One Year of “driver’s license”: Olivia Rodrigo’s Not-So-Sour Year of Success

by John Downey '23 on February 10, 2022
A&E Co-Editor

Arts & Entertainment

One Year of “driver’s license”: Olivia Rodrigo’s Not-So-Sour Year of Success

A Look at Her Record-Breaking Debut Album and Rise to Fame

Madison Palmieri ’22

Most 18-year-olds are concerned with navigating the often-challenging transition from teenagerdom to young adulthood. Many prepare to leave home for the first time as they begin college; some may start to forge their way down a particular career path. 

Few, however, capture the growing pains and heartaches, the magic and the madness of this time in a smash hit, record-breaking debut album—unless their name is Olivia Rodrigo.

Rodrigo began her career as an actress, first appearing in guest spots on hit shows like New Girl before earning the opportunity to star on Disney Channel programs like Bizaardvark and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. 

At this time, she began releasing individual songs such as “All I Want,” performed on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. While she received wide acclaim for her vocal talents, she did not begin to secure mainstream musical success until early 2021.

Just over a year ago, on Jan. 4, 2021, Rodrigo took to Instagram to announce the release of her debut single, “driver’s license.” The song became an instant hit, breaking Spotify’s records for most streams of a song in a single week, fastest song to reach 100 million streams, and most one-day streams for a non-holiday song, among others. 

Just as quickly, it became a cultural phenomenon. The single was parodied by everyone from TikTokers to Saturday Night Live, the latter of which invited Rodrigo on the show to perform driver’s license and another single, “good 4 u.”

In May, she released her much-anticipated debut album, sour. Consisting of 11 songs including “driver’s license” and “good 4 u,” the thirty-five-minute record is short but sweet— contrary to what its title might suggest.

The first track, “brutal,” opens with an undeniably catchy hook and features lines that exude pure teen angst, such as, “I’m so sick of 17/Where’s my f*cking teenage dream?” and “I’m not cool and I’m not smart/And I can’t even parallel park.” 

With track two, “traitor,” the album moves from anger to sadness. Rodrigo offers a new take on the cliched teenage love triangle by exploring the idea of emotional cheating, succinctly captured in the clever turn of phrase, “Guess you didn’t cheat/But you’re still a traitor.” This sense of betrayal carries into “driver’s license” as Rodrigo reflects on the bittersweetness of achieving such a milestone without her ex.

“1 step forward, 3 steps back” and “deja vu” are similar not only in theme, but also in inspiration. Lyrically, both continue to explore the frustrations of young love gone wrong. The former describes the struggle of trying to stay friends with a prior flame while the latter finds Rodrigo imagining how an ex might try and reuse the most personal details of their relationship with a new girlfriend. 

This pair of tracks is also similar instrumentally, taking inspiration from the work of one of Rodrigo’s favorite artists: Taylor Swift. The main melody of “1 step forward, 3 steps back” is an interpolation of Swift’s “New Year’s Day” from her 2017 album Reputation and the rhythm of “deja vu”’s bridge is credited to “Cruel Summer” from Swift’s 2019 record Lover.

“good 4 u” returns to the alt-rock angst of “brutal” as Rodrigo bitterly laments how easily her ex has moved on “like a damn sociopath.” “enough for you” and “happier,” in contrast, explore the softer side of heartache. 

On the former, Rodrigo moves from second-guessing herself in lines like, “Stupid, emotional, obsessive little me” and “Maybe I’m just not as interesting/As the girls you had before” to reclaiming power from her ex in lyrics such as, “I don’t want your sympathy/I just want myself back” and “You say I’m never satisfied/But that’s not me, it’s you.”

On the latter, the singer faces the inner struggle of wanting her former flame to find happiness but also wanting them to realize they were happier with her. Notably, however, she purposefully does not disparage her ex’s new girlfriend in the process. While she admits her desire to do so in lyrics like, “And now I’m pickin’ her apart/Like cuttin’ her down will make you miss my wretched heart,” the lines that follow reveal maturity and admiration: “She’s beautiful, she looks kind, she probably gives you butterflies.”

Track eight, “jealousy, jealousy,” moves away from the narrative of teen heartache and forays into another territory all too familiar with to young adults, especially in today’s world. Rodrigo admits to wishing she looked like the girls with “paper-white teeth and perfect bodies” who have “cool vintage clothes and vacation photos” while admitting how absurd it is that “I wanna be you so bad, and I don’t even know you.” For today’s social media-obsessed teens and young adults, the message is all too relatable.

“favorite crime” uses the familiar metaphor of criminal activity to describe a failed relationship, but makes the comparison her own through sharp, vivid phrases like, “One heart broke, four hands bloody” and “Every time a siren sounds/I wonder if you’re around.”

The album’s closing track, “hope ur ok,” moves beyond the album’s “sour” mood to a more bittersweet one. Rodrigo no longer tells her own stories, but rather those of friends from her past with whom she lost contact. With wise-beyond-her-years lines like, “I hope you know how proud I am you were created/With the courage to unlearn all of their hatred” and “Nothing’s forever, nothing’s as good as it seems,” she leaves listeners with the sense that in spite of its struggles, young adulthood is less “brutal” than it may appear.

sour, like its lead single, has broken record upon record. It had the largest opening week for an album by a female artist in Spotify history and is the first debut album with three songs in Billboard’s Hot 100 Top 10. sour also broke the record for most songs on Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart simultaneously with eight tracks.

Since the release of the album, Rodrigo has released music videos for “brutal,” “traitor,” “good 4 u,” and “deja vu,” as well as a performance special, SOUR Prom, in addition to the “driver’s license” music video that premiered before the album’s release. Each video immediately shot to the top of YouTube’s “trending charts” and remained there for quite some time.

If the records Rodrigo has broken and the popularity of her music videos is not enough evidence that the newcomer is something special, one only need look to the nominations and awards she has received.

Last September, she took home the MTV Video Music Awards for Song of the Year, Best New Artist, and Push Performance. She received the iHeartRadio Music Social Star Award and the American Music Award for New Artist of the Year, as well. Perhaps most notable, however, is the fact that the 18-year-old has been nominated for seven Grammy Awards: Record of the Year, Song of the Year, and Best Pop Solo Performance for “driver’s license,” Best New Artist, Best Music Video for “good 4 u,” Album of the Year, and Best Pop Vocal Album.

In the year since “driver’s license” first hit the airwaves, Rodrigo and sour have clearly become a cultural phenomenon. The relatability and wisdom of her music, especially given her youth, suggests that she will enjoy a long and successful career in the years to come.