(Pictured: Olivia Rodrigo in 2019.)
As it happens, I know a little about the teaching of writing. Years ago, I had a job that required me to read 30,000 short essays written by kids in grades three through eight. Some of the older kids clearly aspired to be writerly. Some of them demonstrated the glimmerings of a gift, but the vast majority did not. It wasn’t just that they didn’t know the craft (because at age 12 or 13, how could they?), but they lacked the vocabulary. For example, when they wanted to describe something, instead of using the five senses in simile or metaphor, they’d say things like, “It was beautiful. It was so, so beautiful.”
Because I am not hip, I didn’t hear Olivia Rodrigo’s song “Driver’s License” until earlier this week, even though it spent eight straight weeks at #1 on the Hot 100 from January to March. It’s a meandering mix of textures and tempos, but I fixated on the words. A sample:
And all my friends are tired
Of hearing how much I miss you
But I kinda feel sorry for them
‘Cause they’ll never know you the way that I do
Today I drove through the suburbs
And pictured I was driving home to you
Exposition can’t be avoided, but writing teachers tell students, especially young ones, to show and not tell. Rodrigo, who wrote the lyric, spends most of her time telling. And when she wants to crank up the emotional intensity, she does this:
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
‘Cause I still fuckin’ love you, babe
A writing teacher would circle “red lights,” “stop signs,” and “white cars” and suggest the student find stronger words. As for the obscene adverbial intensifier, it’s as inept and immature as “so, so beautiful.” So like many an eighth-grade essay, “Driver’s License” ends up the opposite of what the writer intends: not a vivid description of a deeply felt experience, but the emotional equivalent of a grocery list.
Olivia Rodrigo is a Disney Channel star who turned 18 in February, so she isn’t that far removed from eighth grade. And at least she’s taken to heart the idea that you should write what you know. My purpose here is not to fault her. The main fault involved with “Driver’s License” lies with the people who made something that’s not especially artful into the most popular song in America for two solid months.
In 2003, Guardian columnist Stuart Jeffries wrote: “The real problem with our culture is not a dearth of ingenuity but a willingness to lend that ingenuity to devising things that should be beneath contempt.” Two decades later, the beat goes on. Earlier this week, essayist John Ganz wrote about the blandness of practically every cultural rage right now. We hand over our attention and money in exchange for very little. We are happy to sell ourselves not to the highest bidder, but to the lowest one.
I’ve said before that one purpose of art is to take you out of your moment, to allow you to experience something in a way you can’t do for yourself in that moment. But anybody who ever had a busted high-school relationship has felt what Olivia Rodrigo feels. She doesn’t say anything new about it, or describe a new way of seeing or feeling it, yet millions of listeners (many long past high-school age) were eager to listen to her tell about it, again and again.
It doesn’t take much to buy our devotion. Consider Ed Sheeran: can you recite one interesting or perceptive lyric or whistle a single memorable melody he’s written? Perhaps you aren’t intended to. It’s not an accident that we talk about “music consumption” now. The job of most popular music (words chosen deliberately, as opposed to “the purpose of most popular art”) is to be there when people are hungry for it, like a bag of chips. If chips are what people want, why spend time and effort cooking a steak?
Artists used to aspire to extend themselves. Paul McCartney, for example, has released a half-dozen albums of classical music. But what’s the likelihood that Ed Sheeran will do anything on his next album that he didn’t do on his first four? What are the chances that Olivia Rodrigo’s next single will be a vivid lyrical ride that reminds people of the early Dylan?
Does it even have to be?
Did I miss something important, or am I just completely wrong? Your comments are not just welcome, but necessary.