Quick Take: Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Driver’s License’ showcases TikTok’s explosive influence in music industry

Screenshot+from+Olivia+Rodrigo%27s+Instagram+showing+her+celebrating+the+release+of+%22Driver%27s+License.%22

Screenshot from Olivia Rodrigo’s Instagram showing her celebrating the release of “Driver’s License.”

by Ryan Hardison, Senior Staff Writer

Amassing a loyal fanbase is one of the biggest hurdles standing between musicians and achieving commercial success, but at least it’s getting easier. Contemporary technology and growing access to vast demographics of listeners are creating wider avenues for musicians to market themselves and inspire fans.

Less than two decades ago, it was routine for artists to gain exposure for their newest releases and obtain a large following on shows like BET’s 106 & Park and MTV’s Total Request Live. 

These shows aired the day’s most requested music videos in a countdown style format and were crucial for promoting new songs to teens. 

At the height of this era, a song’s long-standing request on any of these shows would practically guarantee a long shelf life on the Billboard charts and a permanent place in the American populace culture. Not so much anymore. 

So what’s changed?

As content creation continues to expand, music promotion has gone right along with it, shifting towards a more visual form and advertising to people with shorter attention spans. Aligning with this younger and immensely tech-savvy audience, the next great determinator for hit songs on the pop charts is TikTok.

As one of the most popular apps in the world, TikTok maintains a commanding presence, but its premise is not unique. Similar apps like Musical.ly and Triller served as mildly well-known predecessors, but neither has been nearly as addictive or as influential. Even with a thinly veiled threat from former president Donald Trump to pursue legal action against TikTok, it has gained a larger following and solidified its place as the preeminent video-sharing app.

The infamous and often controversial app has over 1 billion users as of January 2021 and attracts burgeoning media users along with a dedicated teenage audience. This includes young pop listeners and musical “stan” communities which devote lots of time to streaming and supporting their favorite artists. 

Unlike previous platforms of its kind, there seems to be a clear avenue to fame that anyone can achieve on TikTok, with short, appealing snippets that appeal to a variety of interests. When it comes to music specifically, TikTok allows artists of all sizes to achieve a viral moment, as most of the popularly used sounds on the app come from unknown or lesser-known artists.

The latest TikTok success story is “Driver’s License,” an emotional recollection of adolescent lost love by 17-year old singer and actress Olivia Rodrigo. Rodrigo is known for her starring role as Nini in the Disney + original series  “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” and like Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus before her, she seems destined to be Disney’s next crossover pop star.

Multi-platinum hit songs like “Old Town Road,” “Say So” and “Roxanne” are a few other examples of music ascending to Billboard success because of TikTok’s influence, but the speed at which “Driver’s License” reached number one on the charts through TikTok is something previously unthinkable.

A perfect storm of promotion and gossip made it an easy road to the top of the Billboard charts for “Driver’s License.” Through it’s defining qualities, it has proven to be the quintessential TikTok song.

One essential element of a song’s popularity on TikTok is the snippet used for the video, which can be made shorter than a second or up to a minute long. Anything from a catchy chorus to a funny lyric or a creative remix can become a trend if it draws enough attention.

For “Driver’s License,” the shining moment is the resounding bridge that calls back to the driving themed references Rodrigo established earlier in the song. Still sullen about her past heartbreak and drifting through the streets with her newly earned driver’s license, Rodrigo’s euphoric revelation is bursting with emotion.

 

@kyle_saccosir i can explain .. #fyp♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Since premiering on January 8, over 1.2 million videos have been made on TikTok promoting “Driver’s License” including ones from acclaimed creators like Charli D’Amelio and Austin Sprinz. Rodrigo’s vulnerable debut has drawn quick comparisons to her musical hero Taylor Swift, and she’s earned a lot of adoration from TikTok users for openly singing about her insecurities.

 

@charlidamelio♬ drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

When considering the impressive fan reaction, it’s important to note how the main driving force behind the song’s surge is a very intriguing rumor.

Soon after the song’s release, a detailed TikTok fan theory emerged claiming the former love Rodrigo sang about is her “High School Musical” co-star Joshua Bassett. In-depth lyrical analysis of the song from pre-teens nationwide has lit social media ablaze, the integral piece of evidence for the theory being the song’s reference to a “blonde girl” rumored to be “Girl Meets World” actress Sabrina Carpenter, the current girlfriend of Basset.  

But as if this Disney drama wasn’t sensational enough already, Carpenter released her dubious new single “Skin,” on Friday, igniting further rumors about the suspected love triangle. Many fans strongly believe it’s a direct response to “Driver’s License” and is Carpenter’s defense of the backlash she’s been receiving recently.

Although Carpenter has since denied the reported feud in a recent Billboard interview, fans may not choose to believe what Carpenter has to say due to the various suspected allusions to Rodrigo in “Skin.” But even if this is the end of their alleged rivalry, both artists have much to gain from their increased profile.

Besides becoming the most prominent song of the year so far on TikTok, “Driver’s License” has accomplished multiple other feats. 

According to the New York Times, Rodrigo’s debut single broke the Spotify single-day global streaming record for a non-holiday song. Also, “Driver’s License” became only the 21st song ever to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and stay there for a second consecutive week. 

Rodrigo’s quick success sets a clear precursor to the rest of the industry and poses a changing of the guard in terms of musical promotion. Music videos will continue to rack up millions of views and advertise musicians’ creative touch, but there’s no doubt there’ll be many future songs following the “Driver’s License” formula and cementing TikTok’s substantial place in the music industry.  

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