Song Breakdown: How Olivia Rodrigo Establishes Emotion in “drivers license”

Olivia Rodrigo’s new song “drivers license” has become extremely popular. It takes a pop ballad to the next level with the emotional drive of this song, and we don’t seem to hear that on the radio as much as we used to. If you’re wondering how exactly this song tugs on the heartstrings, here are a few ways.

The song doesn’t shy away from honesty

“drivers license” is written from an intimate point of view—from the writer directly to the person they’re referring to. The writer does not speak to a larger audience at any point in the song, as though it were a letter. This technique allows the use of very honest, raw lines that really impact the listener. Here are just a few examples:

“She’s so much older than me, she’s everything I’m insecure about.”
“Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.”
“Today I drove through the suburbs and pictured I was driving home to you.”

The “driving” references

Whether this song uses driving or a driver’s license figuratively or literally, it is extremely effective in a number of ways. The concept of driving is universal, which means that most people can already understand and picture it in their mind. A driver’s license is mostly unique to her primary teenage audience, who will be able to relate to this the most strongly. As an older listener, I know the connotations of driving with someone special or driving alone, and that makes the end of the chorus hit so much harder:

“‘Cause you said forever now I drive alone past your street.” 

Even in the bridge, where she only gives us glimpses of it, the emotion is very clear of what she misses about driving with that person.

“Red lights, stop signs
I still see your face in the white cars, front yards
Can’t drive past the places we used to go to.”

“Sidewalks we crossed
I still hear your voice in the traffic
We’re laughing over all the noise.”

Tag lines that lead to the payoff line

Tag lines are repeated lines at the ends of Verses. This is a technique usually used in AABA songs, where there is either no Chorus or the Chorus does not contain the title of the song. In “drivers license”, the tag line is:

“Today I drove through the suburbs…”

This line is followed by a confession referring to this time they used to spend together.

This repeating tag line is unusual in a Verse-Chorus format, but Rodrigo used this to effectively lead to her payoff line. As the title of the song is not in the Chorus, which is also unusual, she uses the tag lines to paint a picture of driving through the suburbs. This image is even more vivid when she finally reaches that payoff line and we understand she is driving through the suburbs. It doesn’t bother us that the title of the song is not in the Chorus and we truly feel the emotion she is conveying.

“‘Cause you said forever now I drive alone past your street.”

Higher notes in the Chorus sound like crying out

Many songs nowadays barely use a higher register for Choruses, especially in the singer-songwriter/pop genre. This song uses the traditional format of leaping up in the choruses, though she does build up to the higher notes. This is effective in building the emotion in the way that we can associate higher notes with crying out. Even the way she sings “felt this way” sounds a bit like crying out. 

In the same way higher notes are associated with crying, lower notes can be associated with sadness. This is why when she sings this line higher: 

Guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.”

And follows it with a sadder, more defeated melody in the payoff line, the difference between the two registers makes us feel that emotion that much more. 

Unstable and stable melodic rhythms 

In the Verses, Rodrigo uses a more unstable melodic line by beginning the melody after the first beat. This is quite common in modern music, as well as beginning the melody before the first beat and having the last word of the line land on the first beat. It allows for more of a speaking feel and less of a musical feel, which is effective in feeling the intimacy of her story.

In her Chorus, the melodic rhythm becomes much more in line with the beats. She switches from those unstable Verses where she feels literally unstable, uneasy and insecure. In the Chorus, she is sad but is coming to a realization of her situation and feels much more strong and secure in her statements.

Furthermore, she sticks to the stable rhythm for the Bridge, where she continues describing that emotion of loss. She is extremely decisive of how she feels at this point and it is imitated by her melodic rhythm. It works well for the highest emotional peak of the song.

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