“drivers license” – A Case Study on Why the Song Topped the Charts

A TikTok recipe for smashing records and achieving the #1 spot on Spotify’s Global Top 50

If you haven’t heard the song “drivers license” by Olivia Rodrigo you have probably been hiding under a rock somewhere. Since Rodrigo’s official debut single came out, the song has accumulated over 160 million streams in just 2 weeks. The love song even broke a Spotify record for the most streams in a day for a non-holiday song with over 17 million global plays. We might expect these record breaking streaming numbers from big stars in the industry such as Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, or Ariana Grande, but it seems as though Rodrigo has sky rocketed out from obscurity, the majority of her prior releases being the soundtrack from Disney’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. So how did this happen exactly? My take on the matter- a story, melody, culture, rumor… and Tiktok.

“drivers license” is an intimate narrative that follows the journey of a young teen who grapples with getting her drivers license alone, rather than with her, now, ex-boyfriend. The ballad begins with the sound of an ignition starting that blends into an intense, steady beat. As Rodrigo describes her plans for their future being crushed by her love moving on, the song continues to build with a palpable energy and strong belting. The ballad reaches its pinnacle at the bridge with layered, breathy vocals which admit to still being in love with the one who has moved on. Undeniably artful, the song channels the lyrical mastery of Taylor Swift and the sound and production quality of Lorde. Without a purely beautiful song, there would seldom be a hit. 

However, there are over 50 million songs on Spotify– what makes this one chart topping? 

There are a few factors at play here, the first and foremost being the power of the increasingly popular video-sharing social media app TikTok. TikTok currently has over 1.5 billion total downloads, making it the seventh-most downloaded app of the 2010s. When users create a video they can choose any song as their soundtrack as well as create their own audio for videos. This is what makes TikTok the perfect place for music artists, as you allow others to evangelize your music organically. When a song on TikTok gets associated with a trend or dance that others recreate and share on their own profiles, the song naturally spreads throughout the TikTok community. TikTok’s nature also makes you want to get in on what is popular and trending. If you hear a song more than three times on your “For You” page, you are going to want to do a little search to hear the whole thing- just a quick switch to the Spotify app.

“drivers license” was a perfectly positioned spark that ignited a wildfire. 

Olivia-Rodrigo-1610556343To date, “drivers license” has been used in over 1 million TikTok videos, that has helped aid in its Spotify fame, showing that fans are not only engaged in listening, but also in the narrative of the song and how it is incorporated in their own lives a.k.a in their TikTok filmmaking. This is a testament to two factors in particular: Rodrigo’s young fanbase being the main users on TikTok, 32.5% of users being ages 10-19, and the culture of todays youth who resonate with the messaging within the song. Although it might seem like a stretch to connect the two, according to the American Psychological Association, Gen Z is 27% more likely than other generations to report their mental health as fair or poor. Couple that with months of isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a prevalent, casual “hookup” culture in young America, this song is used by those on TikTok for a reason- it not only relevant to them, it resonates deeply with them. 

One aspect of our culture that defies age, however, is the love of gossip and rumor. What undeniably helped the song propel itself to the top of the charts are the breadcrumbs that Rodrigo gives the listener. The ballad’s descriptive lyrics have led mega-fans to pull out their drawing boards and get to work. It isn’t a far leap to guess that the ex-boyfriend within the narrative is Joshua Bassett, Rodrigo’s rumored ex-boyfriend who worked closely with her on the High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Yet, going even further, news outlets and Rodrigo’s TikTok fans began immediately speculating about the connection between the lyrics “that blonde girl” who is “so much older than me” and Bassett’s current girlfriend Sabrina Carpenter. This interest undoubtably increased engagement, not only in TikTok hypothesis videos, but online searches and internet investigating. And the best PR move Rodrigo could have made is not saying a word about it.

“I totally understand people’s curiosity with the specifics of who the song’s about and what it’s about, but to me, that’s really the least important part of the song,” she says. “It’s resonating with people because of how emotional it is, and I think everything else is not important.” she mentions in a Billboard article. The rumors and intrigue go on. 

What can I say? “drivers license” is truly a perfect storm, but a storm that could not have been possible without such perfect alignments. A beautiful song, a viral-inducing marketing platform, some gossip, and a primed audience that has finally found the words that speak for its broken heartedness. I give that three words. 

Well played Olivia. 

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