‘drivers license’: How the world got hooked


By Lily Jones

Olivia Rodrigo’s new song has broken records, but how was ‘drivers license’ able to take over the internet, and was it just the thing we needed?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or have a life outside of TikTok), you will know the iconic lines ‘RED LIGHTS! STOP SIGNS!’ from ‘drivers license’, but how has the song become so huge? And why does the world want to listen?

Setting the scene

“Have you heard this new song?” my flatmate asked as we sat at the kitchen table on a cold January morning, “there’s so much drama, listen”.

For those of you that don’t know the whole story attached to ‘drivers license’, supposedly it goes something like this. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (yes, that is what it is really called) had just started filming and in walk the two main characters. Apparently, it was instant chemistry, but she was seventeen and he (Joshua Basset) was twenty. He promised he would wait for her, and while waiting for her he taught her how to drive. He even wrote a song, ‘Common Sense’, that is widely assumed to be about her and how much she meant to him. Fast forward to January 2021 and he has a new girlfriend – Sabrina Carpenter – and so ‘drivers license’ was born out of the heartbreak. 

The story, to clarify, has not been confirmed by Rodrigo. She claims the specifics of who the song is about is “the least important part of the song” to her; “it’s resonating with people because of how emotional it is, and I think everything else is not important”.

The perfect story?

Avoiding linking a song to real people makes sense for an artist to do, but to listeners and the TikTok generation, the story seems anything but unimportant. The story sells, and in a time where our most exciting outing is to the ‘big Tesco’, we will eat up any form of distraction or drama.

‘drivers license’ is a story, a love affair, a broken-hearted 17-year-old girl that we can all relate to. Even those of you who haven’t experienced a recent heartbreak will probably have added it to your ‘heartbroken’ playlist.

The role of TikTok

According to Official Charts, the song landed straight at number one, with 10.9 million streams over the week in the UK. Spotify stated that it got the record for the most streams in a day (excluding Christmas songs). An immense achievement for Rodrigo, who is one of the youngest artists to have an instant number one. It had 15.17 million global streams on its release date and beat its own record the day after with 17.01 million streams – topping both Spotify’s Global and US Song Debut charts. 

The song is a success in its own right, but the story surrounding it has definitely aided its huge reception. Just click on TikTok and you’ll be flooded with singing recreations and videos explanations; uncovering the drama and why each lyric has symbolic importance. In fact, #DriversLicense has billions of uses on TikTok. Trends with the song are developing every day, and the momentum doesn’t seem to be slowing down.

Known for blowing up music, this isn’t new territory for TikTok – but the speed at which it happened was immense.

TikTok Marketing 

‘drivers license’ has become a very prominent example of how a narrative spread on a media platform filled with young people, can be propelled in popularity. They are able to relate to the content and so become invested. It represents a moment in the music industry; the people have the power to blow up a song overnight and continue to let it grow through the various trends and stories that develop from it. 

We are constantly seeing songs blow up on TikTok, sometimes before they are even released. Take Frances Forever’s ‘Space Girl’ which blew up on the app after it became an uplifting, celebratory dancing trend. Soon, my page was flooded with girls dancing to the song or reacting to others dancing to the song; gasping at how beautiful they all were. The TikTok traction led to Frances getting signed. Like ‘drivers license’, the trends that came from the song enabled its fast growth. 

‘Hailey’ is another song that has grown hugely from its story and gossip-like feel behind it. Wrenn has used her platform on TikTok to get her song heard. Not only is the song being heard, but audio from her boyfriend, and supposedly Hailey, talking about whether they were going to tell her about them cheating. Her various videos, like this one, give viewers a story, a song, and drama to follow. The recipe for success. 

The music industry is evolving or at least trying to, with this change. Tom Rosenthal, a known artist before TikTok but whose cover of the song ‘Home’ was used excessively under various romantic videos on the platform, has used his increased publicity to set up his own record label. This alone shows the influence TikTok can have but is made ever more powerful when we learn that he has signed people found from TikTok. User Rachiichachii has been signed by Rosenthal after he found her song on his For You Page. So, some pretty influential stuff can happen on this app it seems.

No wonder ‘drivers license’ with its story, romantic feel and various opportunities for trends, did so well. 

Performative or PR?

Maybe then it’s just a very well executed TikTok PR stunt, or maybe it’s a broken-hearted teenage girl who has written an undeniably catchy and emotional song. I like to think it is probably a bit of both, but not PR forced by Rodrigo. It was largely other people and users that blew up the song and its story on the app. 

Thanks to Joshua’s and Sabrina’s songs of retaliation, we know all the school-like gossip surrounding their situation. Joshua’s song ‘Lie Lie Lie’ seemingly accuses Olivia of painting a one-sided and false image, but this did little to impact people’s love for ‘drivers license’. If anything, it just made people more invested in the story, adding copious amounts of new TikToks to the story. 

Sabrina’s song ‘Skin’ also added more drama to the mix, though she has not confirmed that this is what the song is about. The lyric “Maybe you didn’t mean it / Maybe ‘blonde’ was the only rhyme” is all too similar to Olivia’s reference to “that blonde girl”. While women-on-women rivalry gossip isn’t something that should be glorified, you can see how the story has captivated the online world, at a time where escapism feels necessary.

Both of these songs act almost like songs in a musical, giving us our villains and our heroes. They seem much more performative than ‘drivers license’, and include clear lyrical retaliations alongside a refusal to make comments; these songs do reek of a PR stunt. Nonetheless, PR stunt or not, audiences love it and it certainly adds to the drama of it all. 

Olivia Rodrigo has broken records with her broken heart, and I’m here for it

‘drivers license’ has capitalised on two great sellers of a song; a story and a catchy tune. TikTok as an app has provided respite for many during this pandemic, and it is songs like this that have helped keep it interesting. Here we are, in very weird times and looking for ways to have a bit of fun – what better way than following another person’s complicated life and belting out a banger?