What Will Be The Impact Of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” And Its Historically Massive Debut?

Erica Hernandez

What Will Be The Impact Of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” And Its Historically Massive Debut?

Erica Hernandez

Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” is projected to debut at #1 tomorrow on Billboard‘s Hot 100, becoming the 48th song to enter the chart on top in its 63-year history. The milestone is particularly significant in this case — partially because “Drivers License” is Rodrigo’s debut single, partially because the song is posting historically massive first-week stats, partially because of the trends exemplified by the music, and partially because a large percentage of the adult population had never heard of 17-year-old Rodrigo before last week.

Nobody debuts at #1 out of nowhere. Entering the Hot 100 on top has become increasingly common in recent years thanks to the rise of streaming, merch bundles, and coordinated pushes from hardcore fans. But the artists who pull off this feat tend to be known quantities like Ariana Grande and Travis Scott. This has always been the case dating back to the first song enter the Hot 100 on top, Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” in 1995: The #1 debut is the province of established superstars. Even the small handful of performers who’ve started at #1 on their first try were all spinning off some larger brand, be it a member of a successful group going solo (Lauryn Hill from the Fugees, Zayn from One Direction) or an American Idol contestant (Clay Aiken, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks).

Rodrigo is a known quantity as well — just maybe not for most people outside Generation Z. She’s the latest in a lineage of former Disney Channel actors who’ve pivoted to pop stardom. Rodrigo is best known for her roles on Bizaardvark and the Disney+ original High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. (The absurd title is apparently intentional: It’s a mockumentary about high school students staging a production of High School Musical: The Musical.) The shows created a massive built-in audience for a prospective Rodrigo music career. Crucially, “Drivers License” leverages this interest by seemingly alluding to a love triangle involving her HSM: TM: TS costar Joshua Bassett (who himself released a response track called “Lie Lie Lie” last Friday) and their fellow Disney Channel alum-turned-rising pop singer Sabrina Carpenter.

The clamor surrounding “Drivers License” is partially fueled by this behind-the-scenes drama. Rodrigo and Bassett, 20, are the TV show’s romantic leads, and like their High School Musical predecessors Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, they were rumored to be dating in real life as well. According to this Glamour explainer, Rodrigo and Bassett even wrote music together that was used in the show. But things seemed to fall apart for them in 2020. Bassett released breakup songs. Rodrigo alluded to a “failed relationship” on TikTok. And Bassett has recently been spotted with Carpenter, 21, which neatly aligns with this “Drivers License” lyric: “And you’re probably with that blonde girl/ Who always made me doubt/ She’s so much older than me/ She’s everything I’m insecure about.” (Notably, Rodrigo’s original Instagram demo of “Drivers License” from last summer mentioned a brunette.)

The tabloid intrigue is standard fare for teen actors launching music careers. What’s not so standard about “Drivers License,” at least where would-be teeny-boppers are concerned, is its sound. This is no chipper pop-rock track like “Party In The U.S.A.” Nor does it exist within the realm of dance-pop and R&B like so many early singles from the likes of Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Ariana Grande. Instead, “Drivers License” is a somber ballad at the intersection of folk, pop, and indie rock. A lone piano key serves as the pulse as the backdrop swells from minimalism to bleary grandiosity and back. Rodrigo’s youthful soprano quivers in the verses, cuts loose on the chorus, and merges into a choir on the bridge to declare, “I still fuckin’ love you babe.” The song turns an adolescent rite of passage, learning to drive, into a short story worthy of a YA soap opera: Rodrigo and her beau had once dreamed of the freedom that would come along with her license, but now that she has it, all she can do is cruise through his neighborhood longing for what once was.

The music itself could easily soundtrack a moment of wistful sorrow on that sort of teen drama. It’s the kind of song Hollywood music supervisors often sync, but not the kind of single that would traditionally be a shoo-in to climb the pop charts. “Drivers License” is prime Spotify-core sadgirl fare that, at its dynamic peaks, takes on the cinematic sweep of an old-fashioned power ballad. It begins as a trembling Phoebe Bridgers song and ends as a resplendent folklore track. And although Rodrigo says she and producer Dan Nigro wrote “Drivers License” under the influence of the young “bedroom pop angel” Gracie Abrams, other obvious forebears includes the pan-genre synth minimalist Lorde — whose early material preceded this song’s tone, texture, and distinctively teenage perspective — and Lorde’s even more successful disciple Billie Eilish, another master of artful teenage drama. Still, despite those critically acclaimed touchpoints, there’s a slightly saccharine flavor to “Drivers License” that probably helped it connect with a much wider audience.

That combination of influences and circumstances is proving to be extremely potent. MRC Data, the company formerly known as Nielsen SoundScan, reports that “Drivers License” posted 82 million domestic streams across all platforms, surpassing Drake’s “God Plan” for the biggest US streaming week ever and more than quadrupling the total for this week’s second most streamed track, SZA’s “Good Days.” And the song’s streaming success is not restricted to America. Last Monday, “Drivers License” posted 15.17 million global Spotify streams, a record for a non-holiday track. The next day, it topped 17 million, breaking its own record. “There’s truly no direct comparison here,” Spotify’s Global Hits lead Becky Bass told Billboard. “We’ve never seen anything like this, where you do have a newer artist that just comes out of the gate in such a dominant way, and just continues to grow. I mean, we were like, ‘Whoa, these first day numbers are huge!’ And then they were bigger the second day, bigger the third day… so it really feels unprecedented, and likely is unprecedented.”

Perhaps “Drivers License” would have been dominant regardless of which genre Rodrigo worked in, but the fact that she opted for this sound feels significant. Some conclusions it suggests: Taylor Swift’s pivot toward folksy indie sounds was not anomalous but was instead indicative of a rising trend. Eilish’s ballads are at least as influential as her harder-edged, SoundCloud-rap-adjacent material. Lorde’s impact, long felt in both the indie and pop spheres, has not waned in the slightest. Indie darling Bridgers, who last year cracked the Hot 100 for the first time and logged guest spots with the 1975 and Kid Cudi, could herself become a genuine pop hitmaker soon. (Olivia/Phoebe duet when?) And more generally, the bedroom pop that flourishes online at platforms like YouTube, TikTok, Spotify, and Bandcamp is rapidly infiltrating the mainstream.

Having observed the success of “Drivers License,” industry tracker HITS Daily Double speculates that “a new lane (powered in part by the emo kids who love Billie Eilish and their younger siblings) is emerging to challenge hip-hop’s dominance in the streaming sphere.” If so, it’s a fascinating twist in a long-simmering storyline. Five years ago, as the indie world’s embrace of pop was reaching its apparent endgame, I wondered whether artful pop artists like Chairlift and Wet — signed to major labels but native to the indie cultural landscape — would ever fully cross over to the pop mainstream. Career-wise, they seemed stuck in a not-quite-indie, not-quite-pop nether region, not fully embraced by either audience. Half a decade later, it turns out depressive guitar balladry might be a more reliable pathway to mainstream success than sparkling synth-pop. For years cultural critics have been noting that streaming, social media, and a lifestyle dominated by screen time were fostering a moodier, blearier mainstream. Perhaps not coincidentally, legit pop stardom now feels more attainable for artists like Clairo and beabadoobee and Soccer Mommy, who all started out making twee lo-fi home recordings, than any of the synth or R&B bands that once crowded the indie sphere.

One person who seems to have intuited that sea change is “Drivers License” co-writer and producer Nigro, a former member of the emo-leaning alt-rock band As Tall As Lions (named a Band To Watch by this very website back in 2006). Previously Nigro worked with many of the key players in the underground’s 2010s love affair with pop, among them Sky Ferreira, Twin Shadow, Empress Of, and Chairlift’s own Caroline Polachek. Having now overseen one of the biggest breakout hits in pop history, it will be interesting to see if he cooks up more of these kinds of songs with Rodrigo or anyone else, and if he uses his newfound clout to shepherd anyone with a modicum of indie cred into the mainstream. We could be looking at an underground gold rush reminiscent of the post-Nirvana moment, this time powered by young women with heavy feelings and a savvy social media presence. Or maybe the aftermath of “Drivers License” will play out like so many prior trends, and the figures who helped create this groundswell will be completely overshadowed by more polished celebrity types like Rodrigo, who are more than happy to nudge a hip sound into the middle of the road. Whatever happens, it’s clear a song as wildly successful as “Drivers License” will have ripple effects. It will be fascinating to see how it reverberates through the industry in 2021 and beyond.

John Shearer/Getty Images for Ryman Auditorium

CHART WATCH

Due to the MLK holiday, Billboard is not revealing the new Hot 100 — and officially crowning “Drivers License” — until Tuesday. But Olivia Rodrigo isn’t the only one making big chart moves this week.

On the Billboard 200 albums chart, Morgan Wallen posts a resounding #1 debut with Dangerous: The Double Album, obliterating the country streaming record in the process. (Such are the benefits of a 30-track album, though only if people actually listen to it.) Per Billboard, Dangerous tallied 265,000 equivalent album units and 74,000 in pure sales. The sales alone would have been enough to lead the chart this week, but he more than doubled that total with 184,000 streaming equivalent albums, which equates to 240.18 million on-demand track streams. The previous one-week record for a country album was 102.26 million streams for Luke Combs’ What You See Is What You Get. Dangerous also had the biggest week for a country album overall since Carrie Underwood’s Cry Pretty in 2018.

After Taylor Swift and Pop Smoke comes a #4 debut for Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales. With 43,000 units, it beats her previous chart peak of #6 with 2008’s Fearless. The rest of the top 10 comprises Lil Durk, the Weeknd, Ariana Grande, Luke Combs, Juice WRLD, and Megan Thee Stallion.

UPDATE: OK, now the Hot 100 results are official. After Rodrigo’s huge debut with “Drivers License” at #1 comes former chart-toppers “Mood,” “Positions,” and “Blinding Lights” (in its record-extending 45th week in the top 10 and 36th week in the top five). After Chris Brown and Young Thug’s “Go Crazy” at #5, Dua Lipa and DaBaby’s “Levitating” reaches a new #6 peak. Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy” is at #7, with AJR’s “Bang!” up next at #8, a new high. Two more new peaks round out the top 10: Morgan Wallen’s “Wasted On You” debuts at #9, becoming his second top-10 hit after “7 Summers,” while SZA’s “Good Days” rises to #10. It’s her first top-10 hit and third overall following collabs with Maroon 5 and Kendrick Lamar.

POP FIVE

Zayn – “When Love’s Around” (Feat. Syd)
If not for a huge story like “Drivers License,” this week’s column would have been about Zayn’s new album Nobody’s Listening. The guy is starting to find his footing, balancing his adult-contemporary impulses with music that feels a bit more youthful and stylish. This Syd duet is illustrative.

Selena Gomez – “De Una Vez”
This isn’t hitting quite like Rare for me. The songwriting and performance are decent, but it doesn’t have the same spark.

JP Saxe & Maren Morris – “Line By Line”
JP Saxe has a radio hit with the apocalyptic hookup track “If The World Was Ending,” a duet with his girlfriend Julia Michaels. This Maren Morris collab is not as cloying, but it also doesn’t stand out like its predecessor.

Aly & AJ – “Listen!!!”
This duo is following up its TikTok-borne comeback with some shimmery alt-rock, and I am here for it.

Baby Queen – “Raw Thoughts”
Here’s some extremely pleasing synth-pop from an artist with some significant UK buzz.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel welcomed a baby boy named Phineas. [In Touch]
  • Timberlake, with Ant Clemons, will perform on the Biden Inauguration primetime special on 1/20. So will Demi Lovato and Jon Bon Jovi. [Twitter]
  • In other Lovato news, she will share details of her 2018 overdose in the new YouTube docuseries Demi Lovato: Dancing With The Devil, which premieres 3/23. [ET]
  • Diplo and Mark Ronson teased the return of Silk City. [Twitter]
  • Katy Perry is collaborating with Pokémon for the franchise’s 25th anniversary. [Game Informer]
  • K-pop group Seventeen did “Left & Right” on Kelly Clarkson. [YouTube]
  • In a case involving symbolic damages, Supreme Court judges cited Taylor Swift’s sexual assault case as precedent. [NYT]
  • Post Malone gifted 10,000 pairs of Crocs to frontline workers. [Instagram]
  • Sia released a remix and animated video of “Hey Boy” with Burna Boy. [YouTube]
  • Rihanna collaborated with multimedia artist Lorna Simpson on a series of cool collages for Essense. [Twitter]
  • The AP detailed Selena Gomez’s ongoing fight against Big Tech for monetizing disinformtaion, including a conversation in which the pop star told Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, “You’re cashing in from evil.” [AP]
  • Joe Jonas will co-star in the Korean War film Devotion. [Deadline]
  • Lady Gaga’s father, a Trump supporter, is proud of her for performing at Joe Biden’s inauguration. [Fox News]
  • FINNEAS did “Can’t Wait To Be Dead” on Colbert. [YouTube]
  • Shawn Mendes has his own bowl at Chipotle (it’s for charity). [Twitter]

HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME

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