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Driver’s License: a perfect storm of TikTok and Gen Z

Sometimes, success arrives slowly. It can take years to build a base, move forward, to finally catch fire. But sometimes, it all happens very quickly. Seventeen-year-old Disney darling Olivia Rodrigo is the latest artist to break out with such speed that if you blinked, you may have missed it. Her debut single ‘Driver’s License’ has skyrocketed to the top of charts with the help of some teen drama and TikTok interaction.

Currently, Rodrigo sits at the top of both the US and UK charts for a second consecutive week and has amassed thirty-four million monthly listeners on Spotify. She joins a short list of artists who have hit number one while still a minor, and ‘Driver’s License’ has over two hundred million streams. Notably, it has also been used in over 1.4 million TikTok videos, a marker of the song’s viral success. Solidifying the single as an early contender for song of the year, it is a testament to the powers of the online app.

TikTok allows for the continued looping of a song’s most ear catching moments, so Rodrigo’s chorus belt of the angrily dramatic “I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me” is a feature on even the most niche For You pages. The song itself is well represented in that line, all teen heartbreak and swelling vocals and even a very non-Disney swear. Indebted to the suburban dreamscapes and arrowed lyrics of of Lorde and Taylor Swift, the track details the loss of a boy to “that blonde girl,” and the narrator’s sadness at having to “drive alone” after passing her driving test. Apparently, the song references Rodrigo’s real-life Disney co-star, Joshua T. Basset, and fellow Disney alum Sabrina Carpenter, adding a delicious layer of intrigue to an already solid song.

Drama pays, and can pay well, and is always more intriguing when it turns out to be somewhat true. Carpenter has virtually confirmed the conflict with her release of ‘Skin’, a slightly confusing retaliation track, to a mixed response. As ‘Driver’s License’ becomes more and more bound to its own spectacle, even accidental listeners become invested in its intrigue, investigating the lives of people they have never heard of before. This has catapulted the song into the talking point of Hollywood, which has translated into streams.

This is all bread and butter to TikTok, which can play a song and discuss its baggage simultaneously. The platform’s most successful contributors, and Gen-Z’s biggest stars, often fall in the 15-20 category, young enough for their viewers to relate, but pretty enough to be a lofty escape. Rodrigo is the ideal, with a lucky advantage of having her foot firmly in the door of traditional Hollywood. Importantly, Rodrigo is not a TikTok-er, but her catapulting success has certainly risen from the site, or at least its most devoted base. She is able to float in the comfortable space of being the hot new thing, in which she can simply sit back and watch while the crowds below discuss how she got there.

Notably, Rodrigo is not signed to Disney’s record label, but to Interscope Records, a subsection of Universal Music Group. In her distance from the kid-friendly manner of Disney, she is able to concoct an identity separate to any characters she is attached to. To look at practically any other former Disney child star or equivalent is to see a hefty contract signed fairly young, followed by a gradual breakaway from a constricting formulated image (see: Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, etc.). Rodrigo has skipped that step, using her Disney advantage as fuel for a song rather than the foundation for her image.

The way media is consumed is starkly different to fifteen years ago, when Cyrus was still bound to a sweet-country-girl act and Vanessa Hudgens – Rodrigo’s High School Musical predecessor – had to formally apologise after lingerie photos were illegally leaked. Nowadays, even Disney stars don’t have to bend to same kind of coercive control, which explains Rodrigo’s ability to assert that she “still fucking loves you, babe.” Rodrigo, 1, Disney, 0.

Music has had to bend the way it works in the last decade, particularly through Covid-19. Suddenly, late-night slots on Jimmy Fallon weren’t possible anymore. Then, TikTok exploded, and bedroom pop and dusky four-track EPs began littering Spotify homepages. Users aren’t as interested in Lady Gaga’s long-winded Chromatica roll out as they are in Ritt Momney’s muted, hazy cover of Corinne Bailey Bay’s 2006 smash hit ‘Put Your Records On’: proven to be the perfect backing track to over two million TikTok videos.

The song’s success has pushed Momney into a strange parallel world of success, where many artists who strike gold on TikTok reside, far from any household notoriety but amassing millions of streams.
For these kinds of artists, a break into any sort of conventional success has proved elusive. There is a tangible difference between TikTok loops and chart occupation, which can make the app a fickle friend. Trends come and fade with a briefness you can only expect from an app dedicated to 15-second videos.

Rodrigo’s song evades this, mainly because its popularity on the app was so instantaneous that it garnered phenomenal speed very quickly. TikTok success happened in real time, as the song became massive on both the app and the charts almost in unison. The track kept breaking its own record for most single-day streams as listeners began to unpick its meaning and its cosmic success simultaneously. Currently, it sits atop Spotify’s ‘Top Hits’ playlist, as well ‘Viral Hits’, defined as both a chart-topper and a song of social media.

The map from release to domination is fuzzy: it’s hard to track exactly what the catalyst was for such roaring success. The drama was discussed on TikTok, which played the song, which translated to streams, which pushed the song higher on playlists, which made more people invested in the drama. One could go in circles for hours. What is clear is how the natural cycle of TikTok worked at hyper speed in this case, and the gossip mills churned faster than ever, causing waves in the mainstream and an investment in some hot gossip of which the world has been deprived through much of the pandemic. Teen drama! It’s all so deliciously entrancing.

The song’s success stems from a viral type of notability that is hard to manufacture. Most recently, Jennifer Lopez’s attempt to create a TikTok trend to reignite interest in an old song crashed and burned. Trends, challenges, dances: they occur naturally, often created organically and earnestly by a teenager in her bedroom. J.Lo may be a long-surviving veteran, but she can’t touch what isn’t made for her. Rodrigo, just shy of eighteen, speaks the language of Gen-Z, her initial TikTok promoting ‘Driver’s License’ simply an expression of joy, rather than an appeal for virality.

To date, the fairly basic video has amassed 40 million views. If Gen Z is hard for artists to crack, it is because their language is so innate, their viral interests so sporadic. Sea shanties, for example, recently caught fire on the site, sung by mid thirties Scotsmen. Instigator Nathan Evans, a postman from Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, has now signed a record deal and currently sits atop the UK iTunes chart with his rendition of the ancient whaling song ‘Wellerman’. The movements of TikTok are as bizarre as they are lucrative, as Gen Z displays its interest, fleeting though it may be, in the offbeat and unexpected.
Obviously, a swelling pop ballad cracking the top ten is no unconquered feat. But its viral skyrocket to success makes it an outlier, moving a fairly unknown, if connected, teenager into the heart of mainstream through the power of online intrigue. Spotify executives have called it “lightning in a bottle,” the streams pulled in unlike anything they have seen before. That said, there is also a logic to the sudden explosion of Rodrigo’s career.

Gen Z runs a segment of the internet so influential it can make worldwide stars of its creators. TikTok and its users live both at the heart of and on the fringes of culture, creating and resurrecting trends and hit songs at lightspeed, many flying beneath the radar of the general population. It was only a matter of time before their own starlet would emerge, a new-age kind of popstar.

image: Dfree via: Shutterstock