Sold to the Lowest Bidder

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(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.

7 thoughts on “Sold to the Lowest Bidder

  1. Tim M.

    Agreed. 100%. My age is showing, but it seems there’s a lot of stuff out there today that isn’t worth listening to. Thank heaven my 30-something kids listen to Yacht Rock.

  2. Chris Herman

    “What are the chances that Olivia Rodrigo’s next single will be a vivid lyrical ride that reminds people of the early Dylan?”

    Not high but, to be fair to Rodrigo, Dylan didn’t really write anything of note when he was 18 either. That was also true for Lennon, McCartney, and just about every other notable singer/songwriter who weren’t music prodigies like Laura Nyro, Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Fiona Apple.

  3. T.

    This girl is part of the Disney machine. They invest a lot of money into these people and not even the world’s worst song is gonna stop that train. She’ll get her requisite 4 Grammy awards next year and have a talk show.

    Pop music has lagged way behind underground music in the new ideas department. And now it has NO ideas. Rather than bemoaning the Death of Pop, I think another way to look at it is:
    why is the commercial rock world so afraid of something new? In the 60’s and 70’s, there was something new every year. Now, they flog the same horse for 30 years. And somehow, despite the concept that “people have shorter attention spans nowadays”, the POP machine keeps selling music that first started happening in the late 80’s to early 90’s. If anything, the attention span seems to have elongated to interminable length, thus we enter the age of Pop Mannerism: it looks like Rock, it sounds like Rap, it tastes like Pop, but there’s a distortion, a disconnect, an ugly abstraction. They are willfully ignorant, and heralded for being so.

    And so we are the gargoyles who sit atop the broken, forgotten castle, watching the demise,
    listening to old Jerry Butler 45’s from 1968. But we are not defeated. And neither is Jerry Butler.

    1. I feel this, and I thank you for putting it into words. The guiding ethos was, at one time, “If you build it, they will come,” and maturing/changing acts from the Beatles on down brought people along with them to wherever they chose to go. It feels as though today’s ethos is, “If you remodel it, they won’t stay.” On those occasions when I listen to What’s Happening Now, I marvel at how dull it is; the same beats, the same production styles, over and over again. Anything to avoid the dreaded Spotify skip, maybe.

  4. mackdaddyg

    I’ve never heard of this artist or song, but your statement ‘“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’ is one of the best music reviews I’ve ever read.

    In mentioning Paul McCartney releasing six albums of classical music (don’t forget Billy Joel and Joe Jackson have released some sort of classical albums as well), my short sightedness also chalked that kind of thing up to an artist being a bit too full of themselves, but now I’m not so sure. Do any of these releases compare to other classical releases at the time?

    1. I can’t say anything about the *quality* of the classical music by Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, or Joe Jackson, but it never occurred to me that one might do it for egotistical reasons (except to the extent of thinking you can do it competently and getting a label to pay for you to try). In the case of McCartney and Joel, by the time they got to classical, they had little left to prove and more money than God, so what’s even the point of making another pop album?

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