Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license” — driving fast in the slow-tempo heartbreak songwriting layout
Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license” has been compared to the likes of Taylor Swift, and Lorde. Although in my first listen of the song, my mind actually pointed me to Gracie Abrams’ “M.I.N.O.R.” (funny enough, also a song about a teenager longing to drive to see a lover — Olivia said to be inspired by Gracie’s song), as the song grows on me, it recalls more Adele than anyone else to me.
Yes, “drivers license” is adolescent; yes, the music video screams Generation Z ~aesthetics~; yes, Olivia’s timbre and the song’s production are closer to “indie” pop than radio diva pop (although, for the last half-decade, typical indie indeed became radio pop).
But melodically wise, “drivers license” still carries that 1990s diva print (which influenced singers like Adele — and she was one of the few to successfully carry 90s-tailored-tunes in the 2010s): piano-driven pop, emotional, with a big vocal moment in the chorus. The type of ballad people sing in music survival shows and exaggerate in the chorus to get a wow moment from an all-ages crowd.
In music and lyrics, “drivers license” displays well-placed vulnerability, and Olivia performs accordingly —it’s competent songwriting, with all the ingredients of a great heartbreak song.
So, besides the “I’m finally allowed to drive” lyrical framework and the supposed story behind the song, what exactly makes the composition of “drivers license” so perfect for a 17-year-old girl like Olivia?
Songwriting-wise, the key “Gen Z” element in “drivers license” is the measure; or, technicalities aside, the (little) space between the lines.
Think, in the chorus, the velocity with which Olivia goes from “And I know we weren’t perfect but I’ve never felt this way for no one” to “And I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay now that I’m gone”. This section has 6 bars, a pop song usually has 8.
Think the measures in the verse too: how Olivia goes from “how could I ever love someone else” to the chorus. Now, think, for example, Celine Dion’s “It’s all coming back to me now”. Or, no need to go too far from Olivia’s time and style really— think more recent and introspective heartbreak songs, like Adele’s “Someone like you” or Taylor Swift’s “Exile”.The space between the last line in these songs’ verses, and the first line of their chorus. A space that does not exist in “drivers license”.
While, in “Someone like you”, Adele gives herself, and the listener, time to mourn that “it isn’t overrrrr” before she recomposes herself to head to the chorus, Olivia leaves no space to breathe — she goes straight to the chorus, which is even more devastating than the verse; and after the first “And I”, she comes with another that is even more devastating; no pounding-piano as 2 extra bars’ filler. It’s crying hiccups in musical notation.
It’s quick, it’s brutal, it’s pure pain — and because of that, it’s perfect. It’s the perfect Gen Z diva heartbreak song.
No weird at all to think of the “quickness” in “drivers license”, even if it’s a slow tempo song, for a song whose momentum is credited to its popularity on TikTok, an app that thrives on seconds-short content and fast-made trends. It’s the language of the times, and Olivia is driving it well, while also bringing back the songwriting layout that, years and decades ago, made other young, talented women like her build music legacies, by opening their hearts to the world.
All comparisons here are made for songwriting analysis purposes, and no intention to depreciate or state a preference for any of the mentioned artists.