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Saturday, June 22, 2024

Olivia Rodrigo & The Breeders Connect Rock History on Guts World Tour

Growing up, you never think the genre that makes up the core of your musical worldview will one day cease to really be the thing. When I was a 10 year old discovering music in the mid-’90s, the world was wide and expansive but alternative rock was undoubtedly at its center. As the years went on and music evolved and I grew up alongside it, my connection to alt-rock strengthened and faded depending on whatever music was defining the genre at any given point – but regardless of my feelings, I always found myself comforted by the passing of the torch from one mini-generation to another. 


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I remember seeing Paramore on MTV when they were getting really popular in 2007 and instantly making the connection to No Doubt from a decade earlier. They were hardly identical, and I’m sure a number of Gwen Stefani fans found Hayley Williams grating, just as some folks who grew up with Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders in the ‘80s might’ve found Stefani intolerable when her band went supernova in the ‘90s. But that was fine, that was healthy. The important thing was that the next crop of alt-rock fans would have an era-defining pop and punk (but not really pop-punk) band – with an explosive frontwoman who came off as both tough as nails and heartbreakingly vulnerable – to come of age with, to discover themselves through, to feel represented by, until years later when the next such band came along to help the even-younger set along. I thought that was beautiful.

But then the 2010s came, and there was no next Paramore. Really, there was no next anyone – at least not within any kind of conventional rock sphere, at least not on that commercial level. Rock all but disappeared within top 40 – not only did alternative go back underground, but there was no arena-filling, radio-conquering mainstream version that reappeared to supplant it. For much of the ‘10s, and the late ‘10s in particular, electric guitars were about as common on pop radio and the Billboard Hot 100 as the bass clarinet or the accordion, and the biggest new semi-rock bands mostly either de-emphasized the six-string in their murky sonic stew (like Imagine Dragons) or did away with them all together (like Twenty One Pilots). 

It was crushing to me, not only because it was hard to not feel somewhat personally erased by the music that defined my own adolescence being treated like a cultural dead-end, but because I felt in my bones that rock still had something to offer at that mass youth-culture level. When some people from Paramore’s team came by the Billboard offices in 2016 to play some tracks from their stellar After Laughter album, I expressed to an older then-co-worker that while I liked the songs, I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed that the band was moving in a poppier, more groove-oriented direction at a time when they were one of the few modern rock artists of any real currency left in the mainstream. He basically rolled his eyes at me that I was still holding on at all, that this deep into its seeming obsolescence, I still hadn’t embraced rock’s fate. I knew he was probably right, but I still couldn’t totally accept it. I couldn’t understand how he could totally accept it, either. 

I was thinking a lot about all of this on Monday night (Apr. 8) watching ever-ascendant pop phenom Olivia Rodrigo playing the third of her four sold-out Guts World Tour dates at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Rodrigo back-doored her way into rock stardom in 2021 when she followed her breakthrough power ballad “Drivers License” with the unexpectedly pop-punk (and just as popular) “Good 4 U,” and her sporadically grungy chart-topping debut album Sour. She doubled down on that ‘90s alt-indebted sound on 2023 sophomore set Guts, with less-explosive commercial returns but similarly rapturous reception from critics and fans. Rodrigo was no throwback act; her songs felt current and vital and without commercial ceiling, and her musical palette went far beyond crunchy guitars and shout-along choruses. She had simply harnessed the power of alt-rock sonics and signifiers in a way no act of her pop star credibility had even attempted in decades, and weaponized it for mass impact like few artists had even during the Alternative Nation’s peak.

And in an act of paying-it-back that felt virtually without precedent for an artist who could rightly be currently considered one of the biggest pop stars in the world, Rodrigo handpicked one of the great underrated bands from that era to open all four of her MSG shows: Ohio-based Buzz Bin alums The Breeders. The other lead-in acts on the Guts World Tour are up-and-coming left-of-center pop acts with Gen Z fanbases fairly likely to overlap with Rodrigo’s own – Chappell Roan, PinkPantheress, Remi Wolf. But The Breeders, who released their debut album in 1990 and are now all in their 50s and 60s, are infinitely more likely to already be familiar to the parents in attendance than to the young teens they’re chaperoning. The band itself was stunned when Rodrigo reached out to offer them the slot: ““I thought, ‘Is she sure?” guitarist Kelly Deal, who leads the band along with frontwoman sister Kim, related to the New York Times. “Do they really mean us?’”

In a lot of ways, the pairing did make sense at MSG last night. The sunny-but-heavy riffing, preternatural hookiness and spiky sense of humor that defines a lot of the Breeders’ signature work – particularly on 1993 masterpiece Last Splash, the band’s commercial breakthrough – can be traced to Rodrigo’s own crackling pop-rock blasts. Listening to Kelley deadpan her way through the stop-start chugging of Last Splash highlight “I Just Wanna Get Along,” it wasn’t hard to imagine Rodrigo reflexively taking notes at sidestage, perhaps even circling the punchline “If you’re so special, why aren’t you dead?” for recycling on OR3 or OR4

But in a lot of ways, the pairing remained confusing, probably even more so for the younger fans in attendance. Rodrigo embraces distortion, but rarely outright abrasiveness, which The Breeders tend to mix into even their sweetest, poppiest confections. More pressingly, while there’s no doubt much for Rodrigo and the Deal sisters to admire about each others’ songwriting, their lyrical approaches differ wildly: Both products of their respective generations, Rodrigo’s songs veer linear in narrative, direct in emotion and near-autobiographical in interpretation, while the Deals’ lean significantly more abstract, elliptical, wisecracking and resistant to straightforward reading. At a time when pop writing is largely expected to be relatable, cathartic and often explicitly diaristic, it’s a tough ask for Rodrigo’s fanbase to immediately embrace a band whose biggest hit – which Rodrigo said on MSG Night One divided her life into “before” and “after” sections the first time she heard it, understandably – is built around the chorus “Want you/ Koo koo/ Cannonball.” 

Unsurprisingly, the fan reaction to The Breeders’ set was mostly on the muted side. Those who made it to their seats or standing room areas in time for the openers’ dozen-song set – mostly pulled from Last Splash, which the band did a 30th-anniversary tour for last year – were polite and respectful, but hardly visceral or effusive in response. “Cannonball” came and went without much obvious crowd recognition, as did the anomalous closing performance of “Gigantic” – which Kim had written for and performed with original band the Pixies, and which she dedicated to Rodrigo on stage. It’s hard enough for opening acts to make an impression on a filing-in crowd at MSG even when they’re not multiple generations removed from the average attendee, and for The Breeders – who hardly have a deep catalog of ubiquitous pop culture staples – the task was a particularly challenging one. 

But there was one truly lovely moment between audience and artist: during “Drivin’ on 9,” a country-fried highway ballad that The Breeders borrowed from alt-folkers Ed’s Redeeming Qualities for Last Splash. As the group played their sweetly swaying cover – their set’s lone totally acoustic moment – the cell phone lights slowly started going up in the audience, until they eventually blanketed the whole arena, as if the group was unleashing their rendition of Rodrigo’s towering “Traitor.” It wasn’t a totally appropriate response for the gentle road-tripper, but it was touching to see Rodrigo’s fans really attempting to engage with the performance the best way they knew how – and the Deals were clearly moved, with Kim commenting that the headliner was going to love the crowd tonight. 

I was moved, too – much more than I was prepared for. Honestly, I can’t remember a time when I was more emotionally overwhelmed by a live experience than I was watching The Breeders open for Olivia Rodrigo at Madison Square Garden. I first started getting choked up during that “Drivin’ on 9” moment, and by the time the band got to “Cannonball,” I was in full-on tears – which, needless to say, was also not a particularly appropriate fan response on my part to the rollicking alt-radio riffer. 

I’m still trying to process exactly why the Breeders’ performance affected me as much as it did, though certainly the overdue validation of the moment was somewhere at the core of it. The Breeders never got to play MSG in their own time; popular as the No. 2-peaking Alternative Airplay hit “Cannonball” and the RIAA Platinum-certified Last Splash were, the band only sold a fraction of what more conventional peers like Candlebox or Stone Temple Pilots did, and intra-band issues ensured that they weren’t able to build off the album’s momentum until their moment had long since passed. Kim’s old group the Pixies played MSG both as an opening act for U2 in 1992 with Kim still in tow, and as co-headliners with Weezer on a post-Kim reunion tour in 2019, but The Breeders had never quite been afforded the same level of critical respect – despite the fact that even Kurt Cobain (who forever ensured the Pixies’ legacy by nicking their “U-Mass” riff for Nirvana’s epochal “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) worshiped them on the same level. 

To see the Breeders get the chance to become arena-rockers that should have long been theirs by right of their inspired ‘90s work – which has also since extended to excellent albums in the ‘00s and ‘10s – was a very powerful thing. And I do have an attachment to their songs that goes beyond the content of the songs themselves and even the memories I have associated with them. I’ve never once considered The Breeders as having articulated a specific emotion I was otherwise trying to express, or having served as the soundtrack to my life in any specifically resonant way. That doesn’t mean these songs don’t feel very much a part of me, though, of my life, of who I’ve become in the decades that I’ve lived with them. Bands like The Breeders show how we tend to overrate the particular functions that songs can perform in our lives and underrate the importance of just loving songs for what they are, and the significance that they can build in our hearts regardless of any larger context. 

But I think the most affecting part of The Breeders’ performance came through its connection with Olivia Rodrigo, and her reaching across the generations to include them in her big Madison Square Garden moment. It goes beyond a new artist paying her respects to those who came before her, I think, and serves to help connect and re-strengthen a timeline that was at serious risk of being totally severed. 

In 2016, it may have looked like it was on its last legs, but in 2024, rock and alternative are once again starting to thrive in the mainstream. Mitski is a major streaming star. Joe Keerey’s alt-psych project Djo spawned one of the year’s biggest viral hits. Benson Boone scored a massive pop breakthrough by throwing over his usual gentle piano for an electric guitar explosion. There’s a hundred success stories minor and major to point to in the past few years, and while the top 40 inflection points that led to them are similarly numerous – mgk’s pop-punk pivot, Billie Eilish’s “Happier Than Ever,” the alt-folk of Zach Bryan and pandemic-era Taylor Swift, even the rap raging of Lil Uzi Vert and Playboi Carti – the biggest is very arguably Olivia Rodrigo once again normalizing distorted guitars at the highest tiers of the Billboard charts.

This point was driven home by Rodrigo’s own headlining set, which certainly contained its fair share of acoustic balladry and folky detours, but which both began and ended with full rock righteousness, with her fans enthusiastically embracing its harder-edged moments as the true tone-setters for the evening. No one would’ve confused her set for The Breeders’ relatively static setup: Rodrigo commands the stage like the pop star she is, with costume changes and video montages and dance numbers and everything else you’d expect from one of 2024’s biggest artists. But the alt-rock elements were no mere affectation or sonic window dressing – hearing Rodrigo wail “Each time I step outside/ It’s social suicide” over gnawing Nirvana chords during “Ballad of a Homeschooled Girl” felt as genuinely and awesomely ‘90s as anything the Deal sisters brought to the stage on Monday night.

Rodrigo drawing a line from The Breeders to herself as part of the same continuity is so powerful not only because it serves to reaffirm rock’s place on the timeline for the past 30 years, but because it also offers The Breeders a chance for a deserving and lasting mainstream legacy that radio would simply never offer them – or any other female artists, for that matter. Around the time that The Breeders disappeared at the turn of the century and male aggression took over the sound of modern rock, alt radio essentially decided it didn’t need women: Look at a KROQ or 91X year-end list from that era and you can count the number of them on one hand (and still have a couple fingers available). Older female artists were reduced in playlists to their one or two biggest recurrent hits, while new ones had nearly no chance of getting in the door, and the ones who managed to get one hit still had to prove it all over again with each subsequent single. Even Paramore, one of the extremely rare female-fronted groups to secure a major foothold in alternative radio at any point in the 21st century, didn’t score their first Alternative Airplay No. 1 until just a couple years ago; Cage the Elephant topped the chart 10 times first.

Alternative radio isn’t currently playing Olivia Rodrigo or many other female artists, either; you have to scroll down to St. Vincent at No. 22 on this week’s chart to get to the first woman. But in 2024, it just doesn’t matter nearly as much: If Olivia Rodrigo wants to play rock music, she can have all the success in the world doing so without getting permission from the gatekeepers first, as long as her audience embraces it. She can remake the rock world in whatever image she wants, because her co-sign is infinitely more meaningful than radio’s anyway – as Chappell Roan has found out the past month and a half. Since starting on the Guts World Tour in late February, Roan’s seen her weekly official on-demand U.S. streams more than triple, from 3.7 million to nearly 11.7 million, according to Luminate — a truly insane boost for any tour’s opening act. 

It’s pretty unlikely that The Breeders will experience a similar lift-off from their quartet of live dates with Rodrigo, a reality that I’m confident the band themselves has no illusions about. But what they are getting is arguably greater: a chance to be an integral part of the continued rock chronology, an officially cited formative influence on the artist who’s doing as much as anyone to make sure that this music makes it to the next generation. To have an artist like Rodrigo refer to The Breeders as “iconic” might make the Deal sisters reflexively wince a little – no one would have used that word for them in the ‘90s, and it’s not something they’ve likely ever seriously thought of themselves as being – but that doesn’t mean it’s inaccurate. For tens of thousands of young fans in attendance, and who knows how many more watching over social media, The Breeders will be one of the first ‘90s bands they think of in those terms, forever. And at least a few of them probably will give Last Splash or Pod a proper listen and have their heads completely turned around. I couldn’t be more excited for them. 

This was all swimming around my head, consciously and unconsciously, as I was fighting back tears while singing along to “No Aloha” and “Do You Love Me Now” on Monday night. I was thinking about how great The Breeders sounded in a massive arena, and how happy I was to get to see them in that setting after all these years. I was wondering how much more emotional the experience must be for those parents in the building, and imagining the conversations they’d have with their kids on the trip back home. I was thinking about how relieved and grateful I was that my co-worker was actually wrong back in 2016, that it was worth holding onto the idea that rock music could still be pop music. And I was already dreaming about who the next Olivia Rodrigo might end up being for the next rock era. 

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