Music

Why Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” Had the Biggest Debut Since “WAP”

The singer’s overnight success is about more than the Sabrina Carpenter, Joshua Bassett drama.

Olivia Rodrigo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Image via Olivia Rodridgo/YouTube.

If, as the actor, comedian, and belletrist “Judge” John Hodgman has declared, “Specificity is the soul of narrative,” actress–singer Olivia Rodrigo just won the Soulful Specificity prize for 2021, before the year was even a month old. It’s rare that a debut single by a new artist connects with a cross-section of the public as fast as “Drivers License” has. Rodrigo’s song about a very particular kind of heartbreak—presented as a plain-spoken analogy to finally graduating from one’s learner’s permit—proved universal enough to thousands of Americans to enter the Hot 100 at No. 1. Teens of Rodrigo’s generation powered the song to the top in quite literally record time: With a few caveats, Rodrigo’s first official single sets a record for a newcomer’s chart debut. But befuddled olds like me hear a lot that’s achingly familiar in this well-crafted confessional, too. Something about the song just works.

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Speaking of olds making sense of youth culture, 15 years ago—in January 2006, when Rodrigo was not quite three and I was in my mid-30s—I was trying to puzzle out an album dominating the iTunes music store during the winter doldrums. Back then, before Spotify existed, iTunes was the ultimate leading indicator: Tweens and teens were heavy iPod users and 99-cent download buyers, and songs and albums would break first at iTunes before landing on the Billboard charts. (The chart bible had only just added sales data from Apple’s download store to its charts in 2005.) So when I wanted to get a sense of what was about to break in Billboard, particularly with audiences half my age, I would study Apple’s top-sellers chart. And never, in my life, had I heard of something called High School Musical. As I stared at the iTunes homepage, I winced at the thumbnail of the soundtrack cover—the toothsome kids in that tiny square looked entirely too happy to be jumping in the air.

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Sure enough, about a week after I spied that album atop the iTunes chart, the soundtrack to High School Musical—a Disney Channel original movie that premiered that same month and, we now know, was the start of a long-running franchise—debuted on the bottom half of the Billboard 200 album chart. By mid-February, the soundtrack was in the Top 10, and an eye-popping nine songs from HSM were on the Hot 100, all thanks to sales at iTunes, where tracks from the soundtrack were crowding out current hits by Fall Out Boy, the Pussycat Dolls, and T-Pain. The biggest of these, the treacly Zac Efron–Vanessa Hudgens ballad “Breaking Free,” leapt 82 notches to No. 4, all due to dollar-downloads and no radio airplay at all. Everything about HSM seemed—to a Gen Xer like me or even an older millennial, to say nothing of a radio programmer—winsome, lacking in edge, and profoundly uncool. And that mattered not a whit to its audience of 8-to-12-year-olds (that age group, not actual high schoolers, is whom the Disney Channel was pitched at). By March, the High School Musical soundtrack was No. 1. It wound up the year’s bestselling album.

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What I was witnessing that winter of ’06 was the pop-cultural emergence, and the early aesthetic formation, of Generation Z. The kids hungrily consuming High School Musical were, by and large, born after 1995, the dividing line distinguishing Gen Z from the then culturally dominant millennials; HSM even preceded the first album by millennial-born, Z-worshipped icon Taylor Swift. In the decade and a half since, as this tempest-toss’d cohort came of age under the Great Recession and the schizoid political era of Obama-then-Trump, the Gen Z aesthetic has been defined by earnestness and emotional vulnerability, all of it starkly reflected in their music: the quavering moan of Lorde, the sing-songy lostness of SoundCloud rap, the pleading sigh of Shawn Mendes, the sly-yet-sincere smolder of Billie Eilish.

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And so here, in the early days of 2021, behold Olivia Rodrigo—a cast member from a Disney+ show called (I am not making this title up) High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. She arrives fully formed atop the Hot 100 with the power ballad for her generation: the yelp of Lorde, the directness of Juice Wrld, the yearning of Mendes, the ASMR whisper of Eilish, with drama ready-made for TikTok. And yet, nothing about “Drivers License” feels calculated—I invoke its precursors only to explain how this song was absorbed into young America’s bloodstream so rapidly. “Drivers License” is the ultimate in Gen Z pop, coalescing multiple strains of post-millennial cultural output without actually borrowing or stealing anything. It is its own thing. That’s some trick. Hearing it as a teen in 2021 must feel like hearing Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1971, or Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” in 1990: Finally, somebody understands what it feels like to need so much.

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The key difference between those earlier Hot 100 No. 1s—written by Kris Kristofferson and Prince, respectively—and “Drivers License” is that the latter was primarily penned by its singer. The 17-year-old Rodrigo wrote her surprise smash in collaboration with her producer, 38-year-old Daniel Nigro. The song is peppered with inspired touches: from its leadoff sound of an open car door that segues directly into a tolling piano in the same key to the song’s unexpected cadence, which—as my friends at Switched on Pop point out—is structured in a highly unusual meter of seven (not eight) bars per verse, which keeps the listener captivated and cathartically off-kilter. Rodrigo’s vocal performance is rangy and just right—restrained when it needs to be, in Lorde-and-Billie mode, on the song’s saddest lines (“You said ‘forever,’ now I drive alone past your street”), rising to a soar on the neediest lines (“I know we weren’t perfect, but I’ve never felt this way for no one”), and pushing out one furious line at a time, in a chant, to express wounded fury (“Can’t drive past the places we used to go to, ’cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe”). Producer and co-songwriter Nigro is a former indie rocker with the band As Tall As Lions whose résumé is studded with work supporting such other young, self-assured songsmiths as Carly Rae Jepsen, Sky Ferreira, Lewis Capaldi, and Billie Eilish brother-collaborator Finneas O’Connell—but whatever he did to punch up Rodrigo’s composition, the sentiments in the song are very credibly her own. Almost too credibly, given the way the internet has obsessively dissected the celebrity backstory of “Drivers License” (more on that in a moment).

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Like many Disney-groomed stars, from Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus to Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez, Rodrigo (raised in California by her German-Irish mother and Filipino father) was launched as a multihyphenate, able to both sing and act, and coded as a budding teen-pop idol. But what set Rodrigo apart was her instrumental and songwriting chops, which were more overt than that of fellow singer-songwriters like Lovato. Rodrigo learned the guitar for her first Disney Channel show Bizaardvark and played alongside her keyboardist co-star Madison Hu, and for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, Rodrigo wrote two songs, one of them by herself: “All I Want,” a piano-and-strings ballad that now reads as a precursor to “Drivers License.” “Want” has the same tender longing and soul-baring self-doubt (“All I have is myself at the end of the day/ But shouldn’t that be enough for me?”) but was arranged in a more traditional, ’70s, singer-songwriter style, with a sprinkle of showtune sparkle. Though it wasn’t promoted as a radio single, Rodrigo’s fledgling stardom pushed “All I Want” briefly onto the Hot 100 a year ago, where it peaked at No. 90 last January thanks largely to download sales. (All these years after the first HSM, teens do still, occasionally, buy downloads!)

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Rodrigo’s one prior, minor hit is important, because it casts her achievements this week in sharp relief. Nobody, from the label to Rodrigo herself, expected “Drivers License” to open like this. The song crashes onto the Hot 100 with 76 million in first-week streams, the best tally since Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s blockbuster single “WAP” opened to streams of 93 million late last summer. At Spotify in particular, the song was a monster, repeatedly setting records on the service that it would then surpass: the most daily streams for a nonholiday song, the most streams in a week worldwide. Billboard reports that—not to put too fine a point on it—Rodrigo’s massive stream total set “a new weekly best for a female artist’s first single properly promoted to radio, streaming services, and other platforms” (basically, they are not counting “All I Want” as a proper single, which is fair). In addition to being, obviously, the week’s top streaming song, “Drivers License” also opens atop the digital sales chart, thanks to a strong 38,000 in dollar-downloads and 7.1 million in radio audience, enough to already rank it just outside the top 30 among pop radio hits, comparable to where BTS’s “Dynamite” arrived in September.

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Overall—and, again, discounting “All I Want’s” fluke chart appearance last year—“Drivers License” stands as the most unprecedented No. 1 debut by a new artist in Hot 100 history. I mean literally “without precedent,” because Olivia Rodrigo’s history is so scant. Among the 48 songs that have debuted atop the big chart, the only acts to do so with no prior chart history were the solo Lauryn Hill in 1998, coming off her massive success with the Fugees; three American Idol finalists (Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, and Carrie Underwood) who were each pole-vaulted by the top-rated TV show of the ’00s; Baauer of “Harlem Shake” fame, who materialized at No. 1 in 2013 thanks only to a Billboard methodology change that incorporated YouTube data into the chart; and Zayn Malik in 2016, who, like Lauryn Hill, was the first soloist to break away from a massive group, in his case One Direction. Rodrigo had none of these X-factors working in her favor: no prior group, no network-TV reality show competition, no chart rule change. She just dropped a song, the first official single of her career, and the whole country decided to consume it en masse, straight away. (The whole world, actually—from the U.K. to New Zealand to Denmark, including countries that have not yet seen the latest High School Musical series reboot in which Rodrigo stars.)

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I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that, besides her medium-level TV fame, Rodrigo did have some notoriety working in her song’s favor. Gossip hounds and tea-spilling TikTokkers have spent the past two weeks uncovering the romantic travails that led the starlet to pen such a heartrending breakup tale in the first place. In brief: “Drivers License” is allegedly about Rodrigo’s dating history with HSM:TM:TS co-star Joshua Bassett—the song’s purported heartbreaker and himself a songwriter (hence the line, “I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me”). The “blond girl” with whom Bassett took up after Rodrigo is, allegedly, real-life Disney blond Sabrina Carpenter. In the weeks since the song’s release, both Mr. Bassett and Ms. Carpenter have dropped singles that allegedly “clap back” at Rodrigo’s poison-pen letter (Bassett’s sports the juicy title “Lie Lie Lie”). All of this conflama, say many online commentators, explains how an essentially brand-new artist like our girl Olivia could storm the top of the hit parade so fast. The meta-narrative is all. Allegedly.

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To which I say: maybe? But so what? It’s the song, not the conflama. The premise of this long-running No. 1 hits series is that a mix of art and commerce—yes, including meta-narrative—is what makes songs massive, chart-topping hits. But in all my years of chart analysis and pop fandom, a song by an artist this little-known outside of Disney circles doesn’t crash-land on top of our biggest chart on gossip alone—otherwise, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan (and Alexis Rose) would have all scored No. 1 hits. As a middle-aged stepdad, I happen to have access to quite a few Gen Z teens and tweens, and they didn’t all learn every word to “Drivers License” (seriously, every … word …) because they care about Joshua Bassett’s date-ability. They care passionately about how the song innately captures how a nerve-wracking teenage rite of passage mirrors the devastation of a failed first love; how it invites, practically demands, singing along, from its whispered opening lines to its fist-pumping glory notes; and how that judiciously deployed single F-bomb expresses the moment when frustration overtakes you until it’s practically erupting from your body.

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For all the comparisons to Lorde, Eilish, and her High School Musical forebears, the artist to whom Rodrigo is most often analogized is the mighty Taylor. I’d say that’s closest to right—not in the sense that Rodrigo is parroting her elder’s musical moves, or even Swift’s own history of Dear John letters set to music (including “Dear John”). It’s almost the opposite: Rodrigo has carved her own lane, like Taylor more than a decade ago, through songwriting that touches a nerve and a distinct voice that somehow feels instantly familiar to masses of people. She chronicles young self-realization the way Swift did at 15 or at 22 but in a voice that wouldn’t have sounded the same prior to the 2020s. Of all the delightfully “crazy” and “weird” things that have happened to Olivia Rodrigo in the past two weeks, the one that has apparently wowed her the most is when Swift herself big-upped Rodrigo’s song on Instagram: “I say that’s my baby and I’m really proud.” Rodrigo, appropriately, melted down with gratitude. As in her chart topper, she’s having an ugly cry, but the good kind. We’ve all been there.

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