Olivia Rodrigo’s Hit ‘Drivers License’ Has the Best Part of a Song

Jenna and Wesley search for the best part of the song.,

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transcript

Now That’s What I Call a Bridge!

Jenna and Wesley search for the best part of the song.

Thursday, March 25th, 2021

jenna wortham

Wesley, if there’s one thing this season of Still Processing is all about, it is realizing our deepest dreams and hopes and ambitions for the show. Would you agree?

wesley morris

I’m definitely — I’m going wherever this car that you’re driving is going to take me. So, yes.

jenna wortham

Well, beep, beep, baby, get in because we’re going to go read a book together. This is something we have wanted to do since the beginning of the show, which is invite our listeners to read a book alongside us. And we’re finally going to do it.

wesley morris

Yes, we are going to read “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” by Cathy Park Hong. And I’m excited to do that.

jenna wortham

I’m so excited, too. Cathy Park Hong is an incredible poet, a dynamic essayist, a cultural critic. This book is part memoir as well. It’s a really incredible examination of what it means to live outside of the racial binary and the discourse that this country tends to fixate on, which we fixate on as well. Can I tell you a little bit about where Cathy says the title comes from?

wesley morris

Absolutely.

jenna wortham

OK, I was reading this amazing interview in the Yale Review, and here’s how Cathy describes what the framing of “Minor Feelings” means. “I was trying to get at the existential core of living in this country and having your lived reality constantly gaslit by the American public, what it does to you and how there’s no outlet for it. And I was also trying to puncture all the myths that have harmed vulnerable communities.” I mean, damn. Is that not the most Still Processing sounding book ever?

wesley morris

I mean, yes, and it is also like a sentiment for this moment, too. So, yes. “Minor Feelings,” Cathy Park Hong. Get it wherever you get any kind of book — audiobook, library book, book for sale in a physical bookstore. And on April 29, we’re going to talk about this book. And in the meantime, we’ll give you updates about how you can participate in that episode.

jenna wortham

So stay tuned and keep listening to the show because more details will come.

[music]

I’m Jenna Wortham.

wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris, and we’re two culture writers at The New York Times.

jenna wortham

And this is Still Processing.

wesley morris

So, every year, you and I start having a conversation sometime around March or April about what we think the song of the summer is going to be. Like, what’s the song of the summer? And I just want to preempt that conversation right now by just skipping ahead to December and saying, I think we have a song of the year.

jenna wortham

Tell me more. Please bring me into your world.

wesley morris

I think it’s “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo.

[music – olivia rodrigo, “drivers license”]

archived recording (olivia rodrigo)

(SINGING) I got my driver’s license last week, just like we always talked about, because you were so excited for me to finally drive up to your house.

wesley morris

OK, first of all, it debuted at number one on the Hot 100 at the beginning of January, and it stayed there for months. She’s held off Ariana Grande. She’s held off Cardi B. So Olivia Rodrigo herself — 18 years old, Disney star. She’s been on a couple of Disney Channel shows. This is her first song, at least that I’ve ever heard by her. And it’s, I would say, the first song to capture the United States’s collective imagination since “WAP.”

jenna wortham

How is that possible? How is that possible?

wesley morris

This song is the exact opposite of “WAP” in every possible way, too.

jenna wortham

Yeah. I had not heard of this song, Wesley, until you brought it up to me. I still remain in awe in Rihanna’s America that you can have a number one song that is huge in all these ways and has captured the imagination of some people in this country and totally eluded the awareness of others. I mean, my pipeline to pop culture, my 24-year-old niece had not heard of this song.

wesley morris

Amazing.

jenna wortham

And yet, you’re right. It’s huge, it’s everywhere. And I had to Google all of this because I was just like, who is this person? I don’t like feeling like there are some huge pop cultural phenomena that I don’t know about. So I went on a deep dive. So the tea is piping hot, and I think this is why the song is so popular, in some ways, that has eluded others, right?

There’s this whole “High School Musical” backstory. I just think “High School Musical” is one of those things that I am aged out of, but for the people for whom it hits, it is deep. It’s like deep lure. There are fan blogs, fan grams. I mean, I just think it’s so embedded in the culture of the people who grew up with that. So Olivia Rodrigo, who wrote “Drivers License,” she starred with this guy named Joshua Basset in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” But they played a couple. I mean, apparently, it was I.R.L. too. That’s “in real life.” And then they broke up. And “Drivers License” is about that breakup. Then I went kind of deep because I guess there’s this whole other thing that happened with another Disney star named Sabrina Carpenter, who’s also been posting mysterious Instagram. I mean, just, it’s so soapy. It’s so “Days of Our Lives.” Joshua’s released a song. Sabrina’s released a song.

I mean, it’s just, this is the stuff of virality, right? This love triangle mystery that is fun to skim for clues. And I don’t know — I remember those obsessions when I was a teen and a tween. So I’m making myself feel better about being too old to get it. And it worked.

wesley morris

But Jenna, those things might be true for why this song is so appealing, but I’m just going to get down to brass musicological tacks and say that I think the thing that makes this song so exciting for people is that it’s got a bridge. It’s got a bridge!

jenna wortham

Yes, after years, Wesley, of you trying to get me to understand what a bridge is, this is the only bridge I’ve been able to self-identify.

wesley morris

Yes!

jenna wortham

Unlike you, I have no brass musicological tacks, but I know you do.

wesley morris

I know a little bit about a little bit. But what I do know is that a song at its most fundamental and basic and most reduced goes like this: The verse of the song is A. The chorus of the song is B. You go from verse to chorus, verse to chorus. So that’s A, B, A, B. Then, at some point, there’s just a total change in the song, and that introduces a new letter, which is C. C is typically in a pop song the bridge.

It’s a completely new part of the song that’s set apart from everything else. And what I love about some bridges is you are dropped into the middle of a totally different song. And the bridge on “Drivers License” basically does that. But why don’t we just go from the chorus of “Drivers License” into the bridge?

jenna wortham

OK, I’m ready.

archived recording (olivia rodrigo)

(SINGING) I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.

‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street.

wesley morris

Here we go.

archived recording (olivia rodrigo)

(SINGING) Red lights, stop signs, I still see —

jenna wortham

Oh.

archived recording (olivia rodrigo)

— your face in the white cars, front yards. Can’t drive past the places we used to go to ’cause I still [EXPLETIVE] love you, babe.

wesley morris

The bottom basically falls out, and you’re in a completely new song essentially. It really just — as you would say, Jenna, it slaps.

jenna wortham

Ooh. Well, it’s like prime shower material. It’s actually the perfect bridge for a pandemic. Like when the bridge comes on and I’m cooking or doing anything mundane alone by myself and the bridge comes on — and I’m not going through a breakup, things in my life are pretty swell. But I still find myself clutching the spatula or whatever I was using, the highlighter, and just pounding my fist on my kitchen bar.

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

It’s the perfect — I don’t know — 20 seconds of song to just belt out while you’re alone in your home, which most of us are now all the time. It’s perfect for that. It’s an exquisitely well-made song.

wesley morris

And if you’re 12, 13 years old, it’s got two curses. It just probably feels so good to be 12 or 13, license to be able to say, “I still [EXPLETIVE] love you.”

jenna wortham

This is a song that most people are probably listening to in unconventional-for-pop-music ways. It probably really is a song that’s being consumed mostly through headphones, mostly in isolation. I mean, so you get to belt out the curse word. You’re not worrying about it at the middle school dance. You get to hear it in its unadulterated form, which, again, I think adds to the thrill of it and the popularity of it.

wesley morris

I mean, Saturday Night Live did a “Drivers License” sketch a couple of weeks ago. And I have to say it blew my mind that they so focused on the bridge.

jenna wortham

I mean, I guess this is what you mean when you say taking the world by storm. Getting a devoted skit on S.N.L. is a pretty high indication of having broken through the culture barrier. The structure is very classic S.N.L. skit. It’s a regular degular place. In this case, it’s a bar, a bunch of guys hanging out, playing pool. And then they introduced this unlikely element of the song, and then the fact that they’re all bonding to it.

wesley morris

Right, these dudes in this blue collar town.

archived recording 1

Wait, what am I listening to?

archived recording 2

“Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo, man.

jenna wortham

All very well versed in hardcore pop ballads.

archived recording 1

I don’t want to say nothing too controversial, you know, but this is giving me Billie Eilish vibes.

archived recording 2

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but the verses are starting to say Taylor?

jenna wortham

And then they cut to Kate McKinnon. Of course, of course, it’s Kate McKinnon dressed up like an old Eastern European man with the killer stash, who’s like, we’re about to get the bridge of our lives.

archived recording (kate mckinnon)

Boys, open your hearts and listen. We’re about to get the bridge of our lives.

archived recording

(SINGING) Red lights, stop signs, I still see your face in the white cars, front yards. Can’t drive past —

jenna wortham

Oh my goodness.

archived recording

(SINGING) — the places we used to —

wesley morris

Jenna, I am like the old Kate McKinnon in that sketch.

jenna wortham

Aw, you are. You are.

wesley morris

I am clinging to bridges. I’m really nostalgic for them, and they are increasingly rare. They’re basically extinct, an endangered species of American popular culture, right there with the spotted owl and the laugh track on the American sitcom. They’re just basically, just like no more for those things. And bridges used to be a huge feature of American popular music. They were common in the 1960s, not so much in the 1970s because of disco and prog rock and funk music, where the songs were just longer and more ambitious and didn’t need the service that a bridge provided. But they were huge in the 1980s, huge.

And then in the 2000s, they just start to disappear. Part of that, I’m going to say, is because hip hop is moving to the center of the culture. You know that Grammy category Rap Song Collaboration? You know, Ashanti and Ja Rule, right?

jenna wortham

Classic.

wesley morris

Any time there’s a rapper on some singer’s song, that rapper is basically doing what a bridge is doing. And so by the time we get to the 2000s and hip hop is at the center of American culture, and you don’t need A, B, A, B anymore, you’ve got all of this other interesting stuff happening. You’ve got samples doing a lot of the melodic work of what a bridge technically could provide — or even a chorus for that matter. The sample sometimes is the chorus.

And so when a bridge shows up in a pop song, you kind of sometimes wonder why it’s even there. A very good example of why is this even happening right now is Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” It’s interesting because it has a bridge, and it also has Jay-Z. And you’ve got both of them doing the same job essentially. And this song comes at an interesting moment where American music is making this, I would say, unconscious choice about whether it’s going to continue into this land of A, B, A, B, C structure or whether it’s just going to explode into a bunch of different letters that have no bearing on anything that was going on before it necessarily.

And it’s mostly chosen to break apart and become a bunch of different letters that do a lot of different things in a song, where you’re not relying on that typical A, B, A, B structure. But let’s go all the way back and listen to a classic example of what a great bridge can be: The Beatles, “We Can Work It Out,” from 1965.

[music – the beatles, “we can work it out”]

archived recording (the beatles)

(SINGING) We can work it out. We can work it out.

wesley morris

Here it comes.

archived recording (the beatles)

(SINGING) Life is very short, and there’s no time.

wesley morris

And then it turns into a waltz.

jenna wortham

Aw.

wesley morris

Right here.

archived recording (the beatles)

(SINGING) Fussing and fighting, my friend.

wesley morris

Just a waltz just ’cause.

jenna wortham

Yeah, I get it.

wesley morris

OK, zero people have asked me this question, but my favorite, favorite bridge is “Raspberry Beret” by Prince. It is one of the cleverer bridges you’re ever going to hear. And part of what’s clever about it is it’s just a piece of storytelling, the song. It’s about a guy who meets a girl who comes into his place of employment. She is wearing — you guessed it — a raspberry beret. And they go off together to have sex in a barn, and the bridge is where the barn sex takes place.

[music – prince, “rasberry beret”]

archived recording (prince)

(SINGING) Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees. You feel —

wesley morris

So the place where the magic happens is in the bridge of the song and also the barn where he does it. By the end of this bridge in “Raspberry Beret,” Prince has had sex with this woman and has basically lost his mind. He is essentially having an orgasm by the end of the bridge. And he’s kicked you back into the song.

archived recording (prince)

(SINGING) Raspberry beret.

jenna wortham

It’s fantastic.

wesley morris

Another great bridge is the bridge for “Nasty” by Janet Jackson, which, it’s the most fun to sing because Janet Jackson is declaring with great attitude and not a little bit of umbrage that this is how you will be talking to her.

[music – janet jackson, “nasty”]

archived recording (janet jackson)

(SINGING) Listen up. I’m not a prude. No. I just want some respect. That’s right. So close the door if you want me to respond.

wesley morris

She gets mad, and the music seems to get mad and destabilizes with her.

archived recording (janet jackson)

No, my first name ain’t baby. It’s Janet. Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.

wesley morris

She gets to the point where she gets fed up and she needs to actually deliver her manifesto about how you will be treating her. Because the rest of the song is just her saying what she doesn’t like. And at this point, she’s telling you what she does like. [LAUGHS]

jenna wortham

It’s also the sexiest part of the song, because it’s the part where she lets loose. Janet as an artist is such a — for as much as she gives you, she’s such a walled garden. And it’s just like the one time the hedges part a little bit, and you get to peek through. And she’s like, this is —

if you can get the key, you know everything about Janet. It feels like a quest. If you can figure out how to defeat the trolls and get the key, this is what you’ll get access to. And it’s so tantalizing. But for all of my life, if I literally was on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” I would never — I’d call you, but I would never have been able to identify that as the bridge if a million dollars rested on it. It would be very hard. So thank you for that explainer.

wesley morris

You’re welcome, but I would say one of the bridges that I admire beyond all reason, honestly, but definitely one of the top three that makes me feel like something amazing just happened to my “bah-tay” is “I’m Your Baby Tonight” by the one and only Whitney Houston. This is just one of my favorite songs, period.

jenna wortham

Mine, too.

wesley morris

And it’s got one of my favorite bridges. And part of the reason “I’m Your Baby Tonight” is such a deceptively great song, and in terms of how it’s arranged and how it’s performed, is that the whole thing is building. It’s building and building and building and building. And so by the time you get to the second chorus, she’s adlibbing at this point.

[music – whitney houston, “i’m your baby tonight”]

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) You are my fantasy.

wesley morris

She’s ramping things up.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) I am your babe. Whatever I do, boy.

wesley morris

And there is this new keyboard note in this part of the song. The temperature is raising. And she’s feeling it. Whitney’s feeling it.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) But I’ll there for you, baby. You got a — you got a way that you’re making me feel I can — feel I can do any — do anything, yeah.

wesley morris

This bridge is giving me chills.

jenna wortham

Oh my God.

wesley morris

I am on this roller coaster with this song that I love, and I’m going up and up and up and up and up. I know every time I hear this song that if I catch it at the right moment, which, if I have any control over it, I am going to catch every minute of it. I feel like I have earned that bridge. [LAUGHS] I think the whole song is great, but I know that I am going up that hill with Whitney Houston to this bridge. And then once we get over the bridge, we’re at a cruising altitude. You are free to move about the cabin. It is just blissful, and it’s just fun.

jenna wortham

OK, wait I’ve just had a revelation. I think for me, I always just assumed the bridge was the breakdown.

wesley morris

Ah, interesting.

jenna wortham

So the part of the song where the singers break it down. They’re building up to this moment where they’re going to really draw you a picture with their voice.

wesley morris

Yes!

jenna wortham

And now I’m realizing that’s probably the bridge.

wesley morris

It’s probably the bridge.

jenna wortham

OK, all right.

wesley morris

But that’s a great way to think about it, as a kind of breaking down as well. I mean, she is at her most emotional in the song at this bridge. It is the best possible trouble you could hope to get into with a piece of music.

jenna wortham

I’m really grasping what you want in a bridge. It’s the gushers, right? It’s the thing you bite into. It’s the surprise. It’s the joy of seeing what a really proficient artist like Whitney Houston does in a song with the structure, how they play.

And if we think about a song as a journey, we think about a song as a road trip, the bridge is — shout out to the tri-state area people — but it’s the really good rest stop that you cannot wait to get to that has all the glitzy fast food places that you would normally never go to, but it’s a special treat, and the good gift shop and the good bathrooms and the good picnic tables outside. Right? Am I picking up what you’re putting down?

wesley morris

Jenna, that is so much better than anything I could ever have said. All I’m saying, really, is that I miss bridges. And before “Drivers License,” there was really only one person who was interested in them, in a serious committed song to song sort of way. She’s still committed to them.

jenna wortham

Who?

wesley morris

Taylor Swift!

jenna wortham

All roads lead back to Taylor.

wesley morris

I try to keep this a Taylor-free pod for you, but I got to tell the truth when the truth needs to be told.

jenna wortham

It is true. I am not a Swiftie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire or respect her abilities as a singer-songwriter. I get it. She is very talented. She is very, very, very gifted at what she does.

wesley morris

Ah.

jenna wortham

She doesn’t have to be my cup of tea for me to admire. Like, I don’t drink Earl Grey tea, but I understand that it is a very fine flavor of tea. But it’s not my cup of tea. She’s Earl Grey to me. That’s fine.

wesley morris

Y’all heard it here first — Taylor Swift, the Earl Grey tea of popular music.

jenna wortham

But I’m listening to you talk about Taylor Swift and her commitment to the bridge. And I’m also thinking about when Taylor Swift starts to come of age as a musician. She really starts to have her prime in what I would call the second wave of social media, so 2015, 2016, where the shift really starts to turn towards visual mediums.

Instagram is clutch and key if you’re a celebrity or musician that wants to offer a more behind-the-scenes look at your career, get your fans more invested. And so that’s where her team and where she is placing all of her energy in terms of building up her reputation. But think about it, OK? All of this happens right up until about 2018. Think about albums like “Red,” “1989,” “Reputation.” Those songs that defined Taylor Swift’s career — “Shake It Off,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Blank Space,” that embarrassingly cameod “Bad Blood” — all this is happening right up until mid-2018, if memory and Wikipedia serve me right.

But guess what happens in social media right around the summer of 2018? Guess what big earthquake hits the world and the tsunami that follows? Guess what app enters the market?

wesley morris

Oh, I can answer this one. It’s TikTok.

jenna wortham

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. It is TikTok. In 2018, this Chinese company called ByteDance buys an American app called Musically, which was a really popular lip-sync app. It was beloved by the pre-teen set. The under 21’s were really, really into this app and making videos themselves. But overnight, ByteDance combines with Musically, and TikTok is born. And everything we know from thereon out is subsequently altered. But the point I’m trying to make is that Taylor Swift never had to think about priming her songs for TikTok. A lot of artists feel like in order to raise their own visibility, they have to have some presence on TikTok. But Taylor Swift never had to deal with any of that. She enjoys the luxury of already having such a firm foothold in the music world. She’s got hundreds of millions of followers across all the platforms, a bazillion Grammys and various awards. I mean, she has name brand recognition that she enjoys. She just gets to do what she wants. She’s earned it.

wesley morris

But Jenna, I would also say something else about what you just very brilliantly observed about Taylor Swift, which is that at least one or two of the songs on these so-called quarantine records that Taylor Swift put out last year, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” those songs seem to end with a bridge. Is that even a bridge still? I mean, if it is a bridge, it’s a bridge to nowhere.

jenna wortham

But listening to you talk, Wesley, I’m getting this idea, right and I think maybe what you’re worried about disappearing is actually just emerging in a different form, right? If Taylor is an artist who has upheld the legacy of something as classic in music as a bridge, and even she’s playing around with it — front, back, side to side, up and down, putting it wherever she wants — I mean, maybe it’s actually an exciting evolution. Life will always find a way. Bridges will always find a way. And yes, most of the new pop songs made popular because of their relationship to TikTok don’t have bridges. That is true. But they have other ways to channel and invoke that emotion and that emotional response that you’re talking about that you’re longing for. It is there. We do have that connection to the song. We do have this connection to each other. It’s happening in aggregate. It’s happening very differently. It’s happening very visually. And let’s just take a break, and I’m going to break it down for you when we get back.

wesley morris

Uh, OK.

jenna wortham

You all right? You’re going to be OK.

wesley morris

I think so. I hope so.

jenna wortham

You’re going to be OK.

[laughter]

[music]

So just to rewind it all the way back to “Drivers License” for a second, I actually hadn’t heard of the song until you mentioned it to me, which is unusual because most of the music I hear nowadays is through TikTok. TikTok has become my radio. It is the thing I love to unwind to at the end of the day. It’s like my favorite pastime.

So I looked it up immediately. I typed in “Drivers License” to the app and was not surprised to discover there’s an entire world of lip-syncs. I mean, TikTok is known for having a variety of categories within which people make things. And “Drivers License” really touches all of them. There are challenges. There are lip syncs. There are transformations. There are things that fit all three of those categories. And I was pretty amazed.

The video that seems to be the first major TikTok set to “Drivers License” involves a young woman, her user name is @spoiledmel. And she’s staring into the camera. Her eyes are wet with tears, and she’s really lip singing along. Like, I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me. And then she falls back on her bed, which is just — it’s got the flowery bedspread. It’s got stuffed animals. It’s just such a teen bed. Ugh, I love that. The video cuts again, and she falls back into the bedspread. But she’s done an outfit change, and so she’s in this floral dress. And she’s using the TikTok lighting effect, one of the filters that makes it look like there’s flashing lights. I mean, and that’s the TikTok, I think, that really captured the best part of that song, which is the transition into the bridge where you just get the build-up and all of the emotion and the heart swells and the heart strings in it.

And I mean, it helps that this woman clearly is going through something, or the song is invoking something for her because you can literally see the cartoon drawing of a tear about to spill out of her eye. You know what I mean? It’s so evident. And I mean, people on TikTok seemed like they had a lot of fun with the song and they ran with it. And I spent some time browsing through the hashtag because one of the ways TikTok works is, we’re familiar with how hashtags are used on Twitter and Instagram to organize a series of posts based on a word or a couple of phrases. The same thing is true on TikTok, but you can have audio hashtags. They call them sounds. And so you can browse through a series of sounds to see how hundreds or millions of people worked with the same 10 seconds of a piece of music, which is —

wesley morris

That’s amazing.

jenna wortham

— part of the brilliance of TikTok, yeah. But in this case, it’s just really interesting, because a lot of the best challenges set to music on TikTok involve transformation from plain Jane to hottie, or playing around with gender, or playing around with something that’s a pretty exquisite black and white flip or binary.

And with “Drivers License,” they’re really just playing into the cathartic release that the bridge offers. Like, here are the contents of my heart emptied out. And it’s such a strange challenge to me in that way, because I’m just like, wow, there’s no trickery here. It’s just feelings.

wesley morris

It is compounding the earnestness that already exists in the song. And the song is about a kind of dramatic truth that a lot of people feel, especially the younger you are, the more access you have to those feelings.

I can remember doing some really just actionable things when I was 16, 17, 18 years old, based on how I was feeling about another person or how another person had made me feel. And to be able to take that from a song and sit in your bedroom, which, as a young person, I have done many and a-plenty, as my grandmother would say, I would just sit in the bedroom and just have these little concerts with myself.

jenna wortham

I was going to say, even before I had a phone to record myself on, I was definitely acting out the most emotional parts of a song, emotional parts of a movie. I was having my own one-woman plays in my bedroom over whatever micro drama happened at Cameron Elementary School that day. I was really working through it.

I think what’s really changed is we have the ability to show other people how we interpret music and how we play around with the common thread of popular culture. And TikTok is kind of the vehicle that allows people to share those interpretations publicly. And I am so happy that people have an outlet for the deep emotions that they must be feeling right now. And it’s just so apparent when you browse through that. Now, of course, there’s a ton of TikTok parodies that I’ve sent you. There’s a hilarious one of a woman who’s pretending to be the person stuck behind Olivia Rodrigo’s character while she’s outside of this house.

tiktok video

(SINGING) Did just get her driver’s license? Because I’ve been stuck behind her car.

jenna wortham

And she’s like, this is why I moved to the suburbs so I wouldn’t be stuck in traffic. What is that girl doing? Did she just get her driver’s license? There’s a lot in that vein.

wesley morris

It’s so good. S.N.L. needs to hire her. Her handle for y’all is jaxwritessongs.

tiktok video

(SINGING) This is why I moved out of the suburbs. I’m about to snap.

jenna wortham

And then of course, because of the way that app works, you can upload that as a new original sound. So people can take this woman’s audio and make their own versions of a parody —

wesley morris

It’s kind of amazing.

jenna wortham

— thereby amplifying all the content on the app.

wesley morris

So obviously, music is changing if you can actually engineer a song to be put into one of these filters or one of these search options.

jenna wortham

Yeah, well, Olivia told Joe Coscarelli in “Diary of a Song” that she did write a part of the song with TikTok in mind. She’s constructing the song. She’s like, this is the part that I hope people play to on TikTok. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which TikTok might be compressing music, rather than elevating it. Because essentially, what happens is, you only ever really engage with 10 to 15 seconds of a song. I’ve been thinking a lot about this with the “Buss It” challenge. Do you know about — you’ve probably seen it through me.

wesley morris

I know the song, but you’re going to have to refresh my memory about what the challenge actually is.

jenna wortham

Yeah, so I mean, there is a song called “Buss It” by this Texas rapper, Erica Banks, who’s like new on the scene for sure. She releases a song called buses at the end of 2020. And the song samples “Hot in Here” by Nelly.

archived recording (erica banks)

(SINGING) Buss it, buss it, buss it.

jenna wortham

And a typical TikTok “Buss It” challenge video would entail a person at home maybe eating chips, looking at the TV, or fixing themselves in the mirror, wearing a bonnet, and then just as the Nelly sample was kind of winding down, they drop to their knees. And then in the drop, with some really savvy video editing, you see them as they, I guess, want to be seen or they see themselves in their most decadent — it could be in evening wear. It could be a skin-tight dress. It could be face completely done up. It could be completely in drag. Shangela from Drag Race did a really good one. And it’s kind of genius, right? Because the song has really nothing to do with being stuck at home in a pandemic, but because the song is basically like, let me see what you got, like, bust it open.

So all these people who are bored at home and sick of only ever wearing clothing with drawstrings decide, you know what? I am going to show the world how good I look and how good I can look, even if I’m only ever in my yum-yums — which is what I call sweats when they get to be too tight.

wesley morris

[LAUGHS]

jenna wortham

So all of my sweats are now yum-yums. So you just end up with this really great challenge that’s working on a number of levels. And it allows people to be like, here’s what I really look like outside of the pandemic. But we’ve always played with music. It has always been a vehicle for some kind of expression.

And I think a lot about an artist like 24kGoldn, who is this young rapper who’s trying to get big, who, every time he makes a song, he creates its own challenge for. And he’s very active on TikTok. And I think he’s done a really good job with the songs of doing this thing where he’s creating soundtracks that people see themselves in. He’s creating music that people relate to in a way that the song “Mood,” for example, is about your girl being in a bad mood, which, again, it’s so tailored to the pandemic. Everyone can relate to having a grumpy partner.

archived recording (24kgoldn)

(SINGING) Why you always in a mood? [EXPLETIVE] ’round, actin’ brand new.

jenna wortham

All the videos of that song are kind of about that. And as much as artists want to promote themselves and they want to get as much visibility and attention as they can for their music, the things that do really well on TikTok are either extremely well-edited, or they’re really funny.

The number one song on TikTok last year was “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. And it’s this guy on a skateboard drinking Ocean Spray, right? And he’s just skating around, and it’s this beautiful, idyllic California, that dreamy pastel splashing the sky behind them. And they’re just — it’s super wavy. It’s super relaxing. Of course, there’s a little bit of a visual play because this older grizzled guy with tattoos on a skateboard, drinking Ocean Spray, listening to “Dreams,” it’s just this kind of great opposites attract moment. And it’s also really idyllic. It’s so calming to watch. It’s so pleasurable. And then if you go back to that guy’s feed, he just seems like the nicest dude. He’s always with a kitten. It’s just, like, it’s so feel-goody. It has such a good mouth feel to it.

And I also think that’s the kind of thing that does really well on TikTok. But the year a song came out has almost nothing to do with it being popular on TikTok. It really has to do with how well someone invokes a memory of a song. Songs are time capsules, right? They transport you to a place and to a time. And whoever figures out how best to orient that wins the game.

wesley morris

I’m listening to you say all this, and I’m just thinking about my younger self listening to the radio in my bedroom.

jenna wortham

Aw.

wesley morris

And the degree to which my appreciation of a good bridge is basically not that dissimilar from a TikTok user’s appreciation of any part of any song. And I’m going to guess that for a lot of people, that whatever your relationship is to whatever part of the TikTok that you are doing, the song in tandem with the challenge of how to perform it is a kind of flight. And knowing that you are also part of this community — I mean, that was the other thing about me and the radio.

I knew the odds of my being alone listening to this Whitney Houston song were probably pretty low. I was in a community of people when we were listening to this song together. And every week that I go listen to my Casey Kasem American Top 40, I’d have proof that the song I hear on the radio, whenever it comes on, is actually truly popular.

jenna wortham

I would say that the flight you’re describing is how I felt the first time I nailed Meg the Stallion’s “Savage.” It took me forever to do it. And I wouldn’t say it was very good. But when I hit it and I got it, and I got it on tape, was one of the proudest moments of my life in 2020, which is saying something.

It’s really incredible when you get to engage with a piece of art. And I think with music, it’s always about the somatic experience of where a song lives in your body. And I think what a lot of artists have done and have really enjoyed doing is seeing not just where these songs live in people’s bodies, but what their bodies do with them and what their minds do with them. And it is such a vehicle for creative expression, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. It’s like the artists are like, I’m going to write this song, but I’m also going to include something in it for you.

It’s almost a bonus track. The B side has become something else in this era. It’s not a singular bedroom experience anymore. It’s trying to kind of figure out how to fit yourself into this larger continuum of expression that is fueled by — I mean, the competition comes from, if I’m smart enough, if I’m good enough, if I’m clever enough, this might feed into some bigger cash cow that I can’t yet imagine.

wesley morris

I’m really struck by just how emotionally sincere a lot of them are. There is a joy and a pleasure in self-expression that’s wonderful that in many ways, you don’t necessarily have to be Whitney Houston in order to express, right? You don’t have to actually be Janet Jackson. But you can take what they’re giving you and redirect it so that you can give it to somebody else. It is like you are passing along some energy, like some emotional and physical energy, from one source to another source. And that, to me, is what a great pop song can actually do, too.

jenna wortham

Well, Wesley, you were very distressed about what you saw as the exit of something you care very passionately about. And I was really invigorated by another way that I saw pop music being used. And for both of us, we’re talking about the pleasures of songs. We’re just invested in a very different portion of that pleasure.

And it’s interesting to think about how TikTok is reshaping music because the entrance of every new piece of technology that deals with music has changed how the music lived, right? The rise of streaming services changed how artists thought about albums versus singles, right? That’s the most direct and recent and relevant example to think about. But it goes all the way back to the phonograph, right?

And when we lament the way technology changes our understanding of an art form, I think what we fail to recognize is the way sometimes that relationship is being updated, improved upon. I mean, I’m not trying to say that it’s always an improvement because certainly there are tons of examples throughout time of things flattening or becoming cheaper because of technology. But maybe that’s not giving enough credit to music itself as a social technology that’s evolving based on the needs of the listener.

wesley morris

Yeah, I mean, you’re right. I am a nostalgist sometimes when it comes to —

jenna wortham

I don’t know if I’m right.

wesley morris

I mean, I think you’re right.

jenna wortham

But what we’re also talking about, though, is, I think there’s a tendency to interpret change as the loss of something. The nostalgia is warranted, right? And it’s OK to feel sad that there’s a certain type of album that may never get made again. And “Drivers License” embodies that nostalgia. And it reifies it, and it also validates it. And it brings it into the future in this really fresh, incredible way.

And so, all the excitement around it is so warranted and so validating. And I get that. I also think that sometimes when we look backwards and we’re like, things aren’t as good as they used to be, it kind of blocks us from embracing what’s exciting about right now. And we have to be able to hold those two things together at the same time.

[music]

wesley morris

That’s our show.

jenna wortham

Still Processing is produced at The New York Times by Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow.

wesley morris

Our editors are Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss.

jenna wortham

Marion Lozano mixes the show.

wesley morris

And our theme music is by Kindness. It’s called “World Restart” from the album “Otherness.”

jenna wortham

And you can find out more about everything we mentioned in the show at nytimes.com/stillprocessing.

wesley morris

Thanks for listening, everybody.

jenna wortham

See you next week.

Now That’s What I Call a Bridge!

Jenna and Wesley search for the best part of the song.

transcript

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transcript

Now That’s What I Call a Bridge!

Jenna and Wesley search for the best part of the song.

Thursday, March 25th, 2021

jenna wortham

Wesley, if there’s one thing this season of Still Processing is all about, it is realizing our deepest dreams and hopes and ambitions for the show. Would you agree?

wesley morris

I’m definitely — I’m going wherever this car that you’re driving is going to take me. So, yes.

jenna wortham

Well, beep, beep, baby, get in because we’re going to go read a book together. This is something we have wanted to do since the beginning of the show, which is invite our listeners to read a book alongside us. And we’re finally going to do it.

wesley morris

Yes, we are going to read “Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning” by Cathy Park Hong. And I’m excited to do that.

jenna wortham

I’m so excited, too. Cathy Park Hong is an incredible poet, a dynamic essayist, a cultural critic. This book is part memoir as well. It’s a really incredible examination of what it means to live outside of the racial binary and the discourse that this country tends to fixate on, which we fixate on as well. Can I tell you a little bit about where Cathy says the title comes from?

wesley morris

Absolutely.

jenna wortham

OK, I was reading this amazing interview in the Yale Review, and here’s how Cathy describes what the framing of “Minor Feelings” means. “I was trying to get at the existential core of living in this country and having your lived reality constantly gaslit by the American public, what it does to you and how there’s no outlet for it. And I was also trying to puncture all the myths that have harmed vulnerable communities.” I mean, damn. Is that not the most Still Processing sounding book ever?

wesley morris

I mean, yes, and it is also like a sentiment for this moment, too. So, yes. “Minor Feelings,” Cathy Park Hong. Get it wherever you get any kind of book — audiobook, library book, book for sale in a physical bookstore. And on April 29, we’re going to talk about this book. And in the meantime, we’ll give you updates about how you can participate in that episode.

jenna wortham

So stay tuned and keep listening to the show because more details will come.

[music]

I’m Jenna Wortham.

wesley morris

I’m Wesley Morris, and we’re two culture writers at The New York Times.

jenna wortham

And this is Still Processing.

wesley morris

So, every year, you and I start having a conversation sometime around March or April about what we think the song of the summer is going to be. Like, what’s the song of the summer? And I just want to preempt that conversation right now by just skipping ahead to December and saying, I think we have a song of the year.

jenna wortham

Tell me more. Please bring me into your world.

wesley morris

I think it’s “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo.

[music – olivia rodrigo, “drivers license”]

archived recording (olivia rodrigo)

(SINGING) I got my driver’s license last week, just like we always talked about, because you were so excited for me to finally drive up to your house.

wesley morris

OK, first of all, it debuted at number one on the Hot 100 at the beginning of January, and it stayed there for months. She’s held off Ariana Grande. She’s held off Cardi B. So Olivia Rodrigo herself — 18 years old, Disney star. She’s been on a couple of Disney Channel shows. This is her first song, at least that I’ve ever heard by her. And it’s, I would say, the first song to capture the United States’s collective imagination since “WAP.”

jenna wortham

How is that possible? How is that possible?

wesley morris

This song is the exact opposite of “WAP” in every possible way, too.

jenna wortham

Yeah. I had not heard of this song, Wesley, until you brought it up to me. I still remain in awe in Rihanna’s America that you can have a number one song that is huge in all these ways and has captured the imagination of some people in this country and totally eluded the awareness of others. I mean, my pipeline to pop culture, my 24-year-old niece had not heard of this song.

wesley morris

Amazing.

jenna wortham

And yet, you’re right. It’s huge, it’s everywhere. And I had to Google all of this because I was just like, who is this person? I don’t like feeling like there are some huge pop cultural phenomena that I don’t know about. So I went on a deep dive. So the tea is piping hot, and I think this is why the song is so popular, in some ways, that has eluded others, right?

There’s this whole “High School Musical” backstory. I just think “High School Musical” is one of those things that I am aged out of, but for the people for whom it hits, it is deep. It’s like deep lure. There are fan blogs, fan grams. I mean, I just think it’s so embedded in the culture of the people who grew up with that. So Olivia Rodrigo, who wrote “Drivers License,” she starred with this guy named Joshua Basset in “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” But they played a couple. I mean, apparently, it was I.R.L. too. That’s “in real life.” And then they broke up. And “Drivers License” is about that breakup. Then I went kind of deep because I guess there’s this whole other thing that happened with another Disney star named Sabrina Carpenter, who’s also been posting mysterious Instagram. I mean, just, it’s so soapy. It’s so “Days of Our Lives.” Joshua’s released a song. Sabrina’s released a song.

I mean, it’s just, this is the stuff of virality, right? This love triangle mystery that is fun to skim for clues. And I don’t know — I remember those obsessions when I was a teen and a tween. So I’m making myself feel better about being too old to get it. And it worked.

wesley morris

But Jenna, those things might be true for why this song is so appealing, but I’m just going to get down to brass musicological tacks and say that I think the thing that makes this song so exciting for people is that it’s got a bridge. It’s got a bridge!

jenna wortham

Yes, after years, Wesley, of you trying to get me to understand what a bridge is, this is the only bridge I’ve been able to self-identify.

wesley morris

Yes!

jenna wortham

Unlike you, I have no brass musicological tacks, but I know you do.

wesley morris

I know a little bit about a little bit. But what I do know is that a song at its most fundamental and basic and most reduced goes like this: The verse of the song is A. The chorus of the song is B. You go from verse to chorus, verse to chorus. So that’s A, B, A, B. Then, at some point, there’s just a total change in the song, and that introduces a new letter, which is C. C is typically in a pop song the bridge.

It’s a completely new part of the song that’s set apart from everything else. And what I love about some bridges is you are dropped into the middle of a totally different song. And the bridge on “Drivers License” basically does that. But why don’t we just go from the chorus of “Drivers License” into the bridge?

jenna wortham

OK, I’m ready.

archived recording (olivia rodrigo)

(SINGING) I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me.

‘Cause you said forever, now I drive alone past your street.

wesley morris

Here we go.

archived recording (olivia rodrigo)

(SINGING) Red lights, stop signs, I still see —

jenna wortham

Oh.

archived recording (olivia rodrigo)

— your face in the white cars, front yards. Can’t drive past the places we used to go to ’cause I still [EXPLETIVE] love you, babe.

wesley morris

The bottom basically falls out, and you’re in a completely new song essentially. It really just — as you would say, Jenna, it slaps.

jenna wortham

Ooh. Well, it’s like prime shower material. It’s actually the perfect bridge for a pandemic. Like when the bridge comes on and I’m cooking or doing anything mundane alone by myself and the bridge comes on — and I’m not going through a breakup, things in my life are pretty swell. But I still find myself clutching the spatula or whatever I was using, the highlighter, and just pounding my fist on my kitchen bar.

wesley morris

Yes.

jenna wortham

It’s the perfect — I don’t know — 20 seconds of song to just belt out while you’re alone in your home, which most of us are now all the time. It’s perfect for that. It’s an exquisitely well-made song.

wesley morris

And if you’re 12, 13 years old, it’s got two curses. It just probably feels so good to be 12 or 13, license to be able to say, “I still [EXPLETIVE] love you.”

jenna wortham

This is a song that most people are probably listening to in unconventional-for-pop-music ways. It probably really is a song that’s being consumed mostly through headphones, mostly in isolation. I mean, so you get to belt out the curse word. You’re not worrying about it at the middle school dance. You get to hear it in its unadulterated form, which, again, I think adds to the thrill of it and the popularity of it.

wesley morris

I mean, Saturday Night Live did a “Drivers License” sketch a couple of weeks ago. And I have to say it blew my mind that they so focused on the bridge.

jenna wortham

I mean, I guess this is what you mean when you say taking the world by storm. Getting a devoted skit on S.N.L. is a pretty high indication of having broken through the culture barrier. The structure is very classic S.N.L. skit. It’s a regular degular place. In this case, it’s a bar, a bunch of guys hanging out, playing pool. And then they introduced this unlikely element of the song, and then the fact that they’re all bonding to it.

wesley morris

Right, these dudes in this blue collar town.

archived recording 1

Wait, what am I listening to?

archived recording 2

“Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo, man.

jenna wortham

All very well versed in hardcore pop ballads.

archived recording 1

I don’t want to say nothing too controversial, you know, but this is giving me Billie Eilish vibes.

archived recording 2

Yeah, yeah, yeah, but the verses are starting to say Taylor?

jenna wortham

And then they cut to Kate McKinnon. Of course, of course, it’s Kate McKinnon dressed up like an old Eastern European man with the killer stash, who’s like, we’re about to get the bridge of our lives.

archived recording (kate mckinnon)

Boys, open your hearts and listen. We’re about to get the bridge of our lives.

archived recording

(SINGING) Red lights, stop signs, I still see your face in the white cars, front yards. Can’t drive past —

jenna wortham

Oh my goodness.

archived recording

(SINGING) — the places we used to —

wesley morris

Jenna, I am like the old Kate McKinnon in that sketch.

jenna wortham

Aw, you are. You are.

wesley morris

I am clinging to bridges. I’m really nostalgic for them, and they are increasingly rare. They’re basically extinct, an endangered species of American popular culture, right there with the spotted owl and the laugh track on the American sitcom. They’re just basically, just like no more for those things. And bridges used to be a huge feature of American popular music. They were common in the 1960s, not so much in the 1970s because of disco and prog rock and funk music, where the songs were just longer and more ambitious and didn’t need the service that a bridge provided. But they were huge in the 1980s, huge.

And then in the 2000s, they just start to disappear. Part of that, I’m going to say, is because hip hop is moving to the center of the culture. You know that Grammy category Rap Song Collaboration? You know, Ashanti and Ja Rule, right?

jenna wortham

Classic.

wesley morris

Any time there’s a rapper on some singer’s song, that rapper is basically doing what a bridge is doing. And so by the time we get to the 2000s and hip hop is at the center of American culture, and you don’t need A, B, A, B anymore, you’ve got all of this other interesting stuff happening. You’ve got samples doing a lot of the melodic work of what a bridge technically could provide — or even a chorus for that matter. The sample sometimes is the chorus.

And so when a bridge shows up in a pop song, you kind of sometimes wonder why it’s even there. A very good example of why is this even happening right now is Rihanna’s “Umbrella.” It’s interesting because it has a bridge, and it also has Jay-Z. And you’ve got both of them doing the same job essentially. And this song comes at an interesting moment where American music is making this, I would say, unconscious choice about whether it’s going to continue into this land of A, B, A, B, C structure or whether it’s just going to explode into a bunch of different letters that have no bearing on anything that was going on before it necessarily.

And it’s mostly chosen to break apart and become a bunch of different letters that do a lot of different things in a song, where you’re not relying on that typical A, B, A, B structure. But let’s go all the way back and listen to a classic example of what a great bridge can be: The Beatles, “We Can Work It Out,” from 1965.

[music – the beatles, “we can work it out”]

archived recording (the beatles)

(SINGING) We can work it out. We can work it out.

wesley morris

Here it comes.

archived recording (the beatles)

(SINGING) Life is very short, and there’s no time.

wesley morris

And then it turns into a waltz.

jenna wortham

Aw.

wesley morris

Right here.

archived recording (the beatles)

(SINGING) Fussing and fighting, my friend.

wesley morris

Just a waltz just ’cause.

jenna wortham

Yeah, I get it.

wesley morris

OK, zero people have asked me this question, but my favorite, favorite bridge is “Raspberry Beret” by Prince. It is one of the cleverer bridges you’re ever going to hear. And part of what’s clever about it is it’s just a piece of storytelling, the song. It’s about a guy who meets a girl who comes into his place of employment. She is wearing — you guessed it — a raspberry beret. And they go off together to have sex in a barn, and the bridge is where the barn sex takes place.

[music – prince, “rasberry beret”]

archived recording (prince)

(SINGING) Thunder drowns out what the lightning sees. You feel —

wesley morris

So the place where the magic happens is in the bridge of the song and also the barn where he does it. By the end of this bridge in “Raspberry Beret,” Prince has had sex with this woman and has basically lost his mind. He is essentially having an orgasm by the end of the bridge. And he’s kicked you back into the song.

archived recording (prince)

(SINGING) Raspberry beret.

jenna wortham

It’s fantastic.

wesley morris

Another great bridge is the bridge for “Nasty” by Janet Jackson, which, it’s the most fun to sing because Janet Jackson is declaring with great attitude and not a little bit of umbrage that this is how you will be talking to her.

[music – janet jackson, “nasty”]

archived recording (janet jackson)

(SINGING) Listen up. I’m not a prude. No. I just want some respect. That’s right. So close the door if you want me to respond.

wesley morris

She gets mad, and the music seems to get mad and destabilizes with her.

archived recording (janet jackson)

No, my first name ain’t baby. It’s Janet. Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty.

wesley morris

She gets to the point where she gets fed up and she needs to actually deliver her manifesto about how you will be treating her. Because the rest of the song is just her saying what she doesn’t like. And at this point, she’s telling you what she does like. [LAUGHS]

jenna wortham

It’s also the sexiest part of the song, because it’s the part where she lets loose. Janet as an artist is such a — for as much as she gives you, she’s such a walled garden. And it’s just like the one time the hedges part a little bit, and you get to peek through. And she’s like, this is —

if you can get the key, you know everything about Janet. It feels like a quest. If you can figure out how to defeat the trolls and get the key, this is what you’ll get access to. And it’s so tantalizing. But for all of my life, if I literally was on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire,” I would never — I’d call you, but I would never have been able to identify that as the bridge if a million dollars rested on it. It would be very hard. So thank you for that explainer.

wesley morris

You’re welcome, but I would say one of the bridges that I admire beyond all reason, honestly, but definitely one of the top three that makes me feel like something amazing just happened to my “bah-tay” is “I’m Your Baby Tonight” by the one and only Whitney Houston. This is just one of my favorite songs, period.

jenna wortham

Mine, too.

wesley morris

And it’s got one of my favorite bridges. And part of the reason “I’m Your Baby Tonight” is such a deceptively great song, and in terms of how it’s arranged and how it’s performed, is that the whole thing is building. It’s building and building and building and building. And so by the time you get to the second chorus, she’s adlibbing at this point.

[music – whitney houston, “i’m your baby tonight”]

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) You are my fantasy.

wesley morris

She’s ramping things up.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) I am your babe. Whatever I do, boy.

wesley morris

And there is this new keyboard note in this part of the song. The temperature is raising. And she’s feeling it. Whitney’s feeling it.

archived recording (whitney houston)

(SINGING) But I’ll there for you, baby. You got a — you got a way that you’re making me feel I can — feel I can do any — do anything, yeah.

wesley morris

This bridge is giving me chills.

jenna wortham

Oh my God.

wesley morris

I am on this roller coaster with this song that I love, and I’m going up and up and up and up and up. I know every time I hear this song that if I catch it at the right moment, which, if I have any control over it, I am going to catch every minute of it. I feel like I have earned that bridge. [LAUGHS] I think the whole song is great, but I know that I am going up that hill with Whitney Houston to this bridge. And then once we get over the bridge, we’re at a cruising altitude. You are free to move about the cabin. It is just blissful, and it’s just fun.

jenna wortham

OK, wait I’ve just had a revelation. I think for me, I always just assumed the bridge was the breakdown.

wesley morris

Ah, interesting.

jenna wortham

So the part of the song where the singers break it down. They’re building up to this moment where they’re going to really draw you a picture with their voice.

wesley morris

Yes!

jenna wortham

And now I’m realizing that’s probably the bridge.

wesley morris

It’s probably the bridge.

jenna wortham

OK, all right.

wesley morris

But that’s a great way to think about it, as a kind of breaking down as well. I mean, she is at her most emotional in the song at this bridge. It is the best possible trouble you could hope to get into with a piece of music.

jenna wortham

I’m really grasping what you want in a bridge. It’s the gushers, right? It’s the thing you bite into. It’s the surprise. It’s the joy of seeing what a really proficient artist like Whitney Houston does in a song with the structure, how they play.

And if we think about a song as a journey, we think about a song as a road trip, the bridge is — shout out to the tri-state area people — but it’s the really good rest stop that you cannot wait to get to that has all the glitzy fast food places that you would normally never go to, but it’s a special treat, and the good gift shop and the good bathrooms and the good picnic tables outside. Right? Am I picking up what you’re putting down?

wesley morris

Jenna, that is so much better than anything I could ever have said. All I’m saying, really, is that I miss bridges. And before “Drivers License,” there was really only one person who was interested in them, in a serious committed song to song sort of way. She’s still committed to them.

jenna wortham

Who?

wesley morris

Taylor Swift!

jenna wortham

All roads lead back to Taylor.

wesley morris

I try to keep this a Taylor-free pod for you, but I got to tell the truth when the truth needs to be told.

jenna wortham

It is true. I am not a Swiftie, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire or respect her abilities as a singer-songwriter. I get it. She is very talented. She is very, very, very gifted at what she does.

wesley morris

Ah.

jenna wortham

She doesn’t have to be my cup of tea for me to admire. Like, I don’t drink Earl Grey tea, but I understand that it is a very fine flavor of tea. But it’s not my cup of tea. She’s Earl Grey to me. That’s fine.

wesley morris

Y’all heard it here first — Taylor Swift, the Earl Grey tea of popular music.

jenna wortham

But I’m listening to you talk about Taylor Swift and her commitment to the bridge. And I’m also thinking about when Taylor Swift starts to come of age as a musician. She really starts to have her prime in what I would call the second wave of social media, so 2015, 2016, where the shift really starts to turn towards visual mediums.

Instagram is clutch and key if you’re a celebrity or musician that wants to offer a more behind-the-scenes look at your career, get your fans more invested. And so that’s where her team and where she is placing all of her energy in terms of building up her reputation. But think about it, OK? All of this happens right up until about 2018. Think about albums like “Red,” “1989,” “Reputation.” Those songs that defined Taylor Swift’s career — “Shake It Off,” “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Blank Space,” that embarrassingly cameod “Bad Blood” — all this is happening right up until mid-2018, if memory and Wikipedia serve me right.

But guess what happens in social media right around the summer of 2018? Guess what big earthquake hits the world and the tsunami that follows? Guess what app enters the market?

wesley morris

Oh, I can answer this one. It’s TikTok.

jenna wortham

Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. It is TikTok. In 2018, this Chinese company called ByteDance buys an American app called Musically, which was a really popular lip-sync app. It was beloved by the pre-teen set. The under 21’s were really, really into this app and making videos themselves. But overnight, ByteDance combines with Musically, and TikTok is born. And everything we know from thereon out is subsequently altered. But the point I’m trying to make is that Taylor Swift never had to think about priming her songs for TikTok. A lot of artists feel like in order to raise their own visibility, they have to have some presence on TikTok. But Taylor Swift never had to deal with any of that. She enjoys the luxury of already having such a firm foothold in the music world. She’s got hundreds of millions of followers across all the platforms, a bazillion Grammys and various awards. I mean, she has name brand recognition that she enjoys. She just gets to do what she wants. She’s earned it.

wesley morris

But Jenna, I would also say something else about what you just very brilliantly observed about Taylor Swift, which is that at least one or two of the songs on these so-called quarantine records that Taylor Swift put out last year, “Folklore” and “Evermore,” those songs seem to end with a bridge. Is that even a bridge still? I mean, if it is a bridge, it’s a bridge to nowhere.

jenna wortham

But listening to you talk, Wesley, I’m getting this idea, right and I think maybe what you’re worried about disappearing is actually just emerging in a different form, right? If Taylor is an artist who has upheld the legacy of something as classic in music as a bridge, and even she’s playing around with it — front, back, side to side, up and down, putting it wherever she wants — I mean, maybe it’s actually an exciting evolution. Life will always find a way. Bridges will always find a way. And yes, most of the new pop songs made popular because of their relationship to TikTok don’t have bridges. That is true. But they have other ways to channel and invoke that emotion and that emotional response that you’re talking about that you’re longing for. It is there. We do have that connection to the song. We do have this connection to each other. It’s happening in aggregate. It’s happening very differently. It’s happening very visually. And let’s just take a break, and I’m going to break it down for you when we get back.

wesley morris

Uh, OK.

jenna wortham

You all right? You’re going to be OK.

wesley morris

I think so. I hope so.

jenna wortham

You’re going to be OK.

[laughter]

[music]

So just to rewind it all the way back to “Drivers License” for a second, I actually hadn’t heard of the song until you mentioned it to me, which is unusual because most of the music I hear nowadays is through TikTok. TikTok has become my radio. It is the thing I love to unwind to at the end of the day. It’s like my favorite pastime.

So I looked it up immediately. I typed in “Drivers License” to the app and was not surprised to discover there’s an entire world of lip-syncs. I mean, TikTok is known for having a variety of categories within which people make things. And “Drivers License” really touches all of them. There are challenges. There are lip syncs. There are transformations. There are things that fit all three of those categories. And I was pretty amazed.

The video that seems to be the first major TikTok set to “Drivers License” involves a young woman, her user name is @spoiledmel. And she’s staring into the camera. Her eyes are wet with tears, and she’s really lip singing along. Like, I guess you didn’t mean what you wrote in that song about me. And then she falls back on her bed, which is just — it’s got the flowery bedspread. It’s got stuffed animals. It’s just such a teen bed. Ugh, I love that. The video cuts again, and she falls back into the bedspread. But she’s done an outfit change, and so she’s in this floral dress. And she’s using the TikTok lighting effect, one of the filters that makes it look like there’s flashing lights. I mean, and that’s the TikTok, I think, that really captured the best part of that song, which is the transition into the bridge where you just get the build-up and all of the emotion and the heart swells and the heart strings in it.

And I mean, it helps that this woman clearly is going through something, or the song is invoking something for her because you can literally see the cartoon drawing of a tear about to spill out of her eye. You know what I mean? It’s so evident. And I mean, people on TikTok seemed like they had a lot of fun with the song and they ran with it. And I spent some time browsing through the hashtag because one of the ways TikTok works is, we’re familiar with how hashtags are used on Twitter and Instagram to organize a series of posts based on a word or a couple of phrases. The same thing is true on TikTok, but you can have audio hashtags. They call them sounds. And so you can browse through a series of sounds to see how hundreds or millions of people worked with the same 10 seconds of a piece of music, which is —

wesley morris

That’s amazing.

jenna wortham

— part of the brilliance of TikTok, yeah. But in this case, it’s just really interesting, because a lot of the best challenges set to music on TikTok involve transformation from plain Jane to hottie, or playing around with gender, or playing around with something that’s a pretty exquisite black and white flip or binary.

And with “Drivers License,” they’re really just playing into the cathartic release that the bridge offers. Like, here are the contents of my heart emptied out. And it’s such a strange challenge to me in that way, because I’m just like, wow, there’s no trickery here. It’s just feelings.

wesley morris

It is compounding the earnestness that already exists in the song. And the song is about a kind of dramatic truth that a lot of people feel, especially the younger you are, the more access you have to those feelings.

I can remember doing some really just actionable things when I was 16, 17, 18 years old, based on how I was feeling about another person or how another person had made me feel. And to be able to take that from a song and sit in your bedroom, which, as a young person, I have done many and a-plenty, as my grandmother would say, I would just sit in the bedroom and just have these little concerts with myself.

jenna wortham

I was going to say, even before I had a phone to record myself on, I was definitely acting out the most emotional parts of a song, emotional parts of a movie. I was having my own one-woman plays in my bedroom over whatever micro drama happened at Cameron Elementary School that day. I was really working through it.

I think what’s really changed is we have the ability to show other people how we interpret music and how we play around with the common thread of popular culture. And TikTok is kind of the vehicle that allows people to share those interpretations publicly. And I am so happy that people have an outlet for the deep emotions that they must be feeling right now. And it’s just so apparent when you browse through that. Now, of course, there’s a ton of TikTok parodies that I’ve sent you. There’s a hilarious one of a woman who’s pretending to be the person stuck behind Olivia Rodrigo’s character while she’s outside of this house.

tiktok video

(SINGING) Did just get her driver’s license? Because I’ve been stuck behind her car.

jenna wortham

And she’s like, this is why I moved to the suburbs so I wouldn’t be stuck in traffic. What is that girl doing? Did she just get her driver’s license? There’s a lot in that vein.

wesley morris

It’s so good. S.N.L. needs to hire her. Her handle for y’all is jaxwritessongs.

tiktok video

(SINGING) This is why I moved out of the suburbs. I’m about to snap.

jenna wortham

And then of course, because of the way that app works, you can upload that as a new original sound. So people can take this woman’s audio and make their own versions of a parody —

wesley morris

It’s kind of amazing.

jenna wortham

— thereby amplifying all the content on the app.

wesley morris

So obviously, music is changing if you can actually engineer a song to be put into one of these filters or one of these search options.

jenna wortham

Yeah, well, Olivia told Joe Coscarelli in “Diary of a Song” that she did write a part of the song with TikTok in mind. She’s constructing the song. She’s like, this is the part that I hope people play to on TikTok. And I’ve been thinking a lot about the ways in which TikTok might be compressing music, rather than elevating it. Because essentially, what happens is, you only ever really engage with 10 to 15 seconds of a song. I’ve been thinking a lot about this with the “Buss It” challenge. Do you know about — you’ve probably seen it through me.

wesley morris

I know the song, but you’re going to have to refresh my memory about what the challenge actually is.

jenna wortham

Yeah, so I mean, there is a song called “Buss It” by this Texas rapper, Erica Banks, who’s like new on the scene for sure. She releases a song called buses at the end of 2020. And the song samples “Hot in Here” by Nelly.

archived recording (erica banks)

(SINGING) Buss it, buss it, buss it.

jenna wortham

And a typical TikTok “Buss It” challenge video would entail a person at home maybe eating chips, looking at the TV, or fixing themselves in the mirror, wearing a bonnet, and then just as the Nelly sample was kind of winding down, they drop to their knees. And then in the drop, with some really savvy video editing, you see them as they, I guess, want to be seen or they see themselves in their most decadent — it could be in evening wear. It could be a skin-tight dress. It could be face completely done up. It could be completely in drag. Shangela from Drag Race did a really good one. And it’s kind of genius, right? Because the song has really nothing to do with being stuck at home in a pandemic, but because the song is basically like, let me see what you got, like, bust it open.

So all these people who are bored at home and sick of only ever wearing clothing with drawstrings decide, you know what? I am going to show the world how good I look and how good I can look, even if I’m only ever in my yum-yums — which is what I call sweats when they get to be too tight.

wesley morris

[LAUGHS]

jenna wortham

So all of my sweats are now yum-yums. So you just end up with this really great challenge that’s working on a number of levels. And it allows people to be like, here’s what I really look like outside of the pandemic. But we’ve always played with music. It has always been a vehicle for some kind of expression.

And I think a lot about an artist like 24kGoldn, who is this young rapper who’s trying to get big, who, every time he makes a song, he creates its own challenge for. And he’s very active on TikTok. And I think he’s done a really good job with the songs of doing this thing where he’s creating soundtracks that people see themselves in. He’s creating music that people relate to in a way that the song “Mood,” for example, is about your girl being in a bad mood, which, again, it’s so tailored to the pandemic. Everyone can relate to having a grumpy partner.

archived recording (24kgoldn)

(SINGING) Why you always in a mood? [EXPLETIVE] ’round, actin’ brand new.

jenna wortham

All the videos of that song are kind of about that. And as much as artists want to promote themselves and they want to get as much visibility and attention as they can for their music, the things that do really well on TikTok are either extremely well-edited, or they’re really funny.

The number one song on TikTok last year was “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac. And it’s this guy on a skateboard drinking Ocean Spray, right? And he’s just skating around, and it’s this beautiful, idyllic California, that dreamy pastel splashing the sky behind them. And they’re just — it’s super wavy. It’s super relaxing. Of course, there’s a little bit of a visual play because this older grizzled guy with tattoos on a skateboard, drinking Ocean Spray, listening to “Dreams,” it’s just this kind of great opposites attract moment. And it’s also really idyllic. It’s so calming to watch. It’s so pleasurable. And then if you go back to that guy’s feed, he just seems like the nicest dude. He’s always with a kitten. It’s just, like, it’s so feel-goody. It has such a good mouth feel to it.

And I also think that’s the kind of thing that does really well on TikTok. But the year a song came out has almost nothing to do with it being popular on TikTok. It really has to do with how well someone invokes a memory of a song. Songs are time capsules, right? They transport you to a place and to a time. And whoever figures out how best to orient that wins the game.

wesley morris

I’m listening to you say all this, and I’m just thinking about my younger self listening to the radio in my bedroom.

jenna wortham

Aw.

wesley morris

And the degree to which my appreciation of a good bridge is basically not that dissimilar from a TikTok user’s appreciation of any part of any song. And I’m going to guess that for a lot of people, that whatever your relationship is to whatever part of the TikTok that you are doing, the song in tandem with the challenge of how to perform it is a kind of flight. And knowing that you are also part of this community — I mean, that was the other thing about me and the radio.

I knew the odds of my being alone listening to this Whitney Houston song were probably pretty low. I was in a community of people when we were listening to this song together. And every week that I go listen to my Casey Kasem American Top 40, I’d have proof that the song I hear on the radio, whenever it comes on, is actually truly popular.

jenna wortham

I would say that the flight you’re describing is how I felt the first time I nailed Meg the Stallion’s “Savage.” It took me forever to do it. And I wouldn’t say it was very good. But when I hit it and I got it, and I got it on tape, was one of the proudest moments of my life in 2020, which is saying something.

It’s really incredible when you get to engage with a piece of art. And I think with music, it’s always about the somatic experience of where a song lives in your body. And I think what a lot of artists have done and have really enjoyed doing is seeing not just where these songs live in people’s bodies, but what their bodies do with them and what their minds do with them. And it is such a vehicle for creative expression, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. It’s like the artists are like, I’m going to write this song, but I’m also going to include something in it for you.

It’s almost a bonus track. The B side has become something else in this era. It’s not a singular bedroom experience anymore. It’s trying to kind of figure out how to fit yourself into this larger continuum of expression that is fueled by — I mean, the competition comes from, if I’m smart enough, if I’m good enough, if I’m clever enough, this might feed into some bigger cash cow that I can’t yet imagine.

wesley morris

I’m really struck by just how emotionally sincere a lot of them are. There is a joy and a pleasure in self-expression that’s wonderful that in many ways, you don’t necessarily have to be Whitney Houston in order to express, right? You don’t have to actually be Janet Jackson. But you can take what they’re giving you and redirect it so that you can give it to somebody else. It is like you are passing along some energy, like some emotional and physical energy, from one source to another source. And that, to me, is what a great pop song can actually do, too.

jenna wortham

Well, Wesley, you were very distressed about what you saw as the exit of something you care very passionately about. And I was really invigorated by another way that I saw pop music being used. And for both of us, we’re talking about the pleasures of songs. We’re just invested in a very different portion of that pleasure.

And it’s interesting to think about how TikTok is reshaping music because the entrance of every new piece of technology that deals with music has changed how the music lived, right? The rise of streaming services changed how artists thought about albums versus singles, right? That’s the most direct and recent and relevant example to think about. But it goes all the way back to the phonograph, right?

And when we lament the way technology changes our understanding of an art form, I think what we fail to recognize is the way sometimes that relationship is being updated, improved upon. I mean, I’m not trying to say that it’s always an improvement because certainly there are tons of examples throughout time of things flattening or becoming cheaper because of technology. But maybe that’s not giving enough credit to music itself as a social technology that’s evolving based on the needs of the listener.

wesley morris

Yeah, I mean, you’re right. I am a nostalgist sometimes when it comes to —

jenna wortham

I don’t know if I’m right.

wesley morris

I mean, I think you’re right.

jenna wortham

But what we’re also talking about, though, is, I think there’s a tendency to interpret change as the loss of something. The nostalgia is warranted, right? And it’s OK to feel sad that there’s a certain type of album that may never get made again. And “Drivers License” embodies that nostalgia. And it reifies it, and it also validates it. And it brings it into the future in this really fresh, incredible way.

And so, all the excitement around it is so warranted and so validating. And I get that. I also think that sometimes when we look backwards and we’re like, things aren’t as good as they used to be, it kind of blocks us from embracing what’s exciting about right now. And we have to be able to hold those two things together at the same time.

[music]

wesley morris

That’s our show.

jenna wortham

Still Processing is produced at The New York Times by Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow.

wesley morris

Our editors are Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss.

jenna wortham

Marion Lozano mixes the show.

wesley morris

And our theme music is by Kindness. It’s called “World Restart” from the album “Otherness.”

jenna wortham

And you can find out more about everything we mentioned in the show at nytimes.com/stillprocessing.

wesley morris

Thanks for listening, everybody.

jenna wortham

See you next week.

Published March 25, 2021Updated April 1, 2021, 11:47 a.m. ET


This episode contains strong language.

Wesley has made his pick for song of the year: “Drivers License” by Olivia Rodrigo. This record-breaking track makes him nostalgic for his favorite part of a song — the bridge.

Bridges used to be a core feature of popular music, but they’ve become an endangered species, right next to the sitcom laugh track.

With today’s pop songs increasingly devoid of bridges, how do we form emotional, heart-swelling connections to pop songs? For Jenna, the answer lies in the earthquake that hit the world in 2018: TikTok.

Today, we listen back to iconic bridges and look ahead to the new ways TikTok allows us to experience the best part of the song.



Wesley thinks that “Drivers License,” the debut single from an 18-year-old Disney actress, will be song of the year for one key reason: It’s got a bridge!

“What I love about some bridges is you are dropped into the middle of a totally different song,” Wesley said. “And the bridge on ‘Drivers License’ basically does that.”

The bridge begins around the two-and-a-half-minute mark, when Olivia Rodrigo starts belting, “Red lights / stop signs / I still see your face in the white cars.”

In an episode of “Diary of a Song,” Olivia Rodrigo told the culture reporter Joe Coscarelli that she wrote “Drivers License” with TikTok in mind. Her vision has held up, as swarms of TikTokers have captured the song’s transition into the bridge. “They’re really just playing into the cathartic release that the bridge offers,” Jenna said. “Like, here are the contents of my heart emptied out.”

@spoiledmel

can this be a trend? ? ##oliviarodrigo ##driverslicense ##fyp @livbedumb stream drivers license!!!!

? drivers license – Olivia Rodrigo

Jenna discussed a few other song-based TikTok challenges that have gone viral, including “Buss It” by Erica Banks, “Mood” by 24kgoldn and “Savage” by Megan Thee Stallion.

“I think what a lot of artists have done, and have really enjoyed doing, is seeing not just where these songs live in people’s bodies,” Jenna said, “but what their bodies do with them and what their minds do with them.” She added, “It is such a vehicle for creative expression, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.”

In the episode, the co-hosts treat us to some of their most treasured bridges — like the breakdown in Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” and the well-earned apex of “I’m Your Baby Tonight” by Whitney Houston.

Here’s a playlist of all the songs mentioned in this episode.


Hosted by: Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris
Produced by: Elyssa Dudley and Hans Buetow
Edited by: Sara Sarasohn and Sasha Weiss
Engineered by: Marion Lozano
Executive Producer, Shows: Wendy Dorr
Executive Editor, Newsroom Audio: Lisa Tobin
Assistant Managing Editor: Sam Dolnick
Special thanks: Nora Keller, Julia Simon, Mahima Chablani and Desiree Ibekwe

Wesley Morris is a critic at large. He was awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his criticism while at the Boston Globe. He has also worked at Grantland, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Francisco Examiner. @wesley_morris

Jenna Wortham is a staff writer for The Times Magazine and co-editor of the book “Black Futures” with Kimberly Drew. @jennydeluxe

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