The Breakout Pop Song of the Year Is a Cinematic Universe

Olivia Rodrigo’s smash hit, “Drivers License,” implies a world of characters—and inspires listeners to role-play as them.

I’m not proud to say that my first reaction to Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” the ballad that seemed to come out of nowhere to break streaming records in the first month of 2021, was, That’s it? Rodrigo, a 17-year-old Disney actor, sings in the quavery, Lorde-derived vocal style that seemed all too faddish a half-decade ago. Her heartbroken lyrics skip the sort of fun wordplay that Taylor Swift, an obvious inspiration, specializes in. The arrangement centers on one pinging piano note, until the bridge erupts cinematically. What’s more, the story spun by Rodrigo’s lyrics seems incomplete. The singer gets her driver’s license and cruises around the suburbs feeling sad about an ex who left her for an older blond girl. That’s a premise, a sketch, a slice of life—but why was it a smash hit?

One answer clicked into place as I scrolled through TikTok and YouTube videos of listeners singing their own versions of the track. Some rework “Drivers License” to be from the point of view of the ex whom Rodrigo pines for: “I saw you driving around the suburbs / heartbroken cuz I love someone else.” Some give the perspective of “that blond girl,” who feels bad for making Rodrigo’s narrator feel bad. There’s a version that imagines the protagonist in the future, telling her younger self that everything will work out. Then there are the joke takes that empathize with the driver’s license itself, or with the dude stuck in the car behind Rodrigo. Such covers—part of the so-called “POV” trend of imaginative roleplaying on TikTok and other platforms—show how a sense of unfinishedness is actually the song’s strength. You can live inside of “Drivers License.” This fascinating song is, to use modern entertainment jargon, a cinematic universe.

Rodrigo already hails from a kind of cinematic universe. She’s currently starring in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, the TV dramedy whose cheeky title riffs on the way that the High School Musical franchise has iterated repeatedly since the 2006 movie that started it. Broadcast on Disney+ to an atomized teen audience consuming media in its bedrooms, Rodrigo has the kind of fame that remains invisible to large swaths of the population—until something like “Drivers License” bubbles up and becomes ubiquitous all at once. Within four days of its release, the song had taken the title of the most Spotify streams in one day for a non-holiday song. In its opening week, it landed at the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100: a rare feat for what amounts to a debut single. (Rodrigo’s previous songs had all been soundtrack cuts.) It’s No. 1 again for a second week, and stars such as Swift and Cardi B are shouting it out on social media.

The “Drivers License” phenomenon draws upon another cultural dreamscape, too: the reams of gossip generated wherever telegenic young adults find fame. Scouring social media last year, fans of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series had speculated that Rodrigo was dating her co-star Joshua Bassett, even though neither of them ever acknowledged a relationship. Then, the popular theory goes, the two actors broke up and Bassett started seeing another Disney TV star, Sabrina Carpenter. Many fans immediately took “Drivers License” to be about that alleged love triangle—but you don’t need pre-existing knowledge to be sucked in. The song’s key line comes when Rodrigo’s mannered vocals give way to a hot wail as she sings, “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.” Listeners are directed to a delicious mystery: Who is the you Rodrigo sings to, and what song did that person write about her?

Good songwriters often plant little riddles like this one, and celebrity-driven pop tends to amp the intrigue with outside context. When, for example, Beyoncé sings about a you, listeners might reflect on their own personal romantic sagas while also thinking about the singer’s iconic marriage to Jay-Z. In our present era of militarized fanbases, pseudo-intimate social-media accounts, and remix-and-share music platforms, the potential for pop to feel interactive—like a puzzle to solve or a video game to plug into—is only growing. In the case of “Drivers License,” the “song you wrote about me” could refer to Bassett’s lovey-dovey 2020 single “Anyone Else.” Carpenter, at 21, seems to fit the description of the “older” “blond girl” that Rodrigo sings about being jealous of. While Rodrigo has played coy as to the true meaning of “Drivers License,” the speculation has profited all involved. Bassett’s new single, “Lie Lie Lie,” accuses some sad-sack ex of playing the victim. Carpenter’s latest song, “Skin,” has lines such as: “Maybe you didn’t mean it / Maybe ‘blond’ was the only rhyme.”

Those response singles are fun to dig into—but they’re also risky. As a precedent, think of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River,” a 2002 sing-along implying Britney Spears as a treacherous jezebel: Given the wrenching arc of Spears’s life since then, it retrospectively feels like Timberlake contributed to a harmful public pile-on. Working out relationship drama in public can be profitable to a point, but when the principals are young and commanding extremely online fanbases, there’s a real danger in stoking overheated narratives about fetishizable heroes and harassable villains. Interestingly, Carpenter’s “Skin” seems to be partly about that danger. “Maybe we could've been friends if I met you in another life,” she sings. “Maybe then we could pretend there’s no gravity in the words we write.” A fan version of “Drivers License,” imagining the “blond girl” replying to Rodrigo, put it more plainly: “Your fans, yeah they love you, but they don’t see that my feelings are real.”

Indeed, the healthier manifestations of “Drivers License” mania are in such fan-made, perspective-shifting covers. In general, those covers are often well-sung, moving, and clever. They also reveal the TikTok-friendly virtues of “Drivers License” in the first place: the way that the turns of the first verse and chorus create a standalone melodic narrative, the way those turns kick up walloping waves of emotion, and the way Rodrigo’s lyrics suggest characters who are specific enough to envision but generic enough to customize. The POV trend is big right now across pop culture—Swift’s 2020 album Folklore used three different songs to switch among the perspectives in a teenage love triangle—and it’s tempting to say that empathetic fantasy is emerging as a hot pandemic pastime. But maybe “Drivers License” just makes a tearful update to the eternal appeal of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” The most irresistible songs invite you to not only wonder whom they’re about, but to imagine that the answer could be you.