Pop

'I Think She's Too Distracted': Driver's License Experts Weigh in on Olivia Rodrigo’s Breakout Hit

Olivia Rodrigo "drivers license"
Courtesy Photo

Olivia Rodrigo "drivers license"

With the new Fast & Furious movie out this weekend, and the franchise also receiving a spotlight in Billboard's latest digital cover story, we're diving into some additional car-themed stories this week. Here, we look at the impact that Olivia Rodrigo's Hot 100-topping "Drivers License" has had on some of the people who work with drivers licenses on a regular basis.

“Ugh, I hope I never hear that song again,” says Danielle Brown when asked about Olivia Rodrigo’s hit single “Drivers License.” Exiting a DMV office in Portland, Oregon with her 16-year-old, freshly-licensed daughter, Melanie, Danielle is exasperated by the song’s popularity with Melanie and her friends. “It’s been constant -- I thought it was cute at first, but please,” Danielle says, casting a good-natured glare at her daughter. “No more.” 

Since its release in January, Rodrigo’s debut single has arguably been the most globally successful song of 2021. In the States, “Drivers License” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed there for eight consecutive weeks, ending its reign in mid-March. The song allegedly centers on Rodrigo’s much-publicized rumored breakup with fellow High School Musical: The Musical: The Series alum Joshua Bassett, using the acquisition of a driver’s license as a lens through which Rodrigo both reminisces about the relationship (“You were so excited for me/ To finally drive up to your house”) and colors her current dismay (“Now I drive alone past your street”). 

Pairing youthful heartbreak with a teenage rite of passage, “Drivers License” is universal in ways beyond its radio dominance. Most of us who are of age in the US have driver’s licenses (as of 2009, that figure was 87% of the US’ adult population) but unless we’re renewing them or getting carded or pulled over, we rarely think twice about them. To better understand what impact -- if any -- “Drivers License” (the song) has had on driver’s licenses (the laminated ID cards), Billboard got in touch with the people who do spend a lot of time thinking about the latter: DMV employees, driver’s education instructors, and in Melanie and Danielle’s cases, teen drivers and their parents. 

“For me, the timing was perfect,” says Melanie of Rodrigo’s song. “It came out just a few months before I turned 16, I had been driving with a permit for a few months already, and obviously I was excited about getting my license.” Did that make her appreciate the song more? “Well, probably not, it’s just a good song,” she responds. “I guess it was kind of a thing for a lot of people my age though.” 

Melanie is echoed by Kenzie, a 15-year-old recent student of Nathan’s Driving School in Atlanta. “I got my permit in January, so it was right around when the song came out, actually,” Kenzie says. “It was funny, I actually listened to it like, right after I got my permit. I was like, 'Oh my gosh, it's just like me.'” 

Kenzie was familiar with “Drivers License” because of its popularity on TikTok, but Rachel -- an instructor at Nathan's Driving School -- didn’t recognize the song by name. “However,” Rachel says, “I just went to listen to it and was like, 'Oh, I've heard this song!’ I didn't know it was about a driver's license.”

She’s got a point — while driving, as well as the titular license, are crucial to the song’s identity (even the beat itself unfolds from a car-door-open alarm sound), both play second fiddle to romantic turmoil in the song’s lyrics. “I don't think obtaining the driver’s license stands out as being the key issue as much as missing her boyfriend, but it works,” says Kristine Bistline, owner of Palmdale, California’s High Desert Driving School, adding, “I am sure there are teen girls who will clearly relate to it.”

If you’re passively consuming “Drivers License” on the radio, it’s possible to miss the driving aspect of the song entirely. Ben Baron, owner of the Denver-area DriveSafe Driving Schools, first encountered the song via a much more in-depth medium: NPR’s song-dissecting “Switched On Pop” podcast. The self-described “youthful” 61-year-old recognizes that he’s “outside the target demo,” but says he enjoys “Driver’s License” “both because it's so darn catchy and because I'm required by law to enjoy any song that references driving.”

David House, a public information representative from the Oregon State DMV, has a similar personal/professional affinity for car-centric songs, and is actually disappointed in his feeling that the lyrical content of Rodrigo’s song doesn’t live up to its title. “When the radio station announced the title before airing the song, my ears perked up because my main duty is spokesman for Oregon DMV,” he says. “I’m always tuning in to news and media when I hear about cars, licenses, driving and transportation issues in general. So I must say, I was excited at first, only to be truly disappointed when the song immediately digresses into her relationship issues – totally irrelevant to driver licensing.” 

Most of us might forgive a pop song for glossing over the more mundane aspects of ID acquisition, but House wants it all. “There isn’t one word about whether she got a provisional license as a minor or waited until she was 18 because of the pandemic,” he continues. “Did she pass the knowledge test and the drive test on her first try? Did she take driver’s ed classes? And not one word about REAL ID – was it an option in her state or required?” [Note: Rodrigo hails from Temecula, California, and the state just announced this week that it will be waiving all fees normally required to upgrade to the federally approved ID card.]

House might be alone in his insistence that car songs actively discuss the nuts and bolts hinted at in their titles, but when asked about Rodrigo’s driving etiquette, he brings up a point that’s echoed by every other driving professional interviewed: “Besides there being next to nothing about the importance of safe driving, I think she is too distracted. Distracted driving is a serious problem in this country.”

“Driving is affected by emotion — anger is the most common one, but if you're driving and you're sad, you're thinking about something else other than the driving task,” says Rachel, who does admit to getting pulled over for speeding while listening to Green Day’s “When I Come Around” as a teen. “That takes your mind off the road and that's when people get into accidents,” she continues. “Distracted driving's not just holding your cell phone in your hand, it's anything that's distracting you from the driving task -- that could be passengers, that could be a song on the radio. [Rodrigo] talks about seeing [her ex’s] face in the other cars, so she's not even seeing what's actually out there, because she's thinking about this guy.”

Baron has similar concerns about a clearly distraught Rodrigo being behind the wheel. “We know from the song that she's driving in the suburbs,” he says. “Even though she's -- presumably -- driving at slower speeds, think of the potential hazards: small children chasing a ball into the street! Four-way stop signs! Dogs chasing cats! Skateboarders! Ms. Rodrigo should wait until she's in a better mental state before resuming the stalking of her old boyfriend.”

When asked to cite other driving-related music that they enjoy, each driving expert interviewed names at least one song that, taken at face value, promotes more reckless behavior than “Drivers License” does: Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” (Rachel), Queen’s “I’m in Love with My Car” (House), “every Bruce Springsteen song from ‘71 to ‘85” (Baron). In general, they all seem to believe that the more songs about driving there are, the better. “How can you go wrong when the rubber of the lyrics stay on the pavement?”, asks the ever-topically-focused House.

“Songs about cars and driving are a metaphorical goldmine,” adds Baron. “They represent freedom, escape, yearning, transformation, opportunity, and in Ms. Rodrigo's case, heartbreak.”

So despite their critiques, it seems like these driving educators and DMV brass are merely protesting out of professional duty, and not a sense that Rodrigo is actively spawning dangerous drivers. “I think it's a good song, it's very catchy, says Rachel. “But when it comes to the driver's ed part of my brain and the mom part of my brain, driving while you're emotional is probably not a good thing to glorify.”