'Skin' in the Game: How Sabrina Carpenter's 'Drivers License' Response Reclaims Her Unfolding Narrative

Another chapter of the story behind Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” has been revealed, and it turns out fans may have been correct in their suspicions about who the song’s mysterious older blonde girl is. 

While the 17-year-old singer/songwriter and actress’ debut single broke streaming records across platforms leading to a No. 1 debut on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, fans were hard at work deciphering the breakup anthem’s lyrics -- allegedly written about her High School Musical: The Musical: The Series co-star Joshua Bassett. 

The pair were rumored to have moved their on-screen romance off-set in late 2019 -- before Bassett, 20, was linked to former Disney actress and singer Sabrina Carpenter last summer. Since the release of “Drivers License,” it has been speculated that the lyric, “And you're probably with that blonde girl/ Who always made me doubt / She's so much older than me / She's everything I'm insecure about” was written about Carpenter, who is 21. (It’s a contrast to the lyric in the original demo: “And you're probably with the brunette girl/ The one I always thought about.”)

So when Carpenter announced her new single “Skin” across social media platforms on Thursday (Jan. 21), twelve hours before its release, it left fans with plenty of time to wonder: Would it be a standalone single, like Bassett’s “Lie Lie Lie,” a vague thematic response released a week after “Drivers License” with no specific connection? Or if it would be the first to directly address the rumors swirling around the internet?

“Skin” opens with a vague enough lyric: “Maybe we could have been friends / If I met you in another life / Maybe then we could pretend / There's no gravity in the words we write.” For the first few seconds of the song at least, it could have been written about anyone. But the first verse concludes with a fairly pointed response, and an opening of the floodgates: “Maybe you didn't mean it / Maybe ‘blonde’ was the only rhyme.”  

Carpenter’s involvement in the “Drivers License” saga was inevitable regardless of whether or not she wanted to be included -- or even if Rodrigo intended for her to be. The “blonde girl” is only mentioned once in the song, but one mention was enough for fans to take matters into their own hands, ready to pick apart any future releases from any of the three involved artists for further lyrical clues about the drama behind the love triangle. Rather than waiting out the storm, which she realistically wouldn’t have been able to escape unscathed, Carpenter uses “Skin” as an opportunity to tell her side of the story.   

“You're tellin' it how you see it/ Like truth is whatever you decide/ Some people will believe it / And some will read in between the lines,” she sings, addressing the incessant rumor mill that likely drove her to writing and releasing “Skin” in the first place. Sure, it’s possible that Carpenter could have privately contacted Rodrigo to discuss the content of the song shifting from brunette to blonde before responding publicly. But as a songwriter, she can’t be faulted by her audience for taking an emotional situation and turning it into music as a means of processing and communicating. The outpour of raw feeling that listeners can connect to and apply to their own experiences is what makes the music so intriguing in the first place. 

She follows up with: “You're putting me in the spotlight / But I've been under it all my life.” And she has: Having been in the public eye since starring as Maya Hart on Disney’s Girl Meets World from 2014 to 2017, she has been in the mix of mainstream stardom. She recently starred alongside Liza Koshy in Netflix’s Work It and portrayed Hailey in the 2018 film adaptation of The Hate U Give. For many listeners, however, their first introduction to Carpenter as an artist and songwriter won’t be any of her four studio albums, where she crafts and delivers pop hits with bold flares of confidence ("Sue Me”) and vulnerability ("Exhale”). Instead, their entry point will be “Skin” and the public conversation that led to its inception. 

Written with Tia Scola and Ryan McMahon, the latter of whom doubled as the track’s producer, the lyrics come across as arrogant at times, Carpenter singing: “Want my heart to be breaking/ I’m happy and you hate it” and “You can try to get under my skin/ While he’s on mine.” It risks seeming like an overreaction in response to being mentioned in a single lyric on “Drivers License” by someone nearly four years younger, but it is a product of its circumstances.

In any other context, where listeners didn’t have an inkling of what the lyrics were in response to, “Skin” would be received as a catchy and clever defense without a second thought. But left to their own devices over the past two weeks, fans had already taken to writing their own responses to the song from the perspective of the blonde, over a wide variety of covers shared on TikTok and other social media platforms. Most variations were apologetic, taking accountability for how the original relationship ended. And while listeners were completely valid in imagining what went on behind the scenes, it’s important to separate that from the lens through which the actual subject’s response is seen -- as to not paint her as a villain for reclaiming the narrative neither she nor the original writer created. 

Love triangles are not a new trope within pop music. There’s a reason why Rodrigo, Carpenter and Bassett are being dubbed the Nick Jonas/Miley Cyrus/Selena Gomez of the new Disney generation. We’ve seen three-sided romantic entanglements emerge in the writings of Taylor Swift (“Better Than Revenge”), Paramore (“Misery Business”) and Brandy and Monica (“The Boy Is Mine”). Historically, someone always has to play the role of the villainous ‘other woman’ while the male subject gets to shrug it off. 

Unfortunately, the surrounding spectacle and need among fans to pick sides could possibly overshadow the talent of both young women involved while Bassett, the male leg of the triangle, receives the least amount of heat. As writers, Carpenter and Rodrigo both approached their songs with something to get off of their chest and performed their emotion in a way that would resonate with their listeners. To see them both manage to effectively do so without regressing to misogyny and snarky comments is a triumph. But a continued series of back-and-forth, call and response songs could eventually prove to be both reductive and constricting use of their skills. 

Carpenter makes an attempt at reconciliation at the song’s opening and again in its bridge, singing: “I just hope that one day/ We both can laugh about it/ When it's not in our face/ Won't have to dance around it.” It’s a promising start, but the slight edge detected in the next lyric, “Don't drive yourself insane/ It won't always be this way” dampens the sincerity of the offer. What was likely written as a sly nod to Rodrigo’s song title may come across as mockery, suggesting that Carpenter resents having to have this conversation in the first place. 

Speaking with Billboard, Rodrigo addressed the speculation, saying: “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.” 

As a topic of conversation, Carpenter was justified in wanting to have her say in the matter as well, regardless of how the tone of her response is received. In an attempt to weather the storm, “Skin” might have pushed everyone further into it, as fans hooked on the drama are now eagerly waiting for Rodrigo to respond -- or for Bassett to relay any form of acknowledgment -- to launch the saga’s next chapter. But Carpenter can take heart in knowing that no matter how the story unfolds from here, she has successfully staked her claim in controlling the role she'll play in it.