Unless you’ve been doing something other than sitting in the house, you’re likely aware of singer-songwriter Olivia Rodrigo’s hit single, “Drivers License.” The 17-year-old — who rose to fame for her role in Disney+’s mouthful of a show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series — released the song at the top of 2021 after months of teasing. Soon after, it made Spotify history as the service’s most-streamed song in 24 hours, and as of press time, it has held the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for four weeks.
The emotional, piano-heavy pop ballad follows a teen with a fresh driver’s license riding around aiming to forget a lost love. Whether you’re in the newcomer’s target demographic or have experienced the pain of teen heartbreak, Rodrigo’s song hits home in one way or another. Yet outside of “Drivers License” being well-liked and genuinely well-constructed, rumors have been swirling about its possible real-life inspiration.
In what feels like a modern version of the Disney love triangle of 2004, “Drivers License” is said to be inspired by Rodrigo’s experience with her ex and co-star Joshua Bassett. Social media claims that the “blonde” mentioned in the song is Bassett’s alleged new flame, fellow Disney girl Sabrina Carpenter. (Although “Drivers License” reportedly referenced a “brunette” in its early stages.) Shortly after the release of Rodrigo’s song, Bassett and Carpenter released songs of their own, “Lie, Lie, Lie,” and “Skin.” Both have lyrics seemingly alluding to “Drivers License,” with “Skin” featuring the particularly-pointed line “Maybe you didn’t mean it, maybe ‘blonde’ was the only rhyme.” (Carpenter says the lyrics are about several personal affairs.)
Whether Rodrigo’s hit is about the supposed situation or not, she’s certainly made her mark as a songwriter and storyteller. Artists have used their experiences with pain and heartache to write and sell songs for decades, and while real-life drama doesn’t always make songs more popular, it definitely keeps listeners hanging on, especially if it’s a work of art.
Carly Simon says her 1971 hit “You’re So Vain” is about three ex-lovers; while two have never been outed, Simon admits actor Warren Beatty is the subject of the second verse. Fleetwood Mac’s iconic 1977 album Rumours largely deals with Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks’ breakup, especially in “Go Your Own Way” and “Dreams.” Alanis Morrisette’s Grammy-winning breakup anthem, 1995’s “You Oughta Know,” is widely believed to be about her ex-boyfriend, Full House star Dave Coulier. (However, Morissette said in 2020 that the song is a “revenge fantasy.”)
Public interest propels breakup songs like “Drivers License” to new heights. Our sheer preoccupation with celebrity pushes certain heartbreak hits further than others, and depending on the status of the pop star — especially in the 21st century — a breakup song may become must-listen content in order to get “clues” and draw conclusions.
Justin Timberlake’s incessantly rude comments about Britney Spears after their split in 2002 bolstered interest in his debut solo single “Cry Me A River.” Beyoncé references Jay-Z’s infidelity throughout her 2016 opus Lemonade, which the rapper owned up to on his 2017 album, 4:44. Olivia Rodrigo’s idol Taylor Swift has released thinly-veiled tunes about headline-making relationships throughout her career, such as “Forever And Always” (likely about Joe Jonas) and “Dear John” (presumably about John Mayer, who called it “humiliating” and “cheap-songwriting”). All songs and projects faired extremely well both commercially and critically, proving that good music and nosiness are a winning combo.
It’s also important to note that, much like breakups themselves, these songs don’t have to be petty or shady to sell. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” turns heartache into a disco jam about resilience. The nuanced lyrics in Outkast’s “Ms. Jackson” are overshadowed by the song’s production and duo’s vocal delivery, which make you forget it’s about a breakup. The simplicity of Adele’s reflective “Someone Like You” provides relief in a mature way. Ariana Grande’s “Thank U Next” is an upbeat kiss-off to her old beaus in order to make room for the person she loves most: herself.
Although backstories bring awareness and interest to otherwise private situations, the key reason behind the success of breakup tunes is the catharsis they may provide both the artist and the listener. Sometimes, we need to verbalize our feelings in an effort to move on, and artists bringing vulnerability into their work is clearly therapeutic. While Olivia Rodrigo likely couldn’t have predicted the amount of buzz she’d receive upon the release of “Drivers License,” she certainly did what she set out to do: heal her aching heart and uplift those who have experienced the same pain.
“I totally understand people’s curiosity with the specifics of who the song’s about and what it’s about, but to me, that’s really the least important part of the song,” she said in January. “[‘Drivers License’ is] resonating with people because of how emotional it is…to have this really painful moment in my life, and turn it into something beautiful that can maybe help people through a tough time that they’re having, like I was having a tough time — it’s just so empowering.”