On January 8th, a then seventeen-year-old Olivia Rodrigo released “drivers license,” her first song entirely unattached to her acting career. The singer had previously garnered recognition for starring in Disney Channel’s Bizaardvark and later in the Disney+ original High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, for which she had written and recorded some of its soundtrack. But by now, whether you’ve heard the song first on Spotify, TikTok, SNL, or live at the BRITs, chances are either the beautifully haunting whispers of the final chorus or the electric backing of the bridge is constantly ringing at the forefront of your mind as you’re teleported again to the lonely neighborhood streets and your teenage years.
It’s not by coincidence that “drivers license” broke nearly every possible streaming record ever. Some could argue that Rodrigo’s massive success stemmed from her already humble fan following from her acting work with Disney or from the intrigue associated with a still technically child actress releasing a song with the little, boxed “E” right next to it. And I’m not going to say none of that contributed to the historic breakthrough of “drivers license.” But, let’s be honest, that doesn’t come close to explaining why it spent eight weeks at number one.
With a melody equally conducive to screaming in the world’s greatest stadiums and crying quietly in front of a piano, “drivers license” represents everything the pop market has always and will always desire. Coupled with lyrics that sear America’s young and broken heart, “drivers license” is, quite simply, a song crafted perfectly for both the generations that reminisce on their past youth and for the kids just picking up the keys for the first time. And so here all of us are, driving quietly and alone past someone’s street.
But “drivers license” was really only the beginning. Beyond the success of her debut, now with two other immensely popular singles and a full-length album to her name, Rodrigo has already avoided the one-hit-wonder fate that befalls nearly every other artist significantly popularized or even moderately bolstered by TikTok, despite her singles being featured in nearly 5 million videos on the platform. In contrast, in less than six months as a solo artist, Rodrigo has risen beyond her status as a rising talent into a critically acclaimed and multifaceted artist destined to dethrone the icons of the 2010s.
But, with only 34 minutes and 41 seconds of published material, how did she do that?
Most simply, Olivia Rodrigo just did that because she is—without exaggeration—an absolutely and undeniably generational songwriting talent. And she’s finally finishing what her idol and biggest influence, Taylor Swift, started 15 years ago.
Rodrigo’s music is often listened to and talked about in the context of its relationship to its predecessors, most notably being the music released by Taylor Swift over the last decade and a half. In fact, Rodrigo has hailed Swift as the “greatest songwriter of all time” and considers herself a diehard fan since childhood, as she revealed in a recent interview with NME. Though the comparisons between the artists are clearly visible and therefore fair, it’s equally important (but often overlooked) to see how her music is not just a continuation of a specific songwriting style, but also a permanent divergence from one. In other words, no one really thinks of Taylor Swift in the context of Tim McGraw and Shania Twain, despite their heavy influence on her early music and career. Instead, Taylor Swift is just Taylor Swift. And Olivia Rodrigo deserves the same recognition.
In only one album, Rodrigo has already proven herself a master of several musical genres. The half-hour of magic, expansive introspection, and piercing global awareness called SOUR contains near flawless archetypes expanding well beyond the anticipated, teary-eyed, and exhaustible pop. “good 4 u” and “brutal” explore punk and alternative, while staying true to Rodrigo’s poetic honesty. “deja vu” is an emotionally delivered LSD trip into psychedelic pop, aided by the skills of her producer, Dan Nigro. Finally, the vocally searing, piano power-ballads of “traitor,” “drivers license,” and “happier” hit even more poignantly in the context of the rest of Rodrigo’s genre-surpassing and emotive outpouring.
Even the biggest stars in the world right now should envy Rodrigo’s almost unprecedentedly graceful fluidity between genres and her seamless entry into the global pop culture dialogue.
However, more than just demonstrating a beyond-her-years musical professionalism and uncanny acoustic maneuverability, Rodrigo’s songwriting is, at its core, profoundly lyrical. As Taylor Swift is famous for passionately creating and popularizing the ‘confessional’ song, where the singer essentially reads a rhyming diary entry for everyone to hear, Rodrigo has taken all of Swift’s lessons and pioneered even further. Unapologetic post-breakup anger has turned into careful examinations of mistaken behaviors and ruefully selfish well-wishes. Tear-stained guitars and cheerleader clichés have turned into driver’s licenses and inabilities to parallel park.
In many ways Rodrigo is simultaneously transcending boundaries apparently set by age and gender, while making every word feel intimate and compellingly passionate in ways few other artists have ever captured. Throughout SOUR, Rodrigo devotes time engaging deeply with herself and her own emotions, conversing directly and indirectly with ex-lovers, and addressing inwardly her former friends that have all fallen out of touch. The universality of her sentiments and dialogues, along with her clever combination of teenage temperamentality and lush emotional maturity, extend comforting hands and warm, personal connections to anyone willing to listen.
Olivia Rodrigo, with one album and 18 years of life experience, has already established herself as a pop-powered vocal and songwriting force to be reckoned with, and we couldn’t be more excited to see what happens next.