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.