The Double Olivia Song Review: "drivers license" by Olivia Rodrigo & "Better Than Feeling Lonely" by Olivia O'Brien
I haven't written song reviews in a while. Oops... Anyway, I'm back now with a double review. One song, "Better Than Feeling Lonely", has been out for a week now, and I've been meaning to write about it. Then, last night, "drivers license" came out and has gotten tons of attention online. Once I found out Dan Nigro was a co-writer/producer behind it, I got excited to give it a listen. So, here are all my thoughts on the new singles from both Olivias:
"Better Than Feeling Lonely" by Olivia O'Brien
by Taylor Dexter, Rogét Chahayed, Wesley Singerman, & Olivia O'Brien
First off, I just want to say that I'm so glad Olivia is finally releasing new music again! When I saw her on tour in March, she was singing unreleased songs and teasing a new mixtape in a few months. It seems like all of those plans got scrapped due to COVID, and she only released one single last year while stuck in an endless promotional cycle for her spiteful bop, "Josslyn". "NOW", taking samples from "Right Now", the early 2000s song, was a disappointing departure from the path she'd been on prior. While the video was cute, the song wasn't particularly memorable.
Luckily, the New Year's release of "Better Than Feeling Lonely" is a return to what Olivia does so well. She writes incredible songs about sadness, depression, and loss of love. She has a way of being so plane in her speech and acknowledgments of pain that they're compulsively relatable (see "Empty" or her breakthrough hit "I hate u, I love u"). It has what was missing from "NOW" and seem to be a triumphant revival of her strong suits. She sings about a debate in her head over whether dating an empty, fake partner is better than being alone. It explores insecurity and the exhaustion of being in a bad relationship and a deep fear of being single. It's also witty and funny so that you can smile while you cry.
As far as production, this has a pretty standard "Olivia Sound", which works well. All of her songs have a similar amount of empty, keyboard and midi instrument sound that makes them easy to pick out as Olivia songs. She also uses similar melodies to many of her popular songs. The production isn't much of a factor in the song experience overall.
Tthe production is similar to her usual patterns, and so is the song structure. The story comes in the verses and prechorus while the chorus offers that hyper pop repetition of a single word or phrase that makes it easy to grasp onto both the meaning and the hook of the song. In this case, it's, "better than feeling lonely/maybe fake love is better than feeling lonely".
In the first verse, she succinctly sets up the rather bleak situation she's caught in. She starts by admitting that this guy is stuck on her mind before flipping it around and telling the listener that he's not someone worth dreaming about, "I know all you're gonna do is sit and waste my time/And every word you say to me is probably a lie". In the prechorus, the lines turn into a list of instructions as she asks him to keep lying to her as they continue meeting up, similar to the story in Sasha Sloan's "Lie". In this repeating section she remarks, "Tell me pretty lies, tell me I'm the only/Even if you don't mean it, touching you is holy". The second verse takes a more introspective turn as she laments the fact that she'd rather live in chaos instead of finding situations that are better for her because it's more interesting. She mentions, "I've got some stories I still need to write/And I don't care if that shit fucks up my life". This line reminds me of Julia Michael's song "Happy" where she laments, "And sometimes I think I kill relationships for art/I start up all this shit to watch 'em fall apart". This seems to be the eternal curse of artists who mine their lives for inspiration. In the bridge, Olivia doubles down instead of changing her mind about her lax approach to this tumultuous relationship. At one point she sings, "I don't get to choose the way I feel, it's just a truth/And I don't care if I get hurt, I'm fine". While none of these words are particularly sweeping or poetic, it's still oddly profound. It resonates, and that's the magic of her songs. Apathy with confidence is oddly powerful.
While "Better Than Feeling Lonely" hasn't been on repeat for me, I've enjoyed having it on my playlist this month. Every time I hear it, I start to like it a bit more. It definitely makes me excited about the second album that must be on the horizon. Her brand of relatable, accessible pop is sure to catch on soon.
by Dan Nigro & Olivia Rodrigo
I hadn't heard much about Olivia Rodrigo until yesterday when her name and #selfiesfordriverslicense started trending on Twitter. A bit confused about how someone I'd never heard of was popping up with a trend-worthy single for her first solo single already with 2.4 million Instagram followers, I started googling. Apparently, Olivia, at only 17, is joining the ranks of former (or maybe current?) Disney kids who find careers in music. She's most recently started in the High School Musical Gen Z revival: High School Musical, The Musical, The Series. Probably unfairly, I was a little skeptical about how good the song could be because Disney music/music from actors can be such a mixed bag, but then I noticed Dan Nigro was involved with the project. If you don't know, Dan is a producer and songwriter who (I think) is is shaping the next generation of pop and will one day be looked at the same way we view Jack Antonoff. I know him mostly from being pretty much the sole collaborator on all of Conan Gray's music.
I'm glad I decided to give it a try. The song is a moving ballad about a break-up with nostalgia and resignation all framed through the lens of driving through a suburb. She leans into my favorite songwriting structure, opening with two verses right away and including a third verse and a bridge. This gives so much more room for details and original imagery instead of repeating a chorus over and over. She starts by singing, "I got my drivers license last week/Something we always talked about" and closes the first verse with "But today I drove through the suburbs/Cause you weren't around". It pulled at my heart strings because I'd had a similar experience, but I think everyone's had a moment they talked about in detail with someone and then they weren't around when you finally hit the milestone. This driving through the suburbs line becomes the song's main motif as she aimlessly wanders, looking for healing.
In the second verse, Olivia gets into the fact that her love interest has already found a new girl who's blonde and older. It only makes it burn worse because this new girl is so incredibly different that she's the living embodiment of all of Olivia's deepest insecurities. While it might be healing to know that you couldn't compete with the new girl, that also stings in its own way.
She opens the chorus with, "And I know we weren't perfect, but I've never felt this way for no one". This is the only part of the song I don't love. I don't get why they chose to use the double negative. There are so many places where double negatives can work in music, but it seems so unnecessary here, and it just grates in my ears like rubbing Styrofoam. She finishes the chorus confused about how he's so okay without her and how he must have been lying about that song he wrote for her that said "forever". I love how every verse and chorus ends with a line about driving, and the places she's going gives a hint into her emotional state. In the third verse, she talks abut how her friends are tired of hearing about him, but she feels bad that they'll never know how special he is. This line hits hard because it's a window into just how deep into this relationship she's stayed. She's defending him in her head even as she complains about him. That verse ends with "Today I drove through the suburbs/And I pictured I was driving home to you". That level of pretending to make yourself feel better is a low I've definitely experienced. The bridge feels a bit like they stuck a couple sad break-up lines from a million other songs together, and I don't love where the production goes in the bridge either. I feel like it weakens the song a little with cliches like "feeling blue" with no twist, but it doesn't make much of a difference to the final impression of the song.
I believe I heard somewhere that Olivia is one of the many new writers who is a student of Taylor Swift. As a fan studying her writing, it seems like Olivia's picked up Taylor's skill for picking up the minute moments that resonate the deepest. Olivia puts that on full display in those verses, and it makes me excited to see where her next releases go.