Olivia Rodrigo review – shiny pop-punk with real guts

Olivia Rodrigo review – shiny pop-punk with real guts

Pop music made by child actors doesn’t often feature axe duels and headbanging. But tonight, during a song called Obsessed, gen-Z phenomenon Olivia Rodrigo, wielding an electric guitar, faces off against one of her guitarists, Emily Rosenfield, as the rest of the band build a grungy din around them.

Pop vocalists often perform facsimiles of rock-in-inverted-commas quite egregiously, foregrounding obnoxious guitar solos. Rodrigo’s band is made up entirely of women and non-binary musicians – a rarity at any level, let alone in arenas. And unlike most bands tacked on to the back of a singer, these musicians don’t wave devil’s horns while gurning. They just play loud and fast, their showboating gleeful rather than clichéd. All the young kids here will hopefully take all this for granted.

These are just a few of the unexpected takeaways from Rodrigo’s tour, which has resumed after a couple of unscheduled nights off. The star’s keenly anticipated jaunt fell foul of problems at the Co-op Live arena – less a new Manchester super-venue, than a giant stuck zip that won’t open.

All is well at the high-functioning Hydro: tonight’s welcoming image features the title of Rodrigo’s celebrated 2023 album, Guts, rendered as intestinal purple candles. The candles slowly melt, counting down to the arrival of the teen-angst queen, now 21. When the “T” falls over, to shrieks, it’s as though the very air shivers, prefiguring the audience decibels to come.

Rodrigo’s production offers, on the one hand, typical arena-pop fare – dancers, costume changes, screaming. Rodrigo flies overhead on a hydraulic crescent moon for Logical, and confetti cannon belch at the end. But this is shiny mass-market entertainment with some convincing twists of the innards.

Before releasing Drivers License, her runaway hit of 2021, the precocious Rodrigo was a Disney actor. On paper, then, she seems like a typical child TV-star turned singer, one whose three Grammys, two multiplatinum albums and various streaming records offer echoes of Disney alumni passim: Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato and, aeons ago, Britney Spears.

Then, having made the short leap from small screen to recording booth at the end of the pandemic, Rodrigo did something frank and spirited. She channelled sadness, indignation and frustration, rather than the slinky maturity peddled by former Disney princesses signalling their transition to adulthood.

And she discovered guitars: Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour (2021) detailed Rodrigo’s misery after a breakup but also offered up pop-punk zingers – the enduring Brutal, the Paramore-ish Good 4 U – as spiky relief. Guts made good on that promise, with a pogo in its step and indignation to burn.

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Olivia Rodrigo performing with guitarist Emily RosenfieldView image in fullscreen

Happily, Rodrigo has managed to leapfrog the cringing that often accompanies a pop performer trying rock tropes on for size. Pop-punk may be having a resurgence thanks to the ongoing 90s/00s revival, but you get the feeling that Rodrigo turned to the genre quite sincerely, having been raised by gen-X music fan parents.

It turns out that Rodrigo has a lot to get off her chest. There are no pronouncements from the stage tonight – Rodrigo, memorably, dedicated a 2022 Glastonbury duet with Lily Allen, on Fuck You, to the judges who had overturned Roe v Wade.

But 90-odd minutes in her company speed by in a rush of joyously exasperated fellow feeling. Much of her two albums is offered up for singalongs so loud they frequently drown the star out. Rodrigo jumps straight in with Bad Idea Right?, her tale of falling into bed with an ex, laced with self-knowledge and humour. (Later, Rodrigo will read out fan art and homemade T-shirts; one says “Going to Guts tour in exam season: bad idea, right?”)

Soon it’s on to Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl, which bears a fleeting, but non-litigable resemblance to the Breeders’ Cannonball. (Rodrigo’s too-candid enthusiasm for her idol, Taylor Swift, led to a couple of tracks off Sour sharing songwriting credits with the megastar and her producers. The Breeders, meanwhile, recently opened for Rodrigo in the US.)

Guts’s epic calling card, Vampire, follows – a red-lit howl at the moon over a “fame-fucker” ex-partner who only came out at night. Having dispatched a salvo of her angriest tracks early on, Rodrigo still sustains attention.

Traitor is a spine-tingling call-and-response indictment of an ex who moved on suspiciously soon. (“You didn’t cheat,” howls Rodrigo. “But you’re still a traitor!” bellows Glasgow.) Even Rodrigo’s pensive turns at the piano aren’t boring. When Rodrigo and her other guitarist, Daisy Spencer, do a couple of acoustic numbers cross-legged on the floor, it really does shrink the venue to the size of a beach campfire.

As with the most enduring performers, there is a compelling internal struggle going on in Rodrigo’s works. She is a songwriter who expresses an ongoing teenage crisis of confidence alternately as self-flagellation, or as righteous explosions of self-esteem. It’s a see-saw that keeps you coming back. Many of her songs find Rodrigo bemoaning how naive she was, how she didn’t read the runes.

But the reason Rodrigo is such a lightning rod for anyone who has felt spurned, or jealous, or less-than, is that she dusts herself off and stands up for herself. And she is patently having excellent fun doing it.

Source: theguardian.com