Olivia Rodrigo: The Rise of Disney’s Gen Z Music Superstar

Due in part to Olivia Rodrigo’s angelic vocal talent, but also her achingly raw lyricism, Driver’s License has taken the internet and industry by storm since its January release. Delving beneath the story of a devastating love triangle told from the perspective of the heartbroken girl left to deal with the fallout, Hannah Aldred unpicks the story that may or may not have inspired the track, and how it came to be one of TikTok’s most popular sounds.

If you haven’t heard Driver’s License by seventeen-year-old Olivia Rodrigo, you’ve clearly been living under a rock since its release in January. Her powerful yet vulnerable ballad takes listeners on a journey, with Rodrigo describing how such a momentous celebration (gaining her driver’s license) has been diminished by the memories of her ex-lover, supposedly Joshua Bassett.

The pair co-starred on Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, playing a young couple during their high school experience. Watchers loved the pair on their screens, so when word got out that they were not just a television romance, Bassett and Rodrigo had a strong following that supported their relationship. Rodrigo’s roles in Disney shows (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series and Bizaardvark) meant that she had already gathered the support of pre-teens who had enjoyed her on their screens. So, when they heard Driver’s License and all its rawness, their support for her only increased, brought closer to understanding their favourite actress and her life, including heartache.

“Is Rodrigo a new generation’s pop star? Most definitely.”

The song itself feels nostalgic, as Rodrigo charms listeners with her storytelling, over a minimalistic instrumental, linking road signs and streets to her pain of missing her ex. The track is accented by car noises, including her own seatbelt sound – a sound that was once so simple but is now so agonizing. The act of driving, and its innocence, has now become so much deeper for Rodrigo. She can no longer appreciate it, because of who it reminds her of.

There is more to the global appeal of Driver’s License than just the song itself. Spurred on by the whispers surrounding its release, social media users became detectives: investigating her lyrics, pulling together different clippings of Rodrigo and Bassett’s timeline as lovers, connecting their story to that of the song. TikTok users truly pushed Driver’s License, with the song becoming one of the most popular sounds on the app – much of the userbase are young and would have seen Rodrigo on television.

Whilst Rodrigo herself has never confirmed who her first single is aimed at, TikTok users decoded the lyrics and all arrows pointed to Bassett – who helped to teach her to drive – as the subject of the song. The lyrics also hint at Bassett’s new lover – “that blonde girl who always made me doubt.” This girl supposedly is Sabrina Carpenter, who has been spotted in public with Bassett multiple times. TikTok users soon uncovered that Bassett had asked Rodrigo to wait until she turned eighteen, however in that time, he had already moved on, betraying Rodrigo’s trust.

Of course, this is all speculation, and neither Rodrigo nor Bassett have confirmed nor denied the rumours circulating online, but that is precisely what makes Driver’s License so captivating. No one truly knows for certain what occurred between the pair, but the speculation makes listeners feel somewhat involved in attempting to understand the meaning of Rodrigo’s ballad. It is not clear cut, and rumours make the original meaning difficult to assume for sure, but this means listeners can formulate their own opinion on the drama, as well as enjoying the song as a whole.

‘The rawness and emotion packed within Rodrigo’s lyrics have managed to grip listeners the world over.’

Is Rodrigo a new generation’s pop star? Most definitely. Her debut single broke a string of records, being certified double platinum already, and reaching the number one spot in a number of countries, some of which for a number of weeks. The rawness and emotion packed within her lyrics have managed to grip listeners the world over and set the stage for a glittering career. If Rodrigo has achieved this much commercial success at her debut at seventeen, it is only up from here.

Her unprecedented rise has certainly been aided by social media, with TikTok users helping steer Drivers License to 130 million streams in the first week after its release. Viral videos using her sound meant that fans potentially heard the song online before actually listening to it, and were directed from the app to explore Rodrigo’s ballad further. For this new generation of pop stars, social media is a vital platform to utilize and promote their works. Users sharing videos about artists and their tracks have made it easier than ever for stars to break into the industry and crafted a brand new route to fame, which Rodrigo embraced perfectly with Driver’s License. This, as well as the ballad’s emotional backstory, likely aided the immense success of the single.

Rodrigo is the face of 2021 pop music so far and is certainly one to watch in the coming months as a new generation of pop stars emerge.

Written by: Hannah Aldred

Edited by: Louise Dugan

Featured image courtesy of Olivia Rodrigo via Facebook.