How does a relatively unknown popstar break the Spotify record for most streams of a single in one week?
17-year-old Olivia Rodrigo made waves in the music industry with the recent release of her record-breaking single “drivers license.” A melodramatic pop ballad about the extreme emotions of high school heartbreak, “drivers license” is evocative of Taylor Swift’s work, as it details the real events of the artist’s life. While the song has all of the makings of a hit content-wise, “drivers license” owes its unprecedented success to its viral use on TikTok. The app has given the song and the drama behind it new weight in the public eye.
Much of the online discussion around “drivers license” isn’t about the song, specifically, but rather the highly publicized love triangle that inspired the song. Although the drama is unconfirmed by any of the celebrities involved, this has not stopped internet users from viral speculation. Disney Star Olivia Rodrigo was rumored to have begun an on-set romance with her 20-year-old costar Joshua Bassett in 2019. Bassett proceeded to teach Olivia how to drive before she got her license at age 16, hence the song’s title.
My first interaction with the song was when I came across a TikTok video giving an explanation of the love triangle. Popular TikToker @Spencewuah made a video about the drama, and the comments section of his TikTok illustrates the widespread obsession over the song, with comments such as: “it’s our breakup,” “it’s a global breakup,” and “she made me feel a heartbreak I never had.”
Within a day of its release, “drivers license” was all over TikTok. From dance TikTokers to comedians, everyone wanted in on the fun.
Much of the social media gossip stems from the line “You’re probably with that blonde girl, who always made me doubt.” Here Rodrigo appears to reference Sabrina Carpenter, a fellow Disney star. Carpenter got her start as a lead on Disney’s Girl Meets World, and Joshua Bassett, Rodrigo’s alleged ex-boyfriend, allegedly left Rodrigo for her.
Carpenter and Bassett never explicitly commented on their involvement in the song but cashed in on the media frenzy in notably conspicuous ways. On Jan. 28, Joshua Bassett released “Only a Matter of Time,” a scathing acoustic song many believe condemns Rodrigo for lying. He writes, “time to tell the world that you’ve been lying on my name,” and “you twisted your words like a knife.”
Similarly, Carpenter released a single “Skin” on Jan. 22 that has received attention for its line “maybe blonde was the only rhyme.” Audiences on TikTok believe the line references Olivia’s original lyric, “and you’re probably with that blonde girl, who always made me doubt.” The “Skin” music video features a vintage car similar to the one in Rodrigo’s music video, as she sings the line “don’t drive yourself insane.” “Skin” is already Sabrina Carpenter’s most streamed song and is achieving relative acclaim thanks to the TikTok buzz. Even if “Skin” is not the catchiest song Carpenter has ever produced, the fact that the celebrity drama was already publicized on TikTok launched the track to the top of the charts. The app itself is allowing audiences to influence media, instead of merely commentating on the content celebrities produce.
From Justin Timberlake writing “Cry Me A River” after breaking up with Britney Spears to Taylor Swift penning “Dear John” about John Mayer, this is certainly not the first time that a single has profited from celebrity teen drama. TikTok is not only filling the MTV, J-14, and Tiger Beat void but is also bringing fans into the newsmaking process.
Rodrigo, Carpenter and Bassett’s hit songs speak to the changing landscape of music marketing. The nature of the TikTok algorithm means fans don’t just read about the drama but are also able to contribute to the speculation themselves. Tastemaking power used to be in the hands of media executives and record labels, but the success of “drivers license” demonstrates the potential for widespread audiences to dictate hits.