Disney starlet Olivia Rodrigo makes her music debut with a story about getting her driver’s licence. It’s a story that turns into heartbreak, however, when instead of being able to drive to her boyfriend’s house like they’d always talked about, he leaves her for an older, hotter blonde, the type of girl that has “everything [she’s] insecure about”.
So Rodrigo puts her feelings into song, trembling and howling with every lyric. She grieves, throws accusations (“You didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me”), and it just kills you each time she sings, “‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street”.
Those cutting words get the treatment of a piano power ballad, mostly a brisk pedal note that Rodrigo plays on her toy piano in a Matthew Dillon Cohen-directed music video. It’s a simple motif, but effective in amplifying her pain. Still, the piano writing expands when it needs to; in the chorus, the sombre chords waver under Rodrigo’s melodies as she effortlessly climbs her two octave-wide vocal range and releases cathartic cries: “And I know we weren’t perfect, but I’ve never felt this way for no one / And I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone”.
The peak comes at the anthemic bridge section where Rodrigo pours her heart out over all the places that remind her of him, torn as she admits “I still fuckin’ love you”. Here, Rodrigo’s influences are obvious: Lorde for the copious vocal layers; Taylor Swift for the narrative lyricism. “drivers license”, however, is hardly derivative. Rodrigo’s songwriting – with the help of producer Dan Nigro – simply takes from Lorde and Swift the ability to tell a lucid story of her own experiences; it captures narrative depth with simplicity, and, without feigning emotion, makes cliched themes unique.
In short, “drivers license” is an accomplished debut single. It hit No. 1 on the charts within a day of release. It even surpassed a Spotify streaming record. With minimal songwriting credits, having to “[figure] out [her] sound”, and the pandemic above all, the odds could have been against her. But at 17, Rodrigo is proving herself a promising young artist with an emotive voice and a solid foundation for storytelling.