Olivia Rodrigo probably isn’t begging to be compared to Paul McCartney. No one would wish that on a superstar — we can call her that now, right? — who just turned 19 years three months ago. But with Rodrigo’s two very sold-out appearances at the Greek this week following so closely on the heels of the last major concert event in the L.A. market, Paul McCartney’s SoFi Stadium show two weeks ago, it was hard for the admittedly small subset of those of us who attended both not to come up with at least a couple of correlations. Starting with the high dB levels among their respective crowds. McCartney, for his part, has to do a bit of encouraging to really turn the dull roar into something more pitched: “C’mon, girls, give us a Beatles scream!” he coyly implored at one point, as he does every night on this tour. But Rodrigo’s crowd didn’t need any encouragement to scare the tar out of any mountain lions that might be lurking in the nearby Griffith Park hills. They use their words when they scream, too: Imagine if all those early Beatles fans had been able to channel their cacophony into ear-piercing but picture-perfect recitations of “Things We Said Today.”
With Rodrigo, it’s “Brutal”-mania — not a simulation, but the real thing (to twist an old theatrical tagline).
Having established a point of commonality, we can acknowledge how hilariously opposite these two engagements were in some other pretty obvious ways. Every time McCartney hits the road nowadays, he is faced with boiling down hundreds of songs from a six-decade career into a set that will last a generous 160 minutes. The shows on Rodrigo’s first tour ever, meanwhile, will top out at 60 … and that’s with some choice padding (a couple of covers; an intermediary costume change and some band vamping) to nudge it there from the 35 it would last if she only did a straight run-through of her debut album, “Sour.” It took some of us longer to get out of the Greek’s hillside parking lots and down to Los Feliz Blvd. afterward than it did to experience her performance.
But as any punk-rock veteran can tell you — or probably anyone who caught the Beatles’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it performances back in the day! — quick can be good, awfully good, when it’s quick and intense. You wouldn’t call all of Rodrigo’s show fast and furious, not when the pop-punky opener, “Brutal,” and closer, “Good 4 U,” served to bookend a lot of slow ballads and acoustic numbers and even a gosh-darn waltz. Nor did the grin that was plastered on her face bely a grim determination of spirit, exactly. Let’s talk about Rodrigo’s touring fashion sense, too: Plaid —it just doesn’t seem angry. Smiles aside, though, this is a crowd that isn’t just emptily mouthing the words at the top of its lungs: It’s a congregation of 90% girls — a Greek chorus — that you can feel literalizing the words, thinking back to their first heartbreak, which may have been a month ago, or aspiring toward a first one, and saying “eff you” to The Man, even if that has come in the form of a dumb boy.
When you have almost 6,000 girls (and a few hundred guys, probably, sure, and pockets of sympathetic elders old enough to be their ancestors) bellowing the words to a credibly disaffected, post-Disney, teen-riot-grrl anthem like “Brutal,” how does that not warm your rock ‘n’ roll heart? But to the credit of Rodrigo’s fan base, they knew their way around an actual melody, too. The loveliest moment of Wednesday night’s show came when the star brought out “Sour’s” co-writer/producer, Dan Nigro, to perform the plaintive “Favorite Crime” with her as an acoustic two-hander. The audience got less shouty and, without losing a lot in the way of volume, followed the intricacies of the tune’s prettier turns, even in the section near the end where the rush of words quickens and Rodrigo starts singing in a sort of double-time. So give this crowd under contract, already.
That “every song is a sing-along” mentality has ruined many a concert aimed at older demographics; raise your hand, boomers, if you’ve ever had a concert spoiled by drunks who thought they could sing “Desperado” better than Henley. But being situated in the middle of an actual choir? That’s more of a rush than an annoyance.
And that doesn’t take anything away from how strong Rodrigo’s performance was would have been even if the audience has been shushed by a mute button. At the Greek, she came off as seasoned but unspoilt, knowing how to work the crowd by skipping gaily or getting on her knees to clasp front-row hands or even doing a bit of Michelle Pfeiffer atop the piano (something she may or may not have been around long enough yet to see). You could argue whether it’s a surprise or a given that she’s this pro this little into her first tour, albeit this far into having been a TV personality. There were reports earlier in the tour that she showed some signs of vocal strain, but that wasn’t evident Wednesday, so either the choir was doing its job or she’s become a quick study at pacing herself on the road.
None of the aforementioned mania would matter if there wasn’t some top-flank songwriting at the heart of it. After too many years of successful female artists being accused of being the puppets of Svengalis — and plenty of instances in which male maestros were happy to play out that role, or try to — how refreshing it was to see Nigro come out on stage for a number and imagine that maybe we’ve reached an era where woman get to be their own auteurs but still acknowledge how much they benefit from strong partnerships. At the risk of over-glorifying the A&R teamwork involved in letting a Rodrigo shine, between her and Billie Eilish, theyre kind of in a tie right now for the Greatest Artist Development Story Ever Told.
How good are the songs, now that we have a little distance to reassess them, with “Sour” just having celebrated its first birthday? They sure hold up in concert, even if there aren’t as many older people turning out to experience that in a show as there are at, say, the concerts Eiliish recently did at Forum, where you saw a lot more adults unaccompanied by minors. In a way, the youthful skew of her audience — save for us pockets of elders, who gave each other nervous glances like members of a secret society — is a testament to the specificity of Rodrigo’s vision. Not acting her age seems not to have occurred to her, however sophisticated the music can grow at times. Not that many teenaged artists would want to risk leaving even a slightly older audience out by starting an album (and a concert set) out by blurting: “I’m so insecure, I think / That I’ll die before I drink.” If you’re over 21 and listening to that, or if you’re over 17 and listening to “Driver’s License,” it will quickly strike you: These blues are not necessarily my blues. But that never stopped anyone from enjoying a Howlin’ Wolf record, did it?
There is also plenty of material from “Sour” that an adult audience could relate to without having to age-correct any of the lyrics. One of the less splashy tour highlights is the aforementioned waltz, “Happier,” which has a sentiment that probably any divorcee or long gone daddy can relate to: that feeling that you want your ex to survive but not quite unreasonably thrive. Rhyming “her” with “-ier” throughout is one of those conceits that couldn’t be simpler on one hand, and has the sophistication of a show tune on the other. The more teen-centric numbers have their own moments of maturity, and/or just feeling grizzled. When, in the middle of “Brutal,” Rodrigo sings, “Who am I, if not exploited?,” you may be thinking: What kind of kid says that? Well, a kid who’d rather not be locked into doing a third season of “High School Musical,” probably.
But there wasn’t much brutality going on at the Greek, where teen angst seemed suspended in a state of grace, and an hour felt just right to have disaffection and adrenalin come together. For anyone with a sense of the big picture, it seemed all the clearer that Rodrigo’s massive success is part of a mini-golden age in which she, Eilish and Taylor Swift represent a new, more self-possessed breed of female pop idol, in which they can represent both the screamer and the screamed-at. Remember that old film that had the loaded title “The Devil Is a Woman”? Maybe the time is right to look at these stars and embrace this thought: The Beatle is a woman.