“Driver’s License” by Olivia Rodrigo

For the first month or so after this song’s release, it was such a massive hit on the charts (apparently being more than twice as big as its closest runner-up in terms of chart criteria) that it seemed to baffle some people as to…well, why? It’s a very fine song, but there were plenty of songs just as good or better in the past year that didn’t have this kind of runaway success. It isn’t any kind of obvious game-changing innovation, either…indeed, at first glance it doesn’t seem all that unique.

Some credit the song’s popularity to the celebrity love triangle that supposedly existed at one point between Rodrigo, her TV co-star Joshua Bassett, and Pop seminame Sabrina Carpenter, and that might or might not have been the intended subject of the song. But frankly, when you’re as talented as Olivia Rodrigo and you’re in a songwriting feud with fifth-rate talents like Bassett and Carpenter, the result is less a “feud” and more a couple of music-business bottomfeeders trying to piggyback off any perceived association with your big hit.

The real reason this song blew up so big is subtler and more complicated. You see, the prevailing style of Pop music these days is a particular brand of sophisticated, atmospheric, lyrically complex quasi-Indie Pop that was pioneered by Lana Del Rey and Lorde and propagated with such acts as Halsey and (in a more R&B-influenced variant) H.E.R. Even Taylor Swift has adopted this style for her last two albums of new material.

The only problem is that while this style has become the prevailing brand of Pop music for the last eight years, it is by its nature too intellectual and complex for quite a bit of the Pop music market, particularly the youth market. Olivia Rodrigo’s great achievement was to distill that style into a simple enough form that the teen and preteen market could comprehend it. In other words, Rodrigo is basically the Jewel to the above-mentioned artists’ Tori Amos.

This isn’t the first time that strategy has been tried, of course, but unlike, to quote one infamous example, Daya, Rodrigo managed to do it while still maintaining enough of the genre’s introspection and sensitivity to retain its fundamental appeal. And since we haven’t had a song with that winning combination since Lorde released “Royals” back in late 2013, it’s hardly surprising that it took off the way it did.

Verdict: Obviously quite a bit of this song’s popularity is the result of sheer serendipity, but it really is a lovely and touching song in its own right, so I’m certainly not complaining.

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