Last week, it seemed like the pop world was still finding its footing in the new year after a challenging 2020. This week, we have our first true smash of 2021 — from an artist few would have predicted to be setting the bar for the early year.
She’s just 17 years old, and with one lone prior Billboard Hot 100 entry to her credit, but all eyes are now on singer/songwriter/actress Olivia Rodrigo and her official debut single “Drivers License.” The piano ballad crashes in at No. 1 on the Hot 100 this week with a historic first-week stream tally — an extremely rare No. 1 debut for a new artist, the sort of bow usually reserved for established stars (or, for a brief period in the ’00s, American Idol winners).
What does “Drivers License” owe its incredible velocity to? And how long can it keep it up? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.
1. It’d been a relatively sleepy start to 2021 in pop before “License” mania swept the country last week. Are you driving the Olivia Rodrigo bandwagon, riding passenger, trailing cautiously behind it, or hanging on the top for dear life?
Lyndsey Havens: I wouldn’t mind driving the bandwagon, but I’m for sure riding passenger so that I can attempt to lean out the window while my hair blows in the suburban breeze like Olivia does in her music video for this hit. I know a few people who aren’t even in the car, but I feel confident they’ll want to hop in soon enough.
Jason Lipshutz: I am very happily behind the wheel of the Olivia Rodrigo bandwagon, honking the car horn in time with every handclap. There are many reasons why “Drivers License” become a rare non-superstar No. 1 debut on the Hot 100 chart, but above all, it’s because the song is absolutely riveting as both incisive pop storytelling and a vocal showcase. If Rodrigo can keep putting out songs even half as good as “Drivers License,” she’s going to have a long, fruitful career.
Mia Nazareno: I’m riding shotgun, and I’m head banging with Olivia as she sings, “I still f–n love you, babe!” — even though I’m in the healthiest adult relationship of my life, lol. But that’s the magic of the song: Whatever your relationship status is, the track has a way of pulling you back to that time in your life when your biggest problem was your crush not liking you back (it was a big deal at the time, okay?!). And at 27, I like songs that remind me of my pre-responsibilities life, and that’s why I play it on loop as I work my grown-up job.
Andrew Unterberger: I’m hanging on to the top for dear life — right now, the speed of this thing is still too out of control for me to feel any other way. But I hope I can settle in to the passenger seat if and when it slows down a little.
Denise Warner: When I first heard it, I would say trailing cautiously behind. But after a few more spins (and an explanation of the alleged drama behind the song), I was totally hooked and am now firmly in the passenger seat. The mix of Taylor Swiftian lyrics, Lorde’s sound with a dash of Grey’s Anatomy-soundtrack melancholy pulls me right in.
2. Without referencing any of the real-life drama, what’s one thing “Drivers License” does exceptionally well as a song that might have helped it become so successful?
Lyndsey Havens: It’s an incredibly well-crafted power pop ballad. From the revving of the engine (of her mother’s car) to the swelling and emotive chorus, underlined by the syncopated hand-claps, to the raw and relatable lyrics (if you haven’t cried in your car driving through the suburbs you are missing out) this song fires on all cylinders. And by the time we arrive at the bridge, oof. To hear her admit and own “I still f–king love you” offers a fresh breakup narrative — one (largely) free of bitterness or blame.
Jason Lipshutz: The more times I listen to “Drivers License,” the more I realize how crucial that bridge is — the moment in which Rodrigo’s voice is joined by a heartbroken chorus, the anger and hurt give way to lingering feelings of love, and the single morphs into a full-blown anthem. Such a mid-song transformation is extremely difficult to pull off while still preserving the emotional stakes of its narrative, but the way “Drivers License” naturally heightens into its crescendo is a major key to its success.
Mia Nazareno: The song does a really great job at picking one artifact — in this case, a drivers license — from our teen years that meant everything to us as 16-year-olds. Olivia is so specific with her heartbreak as she mentions his new love’s blonde hair and driving alone past his street. With those details, we, too, remember our first love and the girl he dumped us for. Ouchhhh. Let’s say I don’t feel that way whenever I hear 24kGoldn’s “Mood.” (No shade though.)
Andrew Unterberger: The bridge is the peak, but the cascading “You didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me” wail in the refrain is the anchor. It’s a big-enough moment that it snaps you to attention every chorus — though not so big that you feel exhausted by it by song’s end — and it adds that necessary extra layer of meta that’s made countless celebrity breakup anthems exponentially more intriguing in the half-century since “You’re So Vain” first invented the tactic.
Denise Warner: Much like Swift, Rodrigo hits a nerve with her songwriting that can span generations. Young fans will yearn wistfully for their own failed first loves. Even younger teens will recognize the sadness that will likely befall them in their lives. And with older ones, the song sparks a sense of bittersweet nostalgia.
3. But speaking of the real-life drama — Rodrigo’s HSM co-star and rumored ex Joshua Bassett released “Lie Lie Lie” last Thursday, which many view at least in part as a response to “Drivers License.” Do you think the song will have legs of its own, or will it end up a mere footnote to the “Drivers License” story?
Lyndsey Havens: A footnote, for sure. The strategically timed release of “Lie Lie Lie” was surely enough to cause speculation, though it’s been said the song was in the works long before “Drivers License” arrived; plus, they don’t seem to be two sides of the same coin. Rather, the narratives told in each seem to be from different books — which is fine by me, because it gives “License” even more room to take flight on its own.
Jason Lipshutz: I mean… the smart money’s on “footnote,” right? “Lie Lie Lie” has grown on me in the past few days, but even if Bassett has scored a hit of his own, it’s highly unlikely that it’ll sniff the unprecedented heights of “Drivers License,” simply because most songs do not! Bassett could very well become a star in his own right, but “Lie Lie Lie” will inevitably be measured against “Drivers License” in terms of commercial value, and that’s a tall order to match.
Mia Nazareno: Footnote!!! I’m willing to bet that you probably heard “Lie Lie Lie” because you were curious to hear Joshua’s supposed clapback, and then promptly switched back to “Drivers License” and forgot that Bassett released a song in the first place. If you’re gonna release a song because your ex wrote a hit single about you, I’d let it cool down first before releasing a mediocre song. Take a cue from John Mayer (allegedly).
Andrew Unterberger: Footnote, probably — the song’s already sliding fairly precipitously on the daily streaming charts, where “Drivers License” was still skyrocketing this time last week. But a whole lot of folks certainly know Bassett’s name and music that didn’t know it two weeks ago, so in that sense it’s still a pretty strong foundation for him to build from no matter how much of a hit it ends up being.
Denise Warner: Even though Bassett’s song follows Rodrigo’s, it was written well before “Drivers License.” I suppose “Lie Lie Lie” will capitalize a bit on Olivia’s success, but ultimately will be a footnote, left behind in the dust.
4. In grand industry tradition, there will no doubt now be a mad rush to locate the next Olivia Rodrigo and/or “Drivers License.” What’s one piece of advice you’d give label brass in their pursuit?
Lyndsey Havens: To me, Olivia is a special case — as is the case with most runaway hits and future superstars. When she landed her role on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a partial draw was her songwriting background; it’s not like music was an afterthought for her. So I suppose my advice would be to comb talent with such roots.
Jason Lipshutz: In reporting about the release of “Drivers License,” I found out that the key to her deal with Geffen Records was how impressed the label’s A&R team was with her songwriting, specifically as the lone writer on her High School Musical ballad “All I Want.” The authenticity of “Drivers License,” which Rodrigo co-wrote with Dan Nigro, is one of its strongest aspects, with her perspective coloring in every detail; for any label or company searching for the next Olivia Rodrigo, that type of songwriting panache should be valued dearly.
Mia Nazareno: I’d say keeping in touch with youth culture in a genuine way. The name of the game is Gen Z: They’re Not Just Like Us! We’ve seen how much sway 14-year-olds have when looking at recent chart toppers that got their start on TikTok. In Olivia’s case, her fanbase seems to have carried over from the High School Musical reboot — and then when they got older, downloaded TikTok. Now they’re setting the trends.
Andrew Unterberger: I’d say if you’re looking for the next teen pop sensation, look for the kid who eats, sleeps and breathes music. That was Taylor Swift 15 years ago, certainly, and it’s Olivia Rodrigo today — two absolutely voracious consumers and students of pop music in all its forms, who are as invested in uncovering its secrets as the rest of us, and with the talent and work ethic to actually do so. You’re almost always better off betting long-term on those sort of artists than young sensations who just view music as another form of content.
Denise Warner: Support young talent but don’t try to force it. It’s Rodrigo’s authenticity, voice and High School Musical fan base that are driving this success — and no amount of marketing will make up for a lack of those traits.
5. Call it now: How many weeks do you think “Drivers License” will ultimately be No. 1 for?
Lyndsey Havens: I’m going with seven weeks, because it’s my lucky number and also feels right. However, the new Billie Eilish and Rosalía track does seem threatening to perhaps dethrone “Drivers License” over time… and if we get an Ariana, Meg and Doja music video for the “34+35” remix, that could be a game changer as well.
Jason Lipshutz: Let’s go with 10 — the song is enough of a phenomenon to hit double digits. Now we’re only 10 months away from asking, how many Grammy nominations will it get?
Mia Nazareno: Eight weeks! Unless BTS releases another “Dynamite” type song, I can see “Drivers License” staying at the top for a while. Fingers crossed!
Andrew Unterberger: If the radio and streaming worlds stay as drowsy as they were before “Drivers License” went off like an alarm clock, it could probably be No. 1 through the summer without much of a challenge. But there are too many big names due to make a return for that to be the case for too too much longer; I’d set the current over/under for Olivia’s first run at No. 1 at nine weeks.
Denise Warner: I have to go big or go home — I’ll say 20 weeks, a new record.