Rex Orange Country is a Gen Z superstar – but what do they see in his 'porridge pop'?

·2-min read
Rex Orange County played to a crowd of 20,000 at Gunnersbury Park, London on Saturday night - Burak Cingi/Redferns
Rex Orange County played to a crowd of 20,000 at Gunnersbury Park, London on Saturday night - Burak Cingi/Redferns

Rex Orange County, aka Alex O’Connor, launched his career in 2015 with a self-released DIY album called bcos u will never b free: a bedroom pop record made a stone’s throw from Gunnersbury Park, where last night the British singer-songwriter played to a crowd of 20,000, his biggest ever show.

That ragtag debut album quickly gained online traction, and his music caught the ear of Californian rapper Tyler, the Creator. A flight to Los Angeles and a collaboration followed, then a wave of solo success: with each new album, O’Connor harvests serious streaming numbers and climbs higher on the UK charts, claiming the No 1 spot this year with his fourth, Who Cares?

Last night was the final stop on the Who Cares? tour, a run that included only four UK dates: the gap-toothed Brit school alumnus has been more readily adopted across the pond and exudes an American sheen beyond his stage name, sometimes even speaking like a west coast rapper, despite coming from Surrey. With “London” spelled wonkily on the front of his piano and an illuminated “Who Cares?” behind him, his stage was a Pixar-like cornucopia of primary colours, fridge magnet letters, giant flowers and thumbs ups – indeed, O’Connor covered You’ve Got a Friend in Me in 2018 alongside Randy Newman himself.

But the show progressed like an endless bowl of porridge pop, feeding a young Gen Z crowd seemingly in training for Reading Festival. He shares sonic genes with Arlo Parks – jazz-lite cadences, mild soul – but while her lyrics lift her to a more interesting plane, O’Connor flounders in a swamp of cliches, copy-and-pasted beats and perpetually wilting vocals reminiscent of Ed Sheeran’s sing-rap style.

On stage, O’Connor sometimes erred towards a warble as he ploughed through 20 songs. His older, more varied material earned the biggest response: piano thumper Television/So Far So Good, the Cure-like bass of Never Enough, and the honky-tonk whistle of Corduroy Dreams. A live band featuring London’s Brass Rascals supplied sax solos and jubilant trills, while O’Connor switched between vocals, keys, and guitar. Bounding about the stage, his efforts eventually culminated in a flurry of rainbow balloons sent out into the crowd during schmaltzy single Loving Is Easy.

It’s clear O’Connor is a charismatic, confident performer and a talented musician. But even live, his songs remain too insipid to generate any real excitement or emotion. Yet the sea of teenagers singing along to every word suggested otherwise, as did his own tears after final song Pluto Projector. Who cares? Plenty, apparently.