Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Drivers License’ and High-School Era Nostalgia

By Isabella Rosete | March 14, 2021

“I just wanted it to… capture the feeling of teenage heartbreak in the suburbs,” Olivia Rodrigo gushes in a clip, taking us behind the scenes of the music video for her smash-hit song ‘Drivers License’. 

The song, a pivotal cultural touchstone in more ways than one – landing Billboard’s top spot on the Hot 100, breaking the global streaming records on Spotify, then breaking them again – is more than just another blip on the (teen) pop radar. The chart-climber has exceeded some listeners’ expectations and let down others’ (see, for example, Hunter Harris’s tweet: “girl what is drivers license […] it’s giving me very youth group crush”). It sparked explainers on the song’s purported love triangle; a wave of reactionvideos; praise from Taylor Swift (one of the pop stars Olivia has cited as a major influence on her work); and multiple trends on TikTok inspired by the song and its characters

But if you’ve heard of the song – or if you’ve been on social media at all the past month and a half – you’ve likely heard of all this; this piece isn’t an explainer. Rather than fleshing out the records Olivia has broken and mapping out the cultural reach of her debut single, I’d like to touch on a more personal note, on this idea of teenage heartbreak in the suburbs. 

I grew up in Southern California, like Olivia, where perhaps the most freeing feeling in high school is going for a drive. Freeing in the way that connects you to the rest of the world, freeing in a way that can feel equally liberating and daunting, freeing in a way that opens you to all these emotions you never would have expected something like a driver’s license could draw out.

The beginning of the song features a sample from the startup sounds of Olivia’s mom’s car, a detail she shared in a TikTok; these sounds transition seamlessly into the opening piano notes of the song, just like getting into your car and immediately plugging in the aux to kick off your drive with your playlist de jour. As she details the excitement of finally getting her driver’s license, a feeling most sixteen-year-olds can relate to, Olivia immediately evokes that feeling of freedom. But as the song goes on, her relationship with driving becomes one not so much associated with freedom, but more with disillusionment: “you said forever, now I drive alone past your street,” she almost whispers. Post-breakup, driving can only remind her of the restrictions of teenage love and of teenagerhood in general. 

For driving teens everywhere, the license can be a means of liberation, but also a frightening reminder of everything tied up in capital-A Adulthood; along with the open-ended opportunity to head out of the house comes the nagging sense that you still have to be home at this time. You can anticipate your license for months, years even, and then when you finally have it, it’s quite different from what you expected.

Lady Bird’s first time driving alone evokes nostalgia for the place she is wishing to get away from in Lady Bird (2017). A24.

Like Olivia, you can finally drive to your boyfriend’s house in the suburbs, but then he breaks up with you for someone who seems to represent the maturity you have yet to achieve. Like Saoirse Ronan’s character in Lady Bird, you might feel really emotional the first time you drive in the place where you grew up, but this newfound freedom of movement – and initial desire to get as far away from home as possible – may ultimately turn out to evoke a nostalgic homesickness when you actually achieve the crest of adulthood that is leaving the nest. This sentiment is echoed towards the ending of Olivia’s music video: as she coos in her breathy falsetto, “I just can’t imagine how you could be so okay, now that I’m gone,” she gets out of the car she’s been driving and abandons it in the center of an empty road to walk instead. For both Olivia and Lady Bird, the freedoms associated with driving carry with them the bittersweet implications of the kinds of heartbreak inscribed in the experience of growing up in – and growing out of – the suburbs. 

The license is symbolic of all these feelings, and it also serves as a reminder of everything you have yet to do as a teenager. What Olivia laments in the song is that her license would have allowed her to more fully experience her first real love, but this also opens her up to her first real heartbreak. Experiencing these things for the first time is terrifying. Sitting in the driver’s seat of your own life for what truly feels like the first time, seeing the expanses of roads in front of you, how do you know which is the right one to take? How do you know when – if – it’s time to move on? 

Olivia draws out these very teenage feelings not solely in her lyricism; with the lushly cinematic music video, directed by filmmaker Matthew Dillon Cohen, the lovelorn seventeen-year-old draws on the sorts of nostalgia surrounding everyday life in suburban Southern California that is one of the primary pleasures of films like 20th Century Women (2016). This vulnerability by way of nostalgia is only reaffirmed by Cohen’s choice to shoot the music video on film, utilizing gorgeous Kodak tungstenfilm stock

The ethereal, nostalgic quality of 20th Century Women (2016). A24.

Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women immediately imbues the minutiae of suburban life with a sort of ethereal quality, as highlighted by the ambient synth sounds of the score; the opening scene flips through collective memories and images that carry in them the experience of the world: dancing, music, movies, animals, the sky. Olivia’s take on image as intertwined with memory skews more individual than collective: in one of the most striking images from the music video, she stands with her back to the camera as iPhone home videos are projected onto the back of her neck. This delicate handling of the memories we try to turn our back on, but stick with us anyway, intimates the all-too-familiar feeling of spending hours scrolling through your camera roll. The careful intimacy evident in these varied approaches serves to render the suburban experience at once universal, and incredibly personal. 

Memories play out on Olivia’s body in the music video for her hit song Drivers License.

Her music video features a handful of drone shots as well as stunning close-ups, with the bulk of the video pinned by Olivia’s side: as she drives alone; in flashback scenes with a boyfriend character; or in scenes where she walks solo down a wide, sunlit street, rows of middle-class homes lining the edges of the frame and mountains fading into the sky behind her. Olivia seems to embody familiarity in these warm sunlit shots, walking without any real goal and feeling at home just the same. 

In the first verses, Olivia’s lyrics are much more specific to her own experience, referencing the older blonde girl she had always worried about. The song builds to the second chorus and cathartic climax, which express more generic sentiments about the pain of losing someone you know so well, and the little things that remind you of them daily. As she sings about the boy who broke her heart, she lets loose in a cul-de-sac full of nicer homes at the top of a hill which overlooks the city lights below. 

Drivers License.

These latter scenes remind me of the sorts of homes many of my friends grew up in, which, like Olivia, I had quite a drive to get to; my friends’ homes became an escape from the tighter neighborhoods where my own family lived, streets like the ones Olivia strolls through in the earlier sunlit scenes. While my working-class streets felt warm, familiar, and intimate, my friends’ homes were full of a different kind of love, one that felt bigger than us, and more worldly. We would sit on my friends’ patios and look out across the alternating palm trees and street lights that dotted the neighborhoods all the way down to the beach. In these moments, it really did feel like our little teenage bubbles were opening up to the rest of the world, stretched out before us. The lonely cul-de-sac Olivia stands in feels much more alienating than the bright sunlight of before, though, as emphasized by her smaller stature in the frame and the colder purple light that saturates the scene. In these contrasting scenes, a sense of the incredibly personal and relatably universal are easily intertwined and given equal importance. 

Perhaps these comparisons with my own life veer on the side of too-specific, but based on the 246,000 comments on the YouTube video, the 1.9 million videos using the song on TikTok, and the countless posts referencing the song on various other social media, it’s clear that Olivia has hit deeply at emotions and experiences that many empathize with. In her song and the accompanying visual, Olivia’s hopeful and honest romanticization of teenage emotions and all their realities has achieved a sort of zenith of suburban high-school era nostalgia, which, like all the contradictions of teenagerhood, finds itself both sublimely specific and cross-culturally resonant.

Isabella Rosete has subjected herself to film school twice – for her bachelors, and now her Masters in film and media studies. She has lots of feelings on politics and power in media, and just as many feelings about love and empathy in stories. You can find her on Twitter and everywhere else @imrosete.

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