TikTok Is the New Radio
New York magazine|February 15–28, 2021
“Drivers License,” the latest song to top the charts alongside a viral challenge, tells us something about the kind of music the app rewards.
By Craig Jenkins

The No. 1 song in the U.S. right now—Disney Channel star Olivia Rodrigo’s “Drivers License,” an archetypal 21stcentury sad piano ballad—has achieved an unusual feat: It’s a debut single that reached the top of Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart after its first week out. The last time this occurred with any regularity was in the early aughts, when the first postshow singles by American Idol winners Fantasia Barrino, Clay Aiken, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Hicks arrived to nationwide attention after weeks of exposure to the prime-time audiences of one of the most-watched shows on television. It takes a big media apparatus to propel a new artist to the forefront of the American streaming charts. What gave Rodrigo the juice? Are people simply that enthralled with her work as Nini from Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series?

Powering “Drivers License,” a morose but also off-puttingly placid song about a breakup, is, in part, juicy gossip. Some fans think the song is a shot at the 17-year-old actress-singer’s co-star Joshua Bassett, who never publicly claimed to have dated Rodrigo but has recently been seen with actress-singer Sabrina Carpenter, whose new song “Skin” is rumored to be a reply to Rodrigo. More crucial to its success has been its embrace on TikTok, the popular video sharing app, where pop culture and current events get named into absurdity. In early January, an enterprising TikTok user posted a video miming the moment in Rodrigo’s original video where she dramatically falls in an open field. As the song’s chorus gives way to a soaring bridge, the person magically appears in eveningwear for kicks in the same way Rodrigo’s video wardrobe changes. In under a month, the clip has garnered a million likes and hundreds of copycats and parodies.

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