Red Lights, Stop Signs

My feels-riddled hunt for the Utah County sites where "Driver's License" was filmed

At what point does the Neighborhood Watch become the Neighborhood Do?

I thought to myself nervously after realizing I’d driven 20 miles per hour through the same neighborhood three or four times in a row right before dusk, scanning the windows and eaves of every house through a semi-tinted window like some kind of Netflix docu-series villain. Would I call the police on me? I would definitely think about it.

I was on the hunt for a very particular mid-century modern home in Utah County, not because I’m buying—I don’t even peruse Zillow when I’m bored unless the primary task on my to do list is “depress yourself today.” No, the particular home I was searching for happens to be where the music video for the most popular and infuriating song of the year thus far was filmed, and I was on a clown’s errand to find it and every other site I could find.

I had two context clues to go on for this one, I had a boatload of quinoa and an empty milk bottle on the passenger seat, I’d binge watched “Don’t F**k With Cats” and therefore had an over-inflated sense of my ability to geolocate places sensible people with jobs have no business geolocating, and I needed an excuse to put on some pants and crawl out of the basement.

That’s how I ended up here, driving and spying and, yes, crying through the suburbs. 

If you wear skinny jeans and part your hair on the side, live in a monastery, or if you’re old enough to have already gotten both doses of the COVID vaccine, you may not have heard “Driver’s License.” It’s a sloshing pot of teenage tea and a hella persistent earworm. It also happens to be one of the biggest songs of the year.

“Driver’s License” dropped at the start of January like a monsoon. Billboard called it “one of the most dominant number ones of the past 30 years.” It broke the record for the biggest number one debut in Rolling Stones’ Top 100 history, and it broke the record for the most Spotify streams in a single week. A single 60 second audio clip of the song that was uploaded to TikTok in January has been used in over 1.9 MILLION videos of people dancing, photographing random strangers on the street, texting their exes, dressing up their dogs to make “Doggo’s License” music videos, singing bad karaoke, and more. To say that this song has been “a hit” is to undersell it.

Written by 17 year-old Olivia Rodrigo, Driver’s License,” to quote the poets (aka SNL), is about ”a girl getting her driver’s license, but it’s bittersweet because it’s something she and her ex always talked about.” The song is emotional and it’s catchy, which is perhaps why it sticks the landing so well.

Every bleeping time the door ajar beep goes off in my car, I get this song stuck in my head. And it isn’t just in the car, either. It happens when the oven timer goes off, or when the family group text goes mad. It’s a Pavlovian Bell that triggers all of my repressed memories of teenage boys with bad haircuts who weren’t worth the time and college men with slightly better haircuts who were more worth the time. And the bridge goes hard, harder than it has any right to go. 

I don’t know what kind of witchcraft Rodrigo participated in to write this song, but the fact that it has me, a grown woman, weeping on the freeway during rush hour is unnerving, unsafe, and frankly rude. But it perhaps speaks to why the song got so big in the first place. 

Rodrigo has the luxury of driving a clean, functioning Mercedes in the “Driver’s License” music video. I’m currently borrowing my parents’ peeling silver Buick Lucerne—whose back right tire, much like my confidence in Cafe Rio to do the bare minimum, never stops deflating—after my Outback developed a leaking head gasket, warped rotors, and a toxic relationship with Little Cottonwood Canyon.

That’s the Instagram vs. Reality of having your driver’s license. One minute you’re a fresh-faced sixteen year old excited to get behind the wheel, the next you’re going red in the face using a bike pump to fill a used tire on a car that isn’t even yours and praying it will pass emissions this year. A driver’s license is a one-way ticket to pain (of the financial kind and matters of the heart).

My first stop on this Tour de Top 40 was the farthest away, the heart—the very quintessence—of suburbia itself: Payson, Utah.

I’ve only ever stopped in Payson for a late night burrito on my way to Capitol Reef. On this second visit, I learned that Historic Downtown Payson is only wide enough for one car to pass through. The town is hilly and sits near the foot of Mount Nebo and the scenic Mt. Nebo Loop. Orchards still naked from winter’s bite zipped past my passenger side window as I drove deeper into the town, and free-range chickens bobbed up and down in the dirt through my driver’s side.

White and black trucks with bloated frames that I just knew would coal roll me if given the opportunity screamed down the road. I passed a cattle gate framed with blue line flags. I passed a house that not only had an “All Aboard the Trump Train” flag lumped below their American flag, but a second, shorter flag pole next to the first where they’d stacked a faded blue, green, and red line flag beneath a “Trump 2020: No More Bullshit” flag and, for extra measure, had a Trump MAGA flag jutting from their chimney like a forgotten cry to Santa to bring a second term for Christmas.

How did I end up in the sweet land of diesel, guns, and orange-hued liberty? Chock it up to my good pals in the NSA aka Twitter dot com.

There’s a scene in the Driver’s License music video where Rodrigo walks down a narrow, empty country road, the kind where Mormon kids go to take senior pictures, set off fireworks, sneak a Redbull if they’re feeling really crazy, or simply cry—I know them well. The most distinguishing feature in the shot is the Wasatch range in the backdrop.

I posted a screenshot on Twitter, asking my Utah followers if they could identify the exact mountains so I’d have an idea of where to find the street. An hour and ten minutes after posting it, someone whose bio said they are in Vegas had the exact Google coordinates of the street in Payson. The people of “Don’t F**k With Cats” would be so proud.

Aside from some curious longhorns sitting in a pile of dirt and manure, batting their long lashes at me in confused stupor, there was no one to be found on this street, so I drove down the middle of the road, leaned my head out the window, and shouted what only felt necessary and right: “RED LIGHTS, STOP SIGNS! I STILL SEE YOUR FACE.”

A cow flicked a fly off of its hide, and a cloud moseyed slowly across the wide blue sky above. 

Like a good Hallmark movie and geometry assignment, this love story comes with a triangle. Disney stans quickly deduced that the “ex” of “Driver’s License” is 20 year-old singer Josh Bassett, who co-stars with Rodrigo in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. That’s a significant detail to know, because it explains why on God’s green earth Rodrigo would film a music video about driving through the Californian suburbs in Utah: Utah is tangled in their history.

Rodrigo sings about how her ex is “probably with that blonde girl who always made me doubt / she’s so much older than me / she’s everything I’m insecure about.” Interestingly, the lyric initially read “I bet you’re with that brunette girl / the one I always thought about,” but it was changed as the song was being recorded. The TMZ Sparknotes on why that matters is that Bassett is rumored to be dating 21 year-old Disney star Sabrina Carpenter, who made her breakthrough starring on Disney’s Girl Meets World and is also, you guessed it, blonde, with a jawline that could kill a man, I might add.

Near the end of January, after several weeks of he said, she said floating around the Rodrigo and Bassett fandoms, Carpenter released her own song called “Skin,” which alludes to someone who put her in an unpleasant spotlight and also, more on-the-nose, says “maybe you didn’t mean it, maybe blonde was the only rhyme” and “you can try to get under my, under my under my skin while he’s on mine.”

When questioned about this on The Late Late Show, Carpenter told James Cordon, "I think this was like a really interesting song for people to kind of misinterpret and make it into something that it wasn't really supposed to be in the first place." Sure, Jan. “Skin” is either the pettiest clapback anthem of 2021, or Sabrina Carpenter’s PR team works harder than the devil himself.

As for Bassett, he seems pretty unbothered, though he did release a single called “Lie, Lie, Lie” in January with scenes that look weirdly similar to some of the car scenes in “Driver’s License.”

Bassett told Buzzfeed this month, “It's kind of amusing at this point. Even like the SNL stuff, that's hilarious to me. People were so worried about me — and I'm like, dude, I'm honored that SNL is making fun of me! I'm also just proud of her and the success that her song is having. I really couldn't be mad at the situation.”

After goofing off in Payson, journalism led me up to a blink-or-miss-it used car lot on University Avenue called Gus Gus Auto Sales. This is where the quarentingenuity of the music video really flexes its muscles.

Gus Gus is a small lot with vehicles of all makes and models in various stages of use lacing the edges. As I nosed about, I noticed the sign in the southeast corner was fried brown by the sun on one side and had an upside down ‘L’, @ sign, and hashtag doing some heavy lifting on the other side to spell out “Financing$!” A small breeze lapped at the colored flags strung from the V-shaped light poles, the most identifiable features from the music video. I’d come back after dark and find that only one of those lights actually works.

This, I thought to myself, this is what it means to have a driver’s license.

In the northwest corner of the lot, there’s a small, white house that acts as the HQ of Gus Gus Auto Sales. I fastened my mask, walked up the stairs, and was invited in by none other than the famed Gus of Gus Gus himself. 

Gus was about my height with black hair, glasses, and a blue-gray Eddie Bauer jacket on. He told me he moved to the states from Peru when he was 10, and he’s been running Gus Gus Auto for about 7-8 years. He gets the cars at auction and primarily sells them to college students or low-income families.

Gus told me that at the beginning of 2020, or it might have been 2019—judging from interviews Rodrigo has done, I think it was later in the year than he remembered—the “Driver’s License” film crew came to him and asked if they could use his lot. He didn’t really know what brought them to that specific location, but he charged them $150-$160 and they were in and out fairly quickly.

As I talked to Gus, he asked me two or three times what the name of the music video was so he could look it up later. It wasn’t until I was stepping out of his office and walking through the parking lot when my quarantine brain finally caught up to me.

Wait. He has no idea!

I ran back up the steps, opened the door, and told him, “Sorry, one more thing, so you haven’t seen the video yet?”

He told me he hadn’t, and I asked if I could be there to watch him watch it for the first time.

“This song is blowing up,” I said to him, telling him the video had millions of views.

Standing over his shoulder, I watched him pull up the video on YouTube. He asked me if he could skip to the car lot parts. He didn’t say much after that, only, “Hey, that’s my place!” and “Hey, that’s my office! That’s legit.”

At that point, the video had over 143 million views. Currently, it has almost 164 million views.

“Maybe I didn’t charge them enough,” he left me with. 

The “Driver’s License” music video is filled with scenes of Utah streets, canyon roads, horses, the country, parking lots, and mountains, some that are blatant, others that flicker past like a fever dream, all with an epicenter in Utah County. 

You get the sense as you watch it that you’re watching a heat map of someone else’s life, all the places with painful significance lit up in burning red. The lyrics lend themselves to that imagery.

The music video is not a flashy, grandstanding production. It’s a very 2020 production, in both its style and its direction. It moves through loneliness at home, uncertainty, the sense of feeling distanced from loved ones, those solo drives or walks to nowhere where the grief and pain of life falling apart beyond your control simmer just beneath the surface. 

The song meets you where you’re at with a story that isn’t yours, but that cuts at some buried heartache all the same. 

I was a BYU student for only a few hours when I experienced the first and one of the most intense anxiety attacks of my life. I was young, and I didn’t know what was happening, only that nothing—not my body, not my mind—felt right, and I needed to be home. That’s how I found myself back in Logan 24 hours later, giving up the only future I’d planned on having since junior high. Passing through Provo, consequentially, dregs up a lot of weird and complicated emotions for me, but I found myself driving through campus nonetheless.

Any remains of the old, tree lined freshman dorms where I would have lived have been smothered and forgotten beneath the feet of towering mega-dorms with big windows and bigger parking lots. The little BYU Creamery on the corner, the one where I thought I might hang out with friends and make “my” spot, had grown into a whole new place, a grocery store. I decided to stop.

I ran in and grabbed the best thing to come out of BYU—cookies and cream milk—but I walked out feeling more than a little embarrassed and sad, because even a decade later, standing in a frickin’ cheese aisle next to a stranger, I remembered how I felt at 18 and wondered “what if” and felt the backs of my eyes burning.

It’s poetic in an annoying way that I found myself drying tears, chugging down milk, and bottoming out the Buick as I drove alone through the suburbs trying to find the last site on my “Driver’s License” list, a house I’d never seen before in my life.

All I had were some distinctly Utah County geological features from the music video to go off of at first. Then I had the neighborhood. Then I found the house.

Rodrigo has talked about how the director was just driving around when he saw it, stopped, and then asked the owners if they could film there. I found that quite inspiring, so after admiring it from the outside and feeling my veins chill with anxiety for 10 minutes, I put on my mask, walked up the stairs, and rang the doorbell.

It seemed like the whole family answered the door. I told them I was driving around and recognized their home from the music video, which I felt was a more sane way of saying I was probing every blade of grass, shudder, topographical feature, and brick in their neighborhood for a house filmed in a Gen Z kid’s music video like Terry probed the filing cabinets from Soul.

We only spoke briefly, but I learned that the video was a highlight of their year. Their eyes lit up when they talked about it. They said they’ve kept the house as close to what it would have looked like when it was built in 1959. I’d imagine what you see in the video is exactly what this house looks like on the inside. I wouldn’t know, because the tension started getting a tad thick, my upper lip started to sweat, it was dinnertime, they weren’t inviting me in, I wasn’t about to ask, so I thanked them for indulging me and left, the Buick bottoming out one more time for good measure as I made my way towards the freeway.

My mind stumbled over a lot of different thoughts as I drove home, like what I would do if someone asked to film a music video in my house, or how I still remembered the names of the girls who would have been my first roommates at the Y, or how sometimes a place can mean nothing to you, like a road in Payson, Utah, but sometimes, even years later, passing a street or an apartment or slipping into an ice cream shop feels like putting a shovel into your own grave to dig up old bones, look at the rot, press the wounds, and say goodbye over and over and over to something you’ll never have again.

I flipped through radio stations to distract myself. I caught the tail end of an “I just can’t remember how you could be so okay,” and I turned up the volume. The freeway stretched for miles ahead of me, Salt Lake City glittering in the distance and my “check tire pressure” warning flashing all the way home.