Olivia Rodrigo became a superstar before she ever set foot on a stage.
In January, the then seventeen-year-old Disney actress emerged as pop music’s queen of quarantine, skyrocketing to overnight international fame with her debut single “Drivers License,” which broke streaming records and became the background music for millions of TikToks from fans eager to share in the song’s themes of heartbreak. Rodrigo doubled down on her success by delivering the angsty and inescapable smash hits “Deja Vu,” and “Good 4 U.” By late May, her vulnerable, pop-punk–tinged debut album Sour crushed her previous Spotify records and helped her make history as the first artist to debut his or her first two singles in top ten of the Billboard Hot 100.
Rodrigo got her start on television, breaking out as Nini in the Disney+ show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. And it was on television that we first saw her perform her music, starting on The Tonight Show, where she sang a pared-down version of her plaintive piano ballad, “Drivers License,” in February. Live television performances soon followed, including Saturday Night Live in May.
She nailed them, but they were all short sets. Could she actually pull off a full concert? She came close last month at the iHeartRadio Festival in Las Vegas, where she put on a twenty-minute set that she dubbed her first show. A stretch, even if her rabid, fist-fighting fans eagerly ate it up. Still, there have been a few reminders that Rodrigo is new at this. Her energetic performance of “Good 4 U” at MTV’s Video Music Awards last month earned comments from viewers about her shaky breath control as she jumped around the stage.
But any remaining skeptics may now bend the knee. On Saturday, the eighteen-year-old proved she’s the real thing. Not in her native California, but during her first visit to Texas, at the Moody Theater stage in Austin for Austin City Limits, the longest running music show on TV. And she did it barefoot.
Though she might be used to it by now, Rodrigo made history the moment she padded out onto the stage, to the screams of 1,300 mostly teenage fans and their parents. Not only was she the youngest performer in the show’s 47-season history, she was also the first to record a set with an all-female band. Sporting a red cropped tank and with her wavy dark brown hair falling to the top of her baggy black leather jeans, she performed nine of Sour’s eleven tracks over the course of roughly 45 minutes. This, in fact, was her first show—and she crushed it.
Cued in by the melodramatic string introduction for “Brutal,” Rodrigo skipped the greetings and got straight to it, launching into the gritty, pop-punk track. Between scattered screams and “I love you”s from fans, the singer made use of every inch of the stage, skipping past her band and climbing up onto box platforms to wail at each side of the theater before transitioning into the psychedelic-influenced ballad “Deja Vu.”
It was the perfect venue for Rodrigo’s first full concert. The theater was packed but still managed to feel intimate. It shouldn’t be a complete shock that the actress was a natural performing in front of the cameras (her episode will air some time in December)—she took control of the stage, commanding the audience’s attention like a veteran. She had a magnetic, polished presence that felt effortless. She engaged the crowd, introduced her band members, and seamlessly teased the next song.
Her ease immediately brought to mind another former teen idol, Taylor Swift, which isn’t too surprising; Rodrigo is part of the post-Swift generation of pop stars. She’s repeatedly cited Swift as a major influence on her autobiographical songwriting, and Swift is a credited cowriter on two of Sour’s tracks.
But no one disputes that Rodrigo has turned her inspiration into irresistible originality. Her talents onstage were undeniable. With the opening notes of “Drivers License,” her voice rang out clearly and confidently over wild cheers from the crowd, which sang along to every word. She danced while belting “Jealousy, Jealousy,” before walking over to her piano, where she grounded herself to smoothly deliver a heartbreaking ballad. A few songs later, she strummed her acoustic guitar while singing the unguarded track “Enough for You.” The support of her band breathed even more life into the arrangements, particularly on “Favorite Crime.” With the help of weeping notes from Camila Mora’s pedal steel guitar, the song crescendoed into a stunning emotional release as Rodrigo sang about her role in the breakdown of a relationship. She finished things off with an electric performance of “Good 4 U,” over a thumping bass line.
Rodrigo had initially planned to release an EP this year, but instead opted for a full-length album to show off her range. The risk paid off as far as reviews and streaming records were concerned, but when it comes to performing, she didn’t make it easy for herself. Sour’s soaring notes, emotional lyrics, and high-energy tracks mean it’s difficult to pull off live.
If she experienced any nerves during this major milestone, it was impossible to tell. Her strengths as an actress made it seem like she wasn’t just singing but embodying the heartbreak, anger, and bitterness she’s written about. Those emotions are what gave her songs a near-universal appeal. Up close, the effect only intensified.
Rodrigo left the stage triumphant and, it can now be said, a proven performer. Years from now, as she cements herself as a pop titan, let it be remembered that it was here in Texas that she gave the world a taste of what was to come.