“Drivers License:” How Olivia Rodrigo Uses Much More Than Lyrics to Tell Her Story

olivia rodrigo drivers license

We’re delighted to share this excellent analysis of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” by our colleague, Howard Ho. For more great videos, check out Howard’s YouTube channel, and for hundreds more deep-dive music lessons, subscribe to Soundfly.

By Howard Ho

Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License” grabbed me (and the rest of the planet) by the lapels and wouldn’t let go when I first heard it. The musicologist side of me wondered why.

Well, after examining it, I think I’ve figured out why the song has such staying power. Here’s a breakdown of the song from beginning to end, and pretty deep in between, too. In case you haven’t heard the song yet (or have been abducted by alien lifeforms and just been returned to Earth), here it is:

The first thing we hear is a muffled car engine followed by the car door opening and then the car chime, which indicate that keys are in the ignition of the car. All of this says that we are about to go for a ride.

Getting in the car with someone is a pretty intimate act. You’re in close proximity to them, and cars are known for being able to insulate yourself from the sounds of the outside. In fact, if you don’t have a recording booth, some sound engineers actually recommend recording vocals in a car to get a clean-sounding recording!

Howard Ho with mic in car

So being in the car with Olivia at the wheel is already pretty suggestive of where we’re heading.

Then the car chimes turn into a piano ostinato. An ostinato is a repeated musical phrase or rhythm, and this ostinato continues the car chime by repeating a single note. It’s almost as if we’re hearing the car chime but transformed into a musical metaphor, which brings us even closer inside Olivia’s head.

Olivia begins to sing over the ostinato, and she does so in a whisper voice. “Whisperpop” is a term that gets thrown around these days with the likes of Billie Eilish and Selena Gomez — but aside from being a current trend in pop, Olivia’s use of whisperpop in “Drivers License” helps to bring us even closer to her. Just like with a real-life whisper, it’s almost as if she’s got her lips to our ears and is confessing to us her most intimate feelings.

collage of Rolling Stone and Billie Eilish

We quickly find out that Olivia is dealing with a break-up, one where she’s still in love with the guy. Now we typically associate sadness with minor keys, but this song is in a major key (B♭ major). But there are notable moments where the song pulls at our heartstrings. For one thing, there is a rising melody which makes use of the sharp fourth.

The sharp fourth is just a perfect fourth that’s been raised a half step, which is a primary feature of the Lydian mode. Without going into too much technical detail, the Lydian mode (with its sharp fourth scale degree) coincides a lot with music that is about hopes and dreams. There is a striving energy that the sharp fourth gives because it wants to resolve upward.

When Olivia sings it, we hear her longing for her ex.

But then this longing is followed by a series of fast changing chords, which catch us by surprise. Up to that point, the chords had been moving along rather slowly and regularly. This flurry of new chords adds urgency, which complements the melody and lyrics on top of it.

The lyrics tell us “Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.” It’s a statement of disillusionment sung on the notes D, C, and B♭ — which correspond to third, second, and tonic notes of B♭ major. Those notes signal a desire for stability and settling down. The notes, which in C major solfege, would be notated as Mi-Re-Do, sound like the ending of a phrase or a cadence.

Usually notes try to approach the tonic or Do to give finality to the musical line. But here she spins Mi-Re-Do four times in a row with no finality in sight. In other words, the promises of settling down have been revealed as a sham, and she’s now singing those notes ironically, almost desperately.

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What follows should be a chorus. After all, the sharp fourth ascending followed by fast chords and desperate melody sounds like it’s a classic pre-chorus winding us up for a chorus. But instead all we get is a simple piano chord and the lyrics “You said forever now I drive alone past your street.”

The key word is “alone,” which is mirrored in the way the build-up of the pre-chorus just cuts out suddenly and brings us back to solo piano. More importantly, it does not bring in a chorus. Normally, that might feel dissatisfying, but Olivia is simply delaying our sense of gratification. You’ll see what I mean in a moment.

Okay, the next section of the song is another verse and pre-chorus. This section has a larger rhythmic drive, which keeps us moving ahead even though we’re not exactly sure where we’re moving ahead to. The arrangement feels bigger than before, but then when the pre-chorus drops out this time, we’re still back at square one with solo piano. Again, Olivia is highlighting the feeling of being broken up and suddenly alone.

But then the bridge arrives. And it’s a monster bridge, one which feels epic and huge.

SNL screengrab

But why? Well, I would argue that by delaying the chorus again and again, Olivia is actually priming us to hear the bridge as a chorus. In other words, we’ve been waiting for that anthemic chorus to let the floodgates of emotion out and with the bridge, we finally get it.

And the melody of the bridge is one reason why it feels so epic. It’s a play on the old childhood taunting melody, which Wikipedia calls Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah. It’s a universal melody used by kids all over the world. But what’s so great about this is that Olivia actually reharmonizes this universal taunting melody. It’s not the normally open sound of the pentatonic scale, but instead she changes the intervals to fit into a diatonic scale with an edgier half-step.

In other words, I believe we’re hearing the childhood taunting melody all grown up.

The grown up motif is further enhanced by the use of the F word, which isn’t normally heard in music of Disney channel stars. But lyrically, it works perfectly here to emphasize the sudden shift from child-like innocence to adult anguish.

After the bridge, we get another pre-chorus section but she actually changes things up to show a little more maturity. The Mi-Re-Do phrasing is altered so that it breaks down and instead lands on the Ti (or A in the key of B♭ major) and resolves up to the tonic, B♭. This might show that she’s ready to accept this new reality, harsh though it may be. The cycle of desperation has been broken, so to speak.

The final moment of the song though reminds us that there is no respite from this pain. The song ends not on a B♭ chord like we were meant to believe, but instead in the relative minor, G minor. That’s not necessarily unusual for songs that want to emphasize sadness by ending in the minor.

However, Olivia’s G minor final chord is in first inversion, meaning that B♭ (not G) is actually in the bass, further making us feel like it should be a major chord. But it’s not, and that lack of resolution feels all the more devastating.

Gminor chord

Of course, the song can be equally enjoyed without thinking about all the structural and music theory anecdotes. It just works. But if you look under the hood of this blockbuster song, you’ll find that Olivia has a brilliant sense for drama and musical storytelling that keeps this song’s engine running.

Before this year, I didn’t know who Olivia Rodrigo was. Now, I’m a bonafide fan and look forward to hearing what she does next.

Continue learning with hundreds of lessons on songwriting, composing, home recording, electronic production, beat making, and much more. Explore Soundfly’s exciting courses like Modern Pop Vocal ProductionUnlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, and Kimbra: Vocal Creativity, Arranging, and Production.

Howard Ho is a composer, sound designer, and YouTuber who analyzes music on his channel, including over a dozen videos on the musical, Hamilton.

RJD2: From Samples to Songs

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