January 2021 was quite a time, wasn’t it? Covid cases were raging and causing lockdowns, vaccines were just starting to be distributed, and everyone was reeling from a year that felt like it was ripped out of a history book. In my eyes, there’s only one song that seems to soundtrack what life was like then.
Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license” was inescapable in 2021. Whether you were scrolling on TikTok, watching SNL, stumbling across a sad or retrospective commercial, or listening to any radio station, you couldn’t go a day without hearing it somewhere at some point. The fact that Google themselves used the instrumental for their annual “the year in search” commercial should explain why this song has cultural significance.
What makes the storm around “drivers license” so poignant is the fact that its musical brilliance hit a nerve: both individually AND collectively. And because of that, it deserves to be Song of the Year at the Grammys.
Let’s start by talking about how expertly crafted this song is. “drivers license” is the type of song that leads with a vivid feeling and you can hear it. Every musical choice in this song paints a picture of sadness, longing, and ultimately, grief, while still painting the picture of going on a drive for a good cry.
When I saw the NY Times “Diary of a Song” video, I was in awe to hear that Olivia and her producer Dan Nigro actually sampled the beep of Olivia’s mom’s car as she put her keys in the ignition for the intro (and later at the end of the second verse). What makes the use of that so genius is that the piano in the verses takes over the tone of that beep, creating this driving energy in the song as Olivia delicately sings the verses.
The dynamics of Olivia’s voice in this song are honestly a marvel. Her voice goes from delicate to strong while maintaining an ethereal yet very human quality. It’s like she’s leading you through whatever sadness you might be feeling as you listen through the dynamics. In the first verse, she sings like she’s sighing and fighting tears as she gets to the first chorus, like she realizes how much sadness she’s carrying. The first chorus sounds like she’s pleading with herself as much as the “you” she’s singing about. The second verse shows her seeming to return to that delicate voice with a sureness, only to really start to let loose in the second chorus. It’s like she’s so close to breaking…but she goes back to a delicate tone.
Now before I talk about the iconic bridge, I have to talk about “the moment before.” Look, I studied theatre in high school and I’m a HUGE fan of “the moment before” because it gives the actual moment so much more weight. Before Olivia gets to the bridge, she delicately sings “‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street.” It’s like something stopped her in her tracks to say that so tenderly. Maybe she noticed a certain stop sign or hit a red light on her drive because the way the bass drops before the bridge is the moment she breaks in the song.
I get chills every time that bridge drops. The way her vocals are layered almost makes it feel like every memory of the past she sings about are playing at once. That’s the moment I feel every heartache I’ve gone through in my life thus far and I low key hate that this song hits me like that every time I really listen to it. But I’m sure as hell glad I’m not alone in that (see part of the SNL skit below lol). This bridge is heartbreaking and cathartic because by the time she gets to the last chorus, she’s back to the delicate singing as she comes to terms with her heartbreak. She ends the song on an uncertain note. It’s like she’s gotten clarity on how she’s feeling about the situation but now she has to face the uncertainty of her healing process. It’s really powerfully written, performed, and produced.
The Personal Connection
Last weekend I checked into a hotel in San Diego and actually had a weird moment with this song. The song started playing in the lonely lobby as I checked in at 10pm on a Thursday. Before I could really soak in the moment, the front desk lady asked for an ID and I ended up handing over my drivers license to the front desk as Olivia sang that first line. It was a really weirdly cinematic moment. It would’ve been more dramatic if I had actually been sad about something.
Everyone has had their own story of grief that “drivers license” speaks to. Personally, I avoided this song for as long as I could because I was in a healing process from a relationship that came to an end. But when I finally listened to it in full months later, the memories of every boy I ever thought of romantically came rushing in, as if they were fresh wounds.
Listening to this song then made me feel like I had spent the last 25 years of my life feigning strength, only to be knocked on my face by an 18-year-old’s debut single. Heck, even now a year later, this song still makes me access that sadness even though I feel really happy these days. If a song profoundly evokes memories like THAT, then you gotta believe it’s a special song.
In addition to feeling super called out in that respect, Olivia’s song and her subsequent album inspired me to write songs again. Seeing her be so vulnerable made me remember the power of writing and the beauty of sharing the intimate details of my life through song. Hearing her music reminded me that I could do that too. And I’m SURE there are plenty other people and young kids feeling inspired by what Olivia’s done.
The Collective Connection
Now, there’s a deeper reason as to why I think it should be Song of the Year. “drivers license” hit so many people because it gave voice to the grief of the pandemic. We’ve collectively experienced so much pain for two full years. Exactly two full years this next week and heading to a third. We’ve become a people well acquainted with grief, looking for a way to cry out.
Whether we’ve lost loved ones, time, opportunities, hope, or something else, our hearts are heavier than they were at the beginning of 2020. Life has continued to move forward even after our losses, making it feel impossible to catch up to it. As much as others have tried to convince us that we’ll go “back to normal” many different times in the last couple years, “normal” as we knew it before the pandemic will never return. Just like Olivia, we’re grieving the past and we need space to come to a place of understanding with it.
“drivers license” helps tap into the honest processing of it all because it doesn’t hold back in its expression of pain. I think a lot of people listened to this song throughout 2021 because they were grieving all of the pain that the pandemic brought. They were grieving the “places we used to go to” and the overall joy that they’d felt before life turned into a historic moment. Idk, the fact that an 18-year-old’s debut single was able to unite so many different people like that is something so powerful.
What It Says About 2021 As a Whole
2021, like “drivers license” itself, ended on an uncertain note. Was it amazing to see all that medical professionals learned about Covid within a year? Yeah! Was it a beautiful thing that so many friends and family were able to reunite with protection for a taste of normalcy? Of course! But it was bittersweet to have these moments of joy when we were still surrounded by so much death and grief. I’ll never forget reading stories of people explaining how they were living their lives in honor of their loved ones who passed from Covid.
Coming up on the anniversary of when the world shut down, “drivers license” feels like a representation of the midway point in our memories between the start of the pandemic and now. It’s hard to sit with and hard to tell if we’re collectively headed for a brighter time. The optimist in me wants to believe things will improve, but I don’t know. I mean, a literal war started in the last few weeks. It’s hard to be grieving and not even see the light. But if anything, we have to appreciate the present as it is because it will be a memory one day.
Whether or not this song actually ends up winning the Grammy for Song of the Year, I think the poignant grief behind “drivers license” will soundtrack what it was like being in the mid-pandemic world of 2021 for the rest of my life.