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15 May 2024

Olivia Rodrigo’s guts-spilling, rabble-rousing tour

At London’s O2 arena, the 21-year old singer is at her best – and most distinctive – channelling anger and chaos.

By Tom Gatti

What a difference two years makes. The last time the Californian pop phenomenon Olivia Rodrigo played London was in 2022, on a tour promoting her debut album Sour: at the Hammersmith Apollo, she bounced around winningly with her all-female band in front of a gold curtain, blasted through her slim back catalogue in under an hour and chucked in a couple of covers to make up the time. This time around, at the O2 Arena, she dangled above 20,000 fans on a crescent moon, wearing glittering chain-mail – half way through a two-hour set that at times produced screams from the audience so powerful that they could power the green energy transition.

Rodrigo told us that back then she was “afraid of growing up” but having turned 21, she now realises she had nothing to fear. This was a thrillingly confident show poised on the threshold of adulthood: an age to be, as her frenemy Taylor Swift put it, “happy, free, confused and lonely in the best way”.

Although her break-out hit, “Driver’s Licence”, was a consummate (if slightly damp) heartbreak ballad, Rodrigo is at her best – and most distinctive – channelling anger or chaos. Opening with two terrific songs from her second album Guts – the lust-fuelled “Bad Idea, Right?” and “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl” (“Each time I step outside / It’s social suicide”) – she marshals her band through rock-out choruses that allow much stomping of her Doc Martens and head-banging in the manner of her hero Alanis Morisette, while the backdrop shows high-school imagery evoking the “burn book” from Mean Girls (Rodrigo’s affinity to Nineties and Noughties culture is strong). “Vampire” is the mini rock opera that advertised a step-change in her songwriting when it was released in June last year: tonight, her address to a parasitic lover is accompanied by a blood moon and thousands of pre-teens delightedly chanting “fucker”.

Like Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus before her, Rodrigo – who was starring in the comedy show Bizaardvark by the age of 13 – is a product of the Disney factory. But having absorbed her parents’ love of grunge and indie rock, she developed a musical language that wasn’t always in step with her peers: listening to her songs you’re just as likely to hear the influence of Bikini Kill or the Cure as Swift or Lana del Rey. In the Venn diagram between my 10-year-old daughter’s taste and mine, Olivia Rodrigo pretty much owns the intersection.

She is, however, also a showbiz kid. The outfits are sparkly. The dancers do calisthenics and mad flapper routines. She gives coy Princess Diana waves, proclaims her love of everything English (specifically Jaffa Cakes), sings happy birthday to a fan, and projects family videos of herself as a pre-school ballerina. Perching on the moon, she is a 1940s Hollywood starlet, not a riot girl.

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All of which is entertaining – but not quite as much as Rodrigo the guts-spiller and rabble-rouser. “I want you to think of someone or something that really pisses you off, and I want you to scream your heart out,” she tells the crowd towards the end of the show, half way through “All-American Bitch”. The noise that follows sounds like a mass expression of anger and joy, fandom and freedom. In other words, like pop music.  

[See also: The tortured Taylor Swift]

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This article appears in the 22 May 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Special 2024