‘Drivers license’ sort of popped out of nowhere. The gorgeous power ballad from 17-year-old Disney star Olivia Rodrigo has quickly become the centre of the internet’s attention; its candid exploration of heartache relating to millions around the world. But for all its pain, vulnerability and extreme aesthetic, the debut track (which, by the way, continues to break multiple records) is most representative of one of the biggest forces that’s lived within pop music for years: the obsession with car culture.
At its core, ‘drivers license’ isn’t just a break-up song. Instead, it represents an adolescent dream that revolves around getting your license and learning to drive. For years, a car has been the teenager’s greatest escape; an object that doesn’t just get you from A to B but becomes a haven for freedom, lust, and just simply growing up. And Rodrigo shows this well, perfectly crafting a track that visualises the exquisite pain of driving around suburbia without the person you love in your passenger seat. “I got my driver’s license last week, just like we always talked about”, she sings, “… But today I drove through the suburbs crying ’cause you weren’t around.”
It’s all a fantastic display of teen melodrama, but that’s exactly why it works. And that’s exactly why pop loves it so. Whether it’s a song about or for driving, there’s a spark there that draws you in every single time. We love this story and we’ll continue to live in it forever, basking in our adolescent romances as we cruise the highway and feel as though we’re unstoppable. It could come down to liminality, the idea that you haven’t yet stepped into your next stage but you’ve left your previous stage at the same time. A transitioning. We love driving because of its ambiguity, and driving around with the one you love somehow holds far more excitement than any other place you both could be. It’s why as soon as you hear a song about cars, you’re instantly hit with that nostalgic feeling.
But while an excellent effort, Rodrigo’s attempt is certainly nothing new. It might come as a shock that a debut track from a heartbroken teen is taking over the world, but Rodrigo has worked from the blueprints laid by the pop queens who’ve stood before her. Her atmospheric buzz, piano melancholy and sad-pop heartbreak aren’t the only things she’s looked to the likes of Lorde, Lana Del Rey, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift for, but their love for sewing together the metaphor of love and cars too. Swift’s 2018 hit ‘Getaway Car’ paints a picture of a doomed relationship with a Bonnie and Clyde type romance and a speeding car, Del Rey’s 2017 ‘White Mustang’ compares the fast car to a wild romance and uncontrollable lust, Lorde’s 2017 ‘Green Light’ plays with not only the idea of a green traffic light but features the star driving around the city at night in the music video and even Eilish’s video for 2020’s ‘everything i wanted’ sees the star (and her collaborator and brother Finneas) driving around late at night and steering it into the ocean.
And it doesn’t just stop there. Since the birth of hot rod rock and Californian cruise music in the 1950s and ‘60s, cars have been a staple muse for pop music. Whether its tracks about hitting the road, a cinematic love story featuring one, or simply just chucking one in the music video, pop loves to shine a light on its first love. Time after time, we’ve heard our favourite artists reaching to the car aesthetic for themes of escape, love, lust and exhilaration; and we relate to it not only because we too have driven in a car at least once in our lifetime, but because it tugs on our emotions.
So, what’s it all really about then? While it could be argued that artists just really like cars (think Hip Hop braggadocio), it again comes back to the unspoken aesthetic behind them. Since officially the 1960s, cars have represented adolescence in a way that not many other things have; and while a lot has happened to shift the teen narrative in the modern age (smartphones, for one), a good old drive just never seems to go out of style. The concept of ‘tunnel songs’ and ‘car songs’ is one that fills up playlists and makes a night out with friends so much better, and it’s become such a genre of its own that artists now try and create the perfect track to drive along to. LANY frontman Paul Jason Klein told us in a recent interview the feeling of driving around in your car playing your own music as loud as you want played a part in the making their album mama’s boy.
The car is a belief that we cling to, purely for its greater existence. In Rodrigo’s case, getting her license didn’t just mean learning to drive and owning her first car, it meant adding another element of celebration to her adolescent love. And when the love suddenly left and she still went and got her license, the excitement just wasn’t the same. It’s an unmatched feeling sitting in a car with someone you love. Like many liminal spaces, the car strips away all reality and snuggles us with a feeling that tricks us into thinking it’ll last forever. And of course we’re addicted to that transitional period, how could we not be? After all, there is no end when driving unless you choose to stop.
For pop music, a genre that’s sole existence is arguably to reflect the teen, it makes sense that a feeling as magical as driving would be its gravitational pull. Whether it’s beachside cruising or watching the streetlights blur past, we love to sit in a car and watch the world slow down for a while. And the experience is all the more exciting when we’re sharing it with someone we admire. Because sure, as we get older cars might lose their enchantment, but for a teen who’s only beginning their driving journey the car is a beacon of hope. Hope that their head-over-heels love is forever, hope that they can escape to wherever they wish, and hope that their euphoria will never end. But it does, of course it does; because liminal spaces, if anything, are only fleeting. But at least we’ve got some bangers to sing along to the first time we hit the road alone.