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Olivia Rodrigo At Radio City Music Hall, Wednesday, April 27th, 2022, Reviewed

Last night at Radio City Music Hall, Olivia Rodrigo provided a whole lotta deja-vu as she performed her hugely successful debut album, Sour, as well as two covers and a song she co-wrote with her ex-boyfriend Joshua Bassett. With the excellent, English sadgirl onewoman band Holly Humberstone opening, the instantaneously sold out Radio City (indeed her entire tour was an instant sell out), performed for a little over an hour and, yes, if you saw early Britney Spears you got the sense of history repeating.

Olivia Rodrigo is the latest iteration of Disney girls growing into major pop phenoms, start with Annette Funicello and go all the way to Selena Gomez, the names, the career axis, the songs, the grown up, the Cali background: what happened once happens again. The growth from pre-teen to past teen, beach blanket bingo to 20 something pop star and actress is the template as Olivia Rodrigo, the biggest star in the world right this minute, on a familiar trajectory. Rodrigo has been a professional actress since the age of 12 when she starred in the straight to video “An American Girl: Grace Stirs Up Success”. Fast forward through five years of Disney shows and you are at 2021 and “Driver’s License” is given a cast of SNL tribute and soon her debut album followed it up the charts (it is still in the US Top five -along with Morgan, and it seems stuck there) and landed itself three Grammys.

But first England’s Holly Humberstone, with a guitar, keyboards, a PC and a loop machine, had more than enough songs to perform a compelling set of pop jones stuff, hitting a height early with the one song where she nails something different enough to change the direction on “Please Don’t Go Yet” -daydreaming about a guy but the daydream isn’t as clear as the title expresses. Just as good was her upcoming single (dropping Friday!) “Sleep Tight” leading the way to her debut album at some point and “Scarlett” written for her best friend.

At Radio City, to an audience of young girls and women, a smattering of fathers and me, nineteen year old Olivia was tightly wound and a precisely evocation of Avril Lavigne (whom Rodrigo is much better than) and Courtney Love (who was all over the soundsystem before the show). Another name evoked: Elvis Costello, who was 22 years old the first time I saw him on stage and was also in the process of breaking very big. If Elvis was the revenge of the incel, Olivia is the inverse, the return of the woman scorned. Filled to overflowing with backstory, she took her break-up with teen heartthrob Joshua Bassett and went meta. The show opened with One Direction’s “Olivia” (which got a huge singalong from the audience) over the soundsystem before Olivia in fishnets, boots and a short, sparkly your prom not ours blue dress played with the lick to “Brutal” and never loosened her grip on an audience that sang along at the top of their voices for the entire hour; “Brutal” owes a lot to “Pump It Up” but at least Elvis refused to demand royalties, unlike Taylor Swift, St. Vincent, Hayley Williams and more, who were happy to pick her pockets while demanding royalties. She followed it with a brutal (ahem) “jealousy jealousy” before performing her biggest hit on the piano.

The back up band were standard bearer rock construction, the set was minimal and the vision a straight ahead rock concert taking off from 90s and 00s pop punk and also girl singers with a side of badass. Olivia’s biracial (her father Filipino-American and her mom German-Irish) and the result is a pop rock template which doesn’t really hark to anything but indie rock where the biracial aspect is more a visual phenom (she looks great). Olivia co-writes her material with producer Dan Nigro. Nigro has been around the block over the past ten years, working with names like Sky Ferreira, Billy Idol, Caroline Polachek and FINNEAS and (gasp!) Lewis Capaldi. So when he searched out Olivia his credentials were in order. Last year’s Grammy winning debut album is played with a directness but also a campfire glee; just because of the distance Billie Eilish is not a friend in waiting, but Olivia is one of the girls and while it is a trick they do with mirrors and with chemicals, she manages to bypass her entire life and asks us to ignore our own senses and believe she is us. She isn’t at all, she is the epitome of an American girl pop star (according to Wikipedia “Rodrigo started taking vocal lessons in kindergarten and learned to play piano soon after. She began taking acting and singing classes at age six and started acting in theater productions in elementary school.”). Olivia is a significantly attractive girl but when she tries to make herself over as a soapy sadgirl on the Disney+ documentary “Driving Home 2 U” she beggars the imagination. Nobody doubts the material (Sour was my best album of 2021) and the evening was an analog and straight as possible performance, the best moment of the evening was a solo, acoustic “enough for you / 1 step forward, 3 steps back” with “enough for you” itself not the deep album track it appeared to be but the finest lost love on the album, including a killer hook “And you always say I’m never satisfied but I don’t think that’s true, ‘Cause all I ever wanted was to be enough for you” an emotional scalpel at the heart of Olivia’s projected fragility. She is like a character out of an Agatha Christie novel, it is so often the woman scorned ,now isn’t it? The whole prom aspect (another meh, by the way, that streaming concert at the prom) is where Olivia is here: she is a Stephen King’s Carrie character, tender, sad, insecure and hopelessly in love, and not willing to allow her boyfriend Joshua off the hook and so capable of being an avenger. Joshua followed her up with his own song about the doomed affair, “Crises” (“Half the shit you’re saying’s only half true, you’re messin’ with my life as a career move” – if half of what she is saying is half true, three quarters is true) which bombed and Olivia came out of the entire mess at the top of the food chain. This is the most Taylor Swift thing about Olivia, she has no problem with turning self-destruction into money. But Olivia is an actress and when you see “Driving Home 2” you can see the seams in ways you didn’t on Billie Eilish’s self-portrait “The World’s A Little Blurry” , there is something not quite true about it all.

The concert was a deep dip into Olivia’s psyche and she emerges as a rock star who knows the moves by rote but doesn’t know how to jump out of the role, it’s all a little fake, and while that is absolutely something more experience on stage will get her over, it is also something that makes you wonder if Joshua was telling the truth when he sang that Olivia broke up with him (God help me, I’m writing a gossip column). The sort of teenage drama one plays for pain because one can, but she keeps running up against the judgement she is up against. The writerly vibe from “Driver’s License” is a little like a “Your Song” (or a “Hello”) where the professionalism is masked by emotional verities. The song was a huge hit (it made her career overnight) but in retrospect… not entirely true? And does it matter? Who can whine about a teenage artist giving her audience exactly what they want? The girls sang along, often taking over including “Seether” and if Jack White wants to know how completely wrong he is about cellphones, he should have seen that a beloved singer can lean hard on all those cell phones and all those songs now known oh so well and fly with them.

Olivia did as well as she possibly could and the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) can be added to joy of being there last night, there is a magic on breakthrough tours, especially where it is also the first tour. Whatever happens after this (in 2023 Olivia will be going straight to MSG and that set will no longer be this set as she will move a little past Sour whether there is a new album or otherwise) what she gave her fans last night is more than my opinion can project: an album they’ve listened to for a year came vividly to life.

Grade: B+

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