What makes TikTok sensation Olivia Rodrigo our next favourite pop star?

Rodrigo’s fresh take on getting her driving licence has her poised to stay in our feeds for a while to come

Emilee Lindner
Wednesday 03 February 2021 07:24
Olivia Rodrigo in the ‘Drivers License’ video
Olivia Rodrigo in the ‘Drivers License’ video

The world is officially obsessed with Olivia Rodrigo. Not only has the 17-year-old hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the second week in a row with her debut single “Drivers License”, but she’s garnering a hyperfocus usually only reserved for pop stars. A juicy love triangle, scrutinised style sense and a Disney conspiracy? Not to mention full-on analyses by all the biggest publications? Everyone wants a little bit of the phenomenon.

So, what’s the deal with Olivia Rodrigo and can she ascend to true pop star status?

First, a little background for the unaware: Rodrigo, from Temecula, California, broke through with roles on Disney Channel’s Bizaardvark and Disney+'s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Like so many others who’ve gone through the Disney incubator – Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, etc – she was bound to break out on her own eventually. 

Unlike her Disney predecessors, however, she skipped the G-rated Hollywood Records deal (Disney’s imprint that launched countless Jonas Brothers, Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez & The Scene cuts) and went straight for Interscope/Geffen. Perhaps the move was intended to project Rodrigo as a legitimate artist of her own, rather than a machine-backed teen idol. The choice also allowed her to use the “f” word in “Drivers License”, dubbing her tune “explicit” for a little nugget of street cred.

“Drivers License'' chronicles a love lost to an older blonde, leaving Rodrigo spiralling through confusion and insecurity in the front seat of a car, where so many emotional breakdowns occur. Her gas-foot grows heavier with every recounted detail of her heartbreak until we reach an exasperated climax: “You said forever, now I drive alone past your street.”

The song has drawn comparisons to Rodrigo’s favorite singer, Lorde, although her vocal affectation and style of honesty is a bit closer to Julia Michaels’. Its vivid imagery recalls the early days of Taylor Swift, who co-signed the track in an Instagram comment.

Along with Swift’s boost, Cardi B added her stamp of approval when she lamented her lack of licence and created a social media friendship with Rodrigo.

There’s no question that Rodrigo’s built-in Disney audience bolstered the song’s success, but TikTok shot her up even higher. As of this week, 1.4 million videos on the app have used the song as a soundtrack. Rodrigo previously went viral on TikTok with High School Musical’s ballad “All I Want.”

Of course, Rodrigo isn’t the first to drive past her ex’s house (Blondie and Monica have been there before), but perhaps that’s why it’s such a relatable tune. We can all remember the feeling of our first solo drive, newly minted licence lodged into our wallets. Rodrigo pairs that wonder with coming-of-age breakup nostalgia – devastating, naive, bittersweet – a time when everything everything was simpler, yet our feelings were frustratingly complex.

With all of our pop stars growing up – Bieber’s happily married, Ariana’s engaged… again, Miley’s divorced, Halsey’s pregnant – it’s this fresh voice that connects us to the universal fuzzy feelings of youth. When Rodrigo gets behind the wheel, it’s because she’s got time to kill, not because she has errands to run.

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As Spencer Kornhaber points out in The Atlantic, pop star status requires a need-to-know fascination with their personal life, a “cultural dreamscape” for us to get wrapped up in. Those inspecting the lyrics to “Drivers License” brewed up hot, simmering gossip about Rodrigo’s High School Musical co-star Joshua Bassett. 

This bubbled into a full-on love triangle when both Bassett and rumoured other-girl Sabrina Carpenter released songs of their own around the same time – each of them with clues that point toward each other. And who can resist a love triangle? Especially when it’s furthermore theorised as a manufactured one.

A narrative is how a singer becomes a celebrity these days. “Drivers License” continues to get spins, but will her second single reveal more? With that intrigue in place, it seems a star has been born.

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