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Review | Olivia Rodrigo’s confessional music is catharsis for a brutal time

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On Wednesday night at the Anthem, Olivia Rodrigo opened her sold-out show the same way she opened her debut album, “Sour,” with the loud-quiet-loud “Brutal.” The song is a litany of problems and preoccupations rife with feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and self-doubt. Its sneering chorus leads not to a bang but a whimper: “God, it’s brutal out here.”

Judging by the rapturous reaction of the crowd — some younger than the 19-year-old singer-songwriter, most older, and almost entirely female — Rodrigo is onto something. It is brutal out here, even for people who aren’t pop stars dealing with the dual cruelties of teendom and the music business. On a planet ravaged by climate change, a global pandemic, powder-keg wars and the rise of fascism, what is an inability to parallel park but an insult added to injury?

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For a little more than an hour, Rodrigo served as an agent of catharsis, letting the crowd sing along to songs mostly about heartbreak, and either helping them remember or helping them through a period when everything feels like the end of the world … during a time that actually might be.

Rodrigo’s rapid rise through the Disney industrial complex to pop stardom happened almost entirely during the pandemic, making this tour her first. While most musicians have the benefit of honing their skills in front of progressively larger crowds, Rodrigo has gone straight from the studio to cavernous concert halls like the Anthem. The transition has been aided by a tight, all-female five-piece backing band and a crowd that seemed content to carry the tunes when her voice couldn’t.

Being on Disney used to hold teen stars back. Olivia Rodrigo is changing the narrative.

What she lacked in vocal range, Rodrigo made up with style, swagger and star power. She started the show in a punkish take on a Catholic schoolgirl uniform before changing into a glittery prom dress that she complemented with a pair of wings that had been thrown onstage. In both ensembles, she kept on platform combat boots, fit for strafing and stomping across the stage.

Along with playing the entirety of “Sour” — an album that interpolates Taylor Swift and Paramore — Rodrigo also paid tribute to other female musicians that have paved the way for her iteration of confessional, confrontational pop-rock, covering Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated” and Veruca Salt’s “Seether.”

Women in rock have been singing with listeners and each other for years. Rodrigo seems honored to continue that conversation, especially with the Supreme Court poised to wage a historic attack on women’s rights.

“What a woman does with her body should never be in the hands of politicians,” Rodrigo said to cheers. “I hope we can raise our voices to protect our right to have a safe abortion, which is a right that so many people before us have worked so hard to get.”

It’s brutal out here, but Rodrigo’s cathartic cry provides a measure of relief — no matter what’s next.

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