTS (“Dynamite”) and Ariana Grande (“Positions”) have demonstrated in recent months. The debut singles to start at No. 1 have historically come from artists tied to franchises bigger than themselves, such as American Idol alums at the height of the show’s popularity, or stars like Lauryn Hill and Zayn launching solo careers after finding success in a best-selling group.

Rodrigo is, in fact, part of a hit franchise: she stars in the Disney+ original series High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a role she landed in 2019 after co-starring in the Disney Channel show Bizaardvaark for three seasons beginning in 2016. Adult listeners may have been unfamiliar with Rodrigo prior to “Drivers License,” but younger viewers have been watching her for years, and have helped her develop a robust social following (4.7 million Instagram followers, 3.9 million TikTok fans).

Still, there’s a difference between an unexpected hit from an artist with a Gen-Z following, and an astonishing debut week in which multiple streaming records were shattered; that difference has turned “Drivers License” into the type of song that shakes up the music industry, with many parties eager to understand how it happened and replicate its success. “We had high hopes for this song, obviously, but none of us could have predicted all of these records that she’s broken,” says Nicole Bilzerian, Executive Vice President of Geffen Records.

Although Rodrigo’s label deal was officially announced just days before the release of “Drivers License,” her relationship with the label dates back nearly a year. Emerson Redd and Matt Morris, both part of Geffen’s A&R team, began researching Rodrigo thanks to “All I Want,” her moving pop ballad from the High School Musical series that became a minor hit upon its late 2019 release.

“When we reached out, we got some of the demos and sketches she was working on, as well as found out that ‘All I Want’ was 100 percent written by her,” says Sam Riback, EVP/co-head of A&R at Interscope Geffen A&M (IGA). “We were kind of blown away by her songwriting ability.” Although Rodrigo has done extensive work with Disney, she was not signed to a recording contract under Disney Music Group, clearing the way for an outside deal.

Riback and Geffen’s A&R team met with Rodrigo prior to the U.S. pandemic shutdown in March, and discussions continued in quarantine until a deal was finalized in mid-2020. Riback heard a first pass of “Drivers License” in early August; Rodrigo had just started working with Dan Nigro, the former lead singer of the indie band As Tall as Lions who had been producing tracks for alt-pop artists like Conan Gray, Empress Of and Caroline Polachek. “We were trying out producers and seeing who Olivia was clicking with best, and Dan and her seemed to really connect,” Riback recalls.

Written by Rodrigo and Nigro, “Drivers License” approaches teen heartbreak with piano, handclaps and intense specificity. She mourns a lost love after getting the titular license -- a planned gateway to freedom with a romantic partner now shut off from reality -- and adopts a lilting indie-pop texture that recalls different shades of Lorde, Phoebe Bridgers and Clairo. As Rodrigo drives through the suburbs, passing her ex’s house and processing her hurt, the song swells into an enormous bridge that makes good on its anthemic promise, punctuated by its lynchpin line: “I still f--kin’ love you, babe.”

When Riback heard “Drivers License” for the first time, "It was one of those stop-you-in-your-tracks moments that you hope for,” he says. Although there were other songs in contention for her debut single with Geffen, the call was made to launch with the strongest -- and most intimate -- of the bunch.“The song is super vulnerable and raw,” says Rodrigo, “and I was so terrified to put it out because of some of the things I said. It was like, my deepest insecurities in a four-minute song.”

Listeners have since been captivated by those insecurities -- and fixated on their inspiration. Rampant online speculation posits that the song is about Rodrigo’s relationship with her High School Musical co-star, Joshua Bassett -- who released his own single, the pop-rock kiss-off “Lie Lie Lie,” one week after “Drivers License'' -- with fans dissecting lyrical details in search of teen-star drama.

The one person who isn’t fascinated with the song’s backstory is Rodrigo herself. “I totally understand people’s curiosity with the specifics of who the song’s about and what it’s about, but to me, that’s really the least important part of the song,” she says. "It's resonating with people because of how emotional it is, and I think everything else is not important.”

What was important to the brass at Geffen was setting “Drivers License” up for success before the end of 2020. After the music video was finished in October, Rodrigo was introduced to the label’s various partners -- DSPs, brand representatives, music supervisors -- in between gaps in her High School Musical filming schedule. A few teasers around Christmas preceded a Jan. 8 single release, with Rodrigo relentlessly promoting the new song (which she had posted a snippet of on Instagram months earlier), and spending release night glued to Instagram Live.

Geffen’s Bilzerian says that she started to feel that “Drivers License” was going to turn into something special about an hour after its release on streaming platforms -- just based on how quickly the accompanying merch was being snapped up. “We found out that the t-shirt that she was wearing during her video premiere had sold out,” she says. “Then, about 30 minutes later, the long-sleeve sold out, and as the night went on, the hoodie sold out. You want fans to stream the music, to be excited about the video, but once you see them really buying into the artist, that’s going above and beyond. That was really when I started to realize, ‘We’ve got something.’”

By the morning of Friday, Jan. 8, the major streaming platforms had given the song prime placement on its new music platforms, and over its first weekend of release, “Drivers License” grew into a streaming behemoth, collecting 21 million on-demand streams in its first three days of release, according to MRC Data, and topping the daily charts for both Apple Music and Spotify. “We were like, ‘Whoa, these first day numbers are huge!’ And then they were bigger the second day, bigger the third day… so it really feels unprecedented, and likely is unprecedented,” Spotify’s Global Hits lead Becky Bass told Billboard last week.

As the response to “Drivers License” helped Rodrigo receive kudos from pop’s elite -- Taylor Swift, one of Rodrigo’s favorite artists, gave her an Instagram shout-out, while Halsey sent her a congratulatory cake -- the leadership at Geffen quickly understood that the label had a new star on its hands. Interscope chairman/CEO John Janick told Billboard last month that a revamped Geffen Records, an industry leader in the '80s and '90s under industry legend David Geffen that has been floating in and out of operation over the past 20 years, would be a major priority for IGA in 2021. Sure enough, the label can now toast a No. 1 smash -- its first since Nelly Furtado’s “Say It Right” in 2007 -- from a recent signee.

“We’re expanding our roster,” Bilzerian says, “and for Olivia to be a pop artist at Geffen with this [type of] enormous success, it’s remarkable to be part of and watch unfold.”

“Drivers License” isn’t going anywhere soon -- in addition to remaining a streaming juggernaut, the song has started to impact top 40 radio, entering the Pop Airplay chart at No. 31 this week  -- but Rodrigo is not resting on her laurels. She says that she still writes everyday in her bedroom, with the goal of creating songs as personally meaningful to her as her breakthrough single. Everyone who speaks about Rodrigo notes that her tireless work ethic is complemented by a genuine positivity, making it even easier to root for her success. "Her talent as a singer-songwriter flows out of her so effortlessly," says manager Kristen Smith, "but more importantly, she leads with kindness and compassion in everything she does, which inspires everyone around her."

Rodrigo describes her debut project, due out later this year, as “extremely versatile,” pulling from alternative rock, singer-songwriter confessionals and straightforward pop. Meanwhile, she’s still filming High School Musical, which had its second season delayed due to the pandemic but will debut sometime this year, and also finishing her senior year of actual high school -- all while preparing to celebrate her 18th birthday in February.

Rodrigo is trying to take it all in, the type of success that a world-conquering single can afford, without sacrificing an ounce of the momentum that “Drivers License” has provided. She shared a part of herself on her debut single, and millions have responded; now, she wants to keep sharing.

“To see it do really well -- to have this really painful moment in my life, and turn it into something beautiful that can maybe help people through a tough time that they’re having, like I was having a tough time -- it’s just so empowering,” says Rodrigo. “And I feel grateful that I got to do that.”

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