January 11, 2021

"Driver's License" by Olivia Rodrigo: The confessional reconciliation anthem signaling end of refractory phase of excitement cycle

At the end of 2019 I explored a type of song that appears at the transition between the refractory phase of the 15-year excitement cycle, and the restless warm-up phase that follows. It's part of the broader zeitgeist of the end of "don't approach me" hyper-sensitivity, and coming out of your shell to reconnect with others, especially the opposite sex.

The lyrics are confessional in tone, reflecting on a past relationship that went bad. But unlike a typical torch song, where the singer is mainly mourning their loss in solitude, here they're making a bold direct address to their former lover, proposing to reconcile and to renew their relationship.

The music is mostly dream-pop -- layers of droning and sighing voices, whether human or instrumental -- which prevails during the previous refractory phase, when people are only in the mood to float through an ethereal expanse by themselves. Now that the mood has changed, and people are getting restless, there's a greater desire for melodic hooks and a driving beat, in contrast to the focus on harmony and a languid beat during the vulnerable phase.

Also like the other examples, the key is major, rather than the minor-key tonality that prevails during the preceding vulnerable phase, suggesting a turn toward the hopeful now that people are no longer in a refractory state.

Read that post for a fuller analysis, and for links to earlier discussion of dream pop's role throughout the excitement cycle.

The major examples are "You're Beautiful" by James Blunt and "Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis from the late 2000s, "Nothing Compares 2 U" by Sinead O'Connor and "One More Try" by Timmy T from the early '90s, "Misty Blue" by Dorothy Moore and "Dream Weaver" by Gary Wright from the late '70s, and "I'm Sorry" and "Break It To Me Gently" both by Brenda Lee from the early '60s.

I predicted this type of song would see a new example in the early 2020s, as this phase transition takes place again. They aren't very numerous, but they're so recognizable and distinctive of their era, that they don't have to have dozens of examples. You'll identify it immediately upon hearing it.

Sure enough, the other day YouTube recommended me a trending music video for "Driver's License" by Olivia Rodrigo, and I instantly knew this was the one for the current restless phase. It's rapidly taking over streaming platforms globally, so like the other examples from similar phases, it will be one of the defining songs of the early 2020s.

Overall it's most similar to "Nothing Compares 2 U," although closer to "You're Beautiful" and "Bleeding Love" in minute stylistic details, due to those two coming from a more recent restless phase.

Lyrically, it's different from a torch song in directly addressing her former lover, proposing to reconcile not only their past troubles, but also to move beyond the fact that he's found someone new in the meantime. She's making an offer to revive their relationship, not just whine and mope alone about her heartbreak, the rejection, etc., which belong in the past.

Musically, it's defined by layers of droning and sighing voices, both instrumental and human, and an overall feel of floating through emptiness, as in a dream. And yet unlike a typical dream pop song, the vocal delivery is neither languid nor hyper-sensitive / distancing. It's earnest, bold, soulful, and sending itself off on a melodic rollercoaster during the chorus.

The beat is also not the typical plodding rhythm of vulnerable-phase dream pop -- it starts with no percussion, then introduces a skipping-rhythm clickity-clack, adds a persistent marching-step or running-rhythm bass drum during the second verse, and a backbeat during the second chorus. That development is more like stirring awake from a dream and getting your body moving at the start of your day, not continuing to sleep or lie in bed under a pile of blankets in a heroin-like daze.

The vocal takes on a percussive role as well during the peak line of the chorus -- "I guess you didn't mean what you wrote in that song about me" -- where you can feel the force on each of the stressed syllables. There are two unstressed syllables before the stressed ones, giving it a galloping rhythm and adding to the impression of not sleeping or laying around, but single-mindedly advancing toward a target to confront them.

The bridge is the most purely dream-pop section, and by itself sounds like it could have come from the late 2010s. That has the effect of making their past feel more dream-like, mellow, and ideal, in contrast to the somewhat painful awkwardness of stirring awake and trying to reconcile and restart their relationship in the present, which characterizes the other sections of the song.

After the hazy dreamy bridge, you may be yearning for a dramatic pay-off, both to complete the rising physical tension developed throughout the song, but also to satisfy the lyrical theme -- resting assured that their reconciliation and renewal is going to be a smashing success. But that's not where they, or we, are at right now in the 15-year excitement cycle. The singer is just stirring awake, and making a bold proposal seemingly out of nowhere. It will take a little while for the other side to process what's going on, and for both of them to figure out the way forward.

So the resolution has to be a low-key subsiding of tension -- the pause after a bold proposal as one side awaits the other's response, not the dissipation of that tension altogether. The fact that it's only a pause means there is still unresolved tension, and it leaves us yearning -- but that's precisely how this process feels, before the other side has had time to think it over and respond. It's not like a cliffhanger ending in a TV series that is never followed up on, so we don't feel upset at the less than 100% resolution. We recognize that that's just how this process goes, and we'll have to wait somewhat anxiously to see how the other side responds.

This is an instant "lads and lesbians" classic, to touch on another recent theme around here. Definitely not for "girls and gays". Not only pining for an ex, but actually contacting them to revive the relationship because you two were meant to be together. I have no clue whether Olivia Rodrigo is a literal lesbian, or one of the straight girls who fits in with the L&L crowd. Heavy channeling of Taylor Swift hints that she's not just a spiritual lesbian, though.

At any rate, glad to know that we've reached another milestone in the transition out of the #MeToo refractory phase, and into the restless warm-up phase. Like the other examples from the past, I doubt this will go down as one of the best songs of its time, but its role is more than aesthetic -- spurring forward the nascent process of coming out of your shell, after holing up during five years of hyper-sensitivity.


  1. What are your thoughts on the insurrection and impeachment?

  2. We're at the Year of the 5 Emperors stage, to use the Roman analogy. But I'll write that up in more detail later. I wrote up a decent comment to an earlier post here, but can't locate it right away.

  3. Starting to hear this on the radio, so it's no longer just for teens pining for a relationship they've never actually had (a common comment on the YouTube video -- victims of helicopter parenting).

    A quick note on the percussiveness of the stressed syllables in "I guess you didn't mean what you wrote in that song about me" -- when set to dance, it results in explosive movements with the large limb muscles. Again, not a languid dream-pop kind of choreography, but more of a warm-up / exercise style.

    Here is TikTok giant Charli D'Amelio dancing to it. High kicks and arms thrust outwards on those stressed syllables. Nice to see her doing a modern / interpretative dance for once, not just booty-shaking to the latest trend. She's expressive.

    I've also noticed her spinning motion in the other vids by trained dancers. Winding yourself up, so you can explode. Vertiginous, thrilling kinds of movements -- not gently backstroking down a lazy river to droning layers of dream-pop.


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