Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Drivers License’ hit No. 1 in a week. Here’s how.
By Joe Coscarelli
The music industry’s first runaway hit single of the year is at once a time-tested model — a Disney actress pivoting to pop with a catchy and confessional breakup ballad — and also an unprecedented TikTok-era smash by a teenager.
“Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo, 17, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart Tuesday, following a record-breaking first week across streaming services like Spotify and Amazon Music. Along the way, the autobiographical song kicked up tabloid and social media speculation as listeners tried to piece together its real-life parallels as if it were a track by Rodrigo’s hero, Taylor Swift. TikTok videos led to blog posts, which led to streams, which led to news articles, and back around again. The feedback loop made it unbeatable.
“It’s been the absolute craziest week of my life,” Rodrigo, who really did get her driver’s license last year, said in an interview. “My entire life just, like, shifted in an instant.”
At a shaky and uncertain time for the music business, amid the pandemic and civil unrest, “Drivers License” was released across platforms and with a broody music video on Jan. 8 by Geffen Records. The song was then streamed more than 76.1 million times in the United States for the week, according to Billboard, the highest total since “WAP,” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, in August (93 million). On Spotify, “Drivers License” set a daily record for global streams for a non-holiday song Jan. 11 and then beat its own number the next day, eventually setting the service’s record for most streams in a week worldwide.
The track reached No. 1 in 48 countries on Apple Music, 31 countries on Spotify and 14 countries on YouTube, Rodrigo’s label said. It also sold 38,000 downloads in the United States, the most for the week, and earned 8.1 million radio airplay audience impressions, Billboard reported.
“We definitely had no idea how big it was going to be,” said Jeremy Erlich, the co-head of music at Spotify. “It just ballooned into this monster, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. And I think unlike anything anyone’s seen before.”
The company, which accounted for more than 60% of the song’s global streams in its first week, responded to initial interest by increasing its promotion of the track, which now sits on 150 official Spotify playlists. “It’s definitely not slowing down,” Erlich said. “It’s the topic around the company and around the industry.”
The song, written by Rodrigo and producer Dan Nigro, starts straightforward enough: “I got my driver’s license last week,” Rodrigo sings over a basic piano part, “just like we always talked about.” But by the end of the first verse, she’s “crying in the suburbs,” and the music swells until a cathartic bridge that hits with a type-breaking curse word. The song “successfully balances dark yet crisp melodrama with bold tunefulness, softly pointed singing with sharp imagery,” critic Jon Caramanica wrote. “It is, in every way, a modern and successful pop song.”
“Drivers License” may represent Rodrigo’s proper debut as a solo artist, but she came with a built-in audience thanks to her Disney roles. Born and raised in Southern California, she became a belting talent-show regular by the age of 8 and was cast first on “Bizaardvark,” which ran for three seasons on the Disney Channel between 2016-19. Rodrigo, who learned to play guitar for the role, starred as Paige Olvera, a teenager who makes songs and videos for an online content studio.
She stars as Nini Salazar-Roberts on the Disney+ series “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” Last year, a song written by Rodrigo, “All I Want,” became the show’s most successful track.
But like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato before her — and Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera before them — Rodrigo took her experiences within the Disney machine and attempted to translate them for a broader, more adult audience. Fans have speculated that “Drivers License” is about Rodigro’s “High School Musical” co-star Joshua Bassett, who released his own single — and car-centric video — on Friday.
Erlich, the Spotify executive, said that there was “a ton of X-factor that made this the perfect storm” for Rodrigo, including the gossip, the quality of her song, the marketing plan prepared in advance by her label and support from celebrities like Swift and TikToker Charli D’Amelio. “It did align perfectly and quicker than anything we’ve ever seen,” he said. “We’ve seen alignment like that, but typically it’s spread over three to six months — this happened in a day and a half.”
Rodrigo called the song “a little time capsule” of a monumental six months she experienced last year. Acknowledging the “archetype” of the Disney star-turned-pop star, she said that she had been nervous about the collision of reactions from “people who have never heard my name before and people who have kind of grown up with me on TV.” But she was thrilled to find both groups interested.
“The cool thing about ‘Drivers License’ is I’ve seen so many videos of people being like, ‘I have no idea who this girl is, but I really love this song,’ which has been really interesting for me, because for so long I’ve really just been attached to projects and to characters, and that’s how people know me,” she said. “It’s really cool to be introduced to people for the first time through a song that I feel really passionate about.”