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critic’s notebook

How hot is Olivia Rodrigo’s heartbreak anthem Drivers License? Lorde, Adele and Billie Eilish have called an emergency meeting to consider adding a fourth member into their league of elite pop emoters.

In the three days after its release, the piano-based bit of despondency from the Disney singer-actor ingénue sold more than 16,000 digital downloads and saw more than 21 million streams in the United States. On Jan. 11, the song broke the Spotify record for most one-day streams for a non-holiday song.

Singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo's heartbreak anthem Drivers License has become a record-setting smash hit.Erica Hernandez/Geffen Records

Based on streaming, airplay and sales data, Drivers License is more than twice as popular as any other title on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the 24th song to achieve that lap-the-pack status and giving Billboard magazine legitimate reason to hail the hit as “one of the most dominant No. 1s of the last 30 years.”

A number of factors contributed to Drivers License’s out-of-the-box acceleration. Some have to do with the song’s emotive storytelling and compelling chord progressions; other reasons have to do with celebrity-fuelled publicity.

It all amounts to a perfect storm that has Amazon’s overworked Alexa wearily cutting short requests: “Let me guess, you want to hear Drivers License.”

Prebuilt fanbase: She’s no megastar, but Rodrigo is familiar to young music fans for her roles on the Disney Channel comedy series Bizaardvark and on the Disney+ mockumentary High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. The 17-year-old Californian released All I Want in 2019 through Walt Disney Records before signing with Interscope and Geffen Records in 2020. That ballad bypassed major-label gatekeepers by appearing on television (sung by Rodrigo’s High School Musical character) and by finding an audience on the social-media app TikTok.

Narrative relatability: The song concerns a freshly licensed young driver whose success with the California Department of Motor Vehicles is offset by profound romantic disappointment. “Today I drove through the suburbs, crying ‘cause you weren’t around,” Rodrigo sings, lips quivering. Such is the mercurial world of high-school dating and gas-guzzling teenage angst.

Celebrity endorsement: Big names Halsey, Cardi B, Taylor Swift and Hailey Bieber publicly appreciated the song. WAP singer Cardi B lamented on Twitter that she had no drivers licence herself, complicating her late-night McDonald’s drive-through needs. Swift, replying to a Rodrigo Instagram post, oddly took some credit for the young singer’s accomplishment, saying “that’s my baby and I’m really proud.”

Confessional specificity: As a certified Swiftie, Rodrigo clearly has cribbed from Swift’s laser-focused grievance-airing and weaponized lyricism. It’s not poetic, but the song’s vivid lines about the insecurity caused by an older blond girl resonate more than, say, a folkie’s abstract warbling. Rodrigo also mentions red lights and stop signs and that she still sees the face of her former love interest in “white cars” and “front yards.” The girl is clearly a hazard to herself and others on the road.

Billboard-sized emotions in a bedroom-pop setting: With it swelling emotiveness, the build-up of Drivers License is similar in structure to any number of power ballads by Kings of Leon. The difference is that where the Followill brothers play to the back seats of arenas, Rodrigo never goes over the top. There’s a sense of restraint even as her voice soars. The tension-release dynamics are superb; the track’s production is atmospheric but not overwhelming. This is controlled audio dynamite, built for today’s smaller listening devices.

Love-triangle intrigue: So, who is the person that has the song’s sobbing protagonist aimlessly circling a neighbourhood, and who is the older, light-haired mystery girl with whom the heartbreaker now consorts? Speculation says Drivers License is written about Rodrigo’s High School Musical co-star Joshua Bassett, who was (or is) romantically linked to former Disney actor and singer Sabrina Carpenter, distinctly 21 and blond. After the debut of Drivers License, Bassett released the accusatory single Lie Lie Lie, and last week, Carpenter peeled off new song Skin. “Maybe blonde was the only rhyme,” Carpenter sings, clearly responding to Rodrigo. “But you been tellin’ your side, so I’ll be tellin’ mine.”

This song-based saga from the telegenic trio reads like a Disney script for teens. Stay tuned.

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