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From the KORD writers:

Orianthi shreds more than preconceptions on ‘According to You’

Orianthi was an anomaly in the testosterone-heavy realm of 2000s-era rock music. The mononymous guitar virtuoso transitioned from stints behind superstars Carrie Underwood and Michael Jackson to solo success with “According to You,” which appended her hair metal shredding onto American Idol-inspired pop stylings.

Orianthi Panagaris started playing music at an early age — piano at age three, then acoustic guitar at six, and finally electric guitar as an 11-year-old after catching Carlos Santana on his Dance of the Rainbow Serpent tour. Her preference for the instrument earned her no shortage of grief among the primarily male musicians in her native Adelaide, Australia. “Being a female guitar player back in school wasn’t great, and I had to change schools so many times,” Orianthi said in a 2007 interview with The Age. “The male drummers and bass players thought it was cool, but male guitar players said ‘It’s a guy’s thing. You should be doing something else, like playing the harp.’”

Orianthi Performs Live at the 2005 Musical Instruments Fair in Japan (Photo by Jun Sato/WireImage)

Three years after seeing Santana live, Orianthi sent him her demos, and the recordings impressed him enough to offer her a spot on stage the next time he played Adelaide. That opportunity came in 2003, after 15-year-old Orianthi had already dropped out of school and played her first support set, opening for guitar hero Steve Vai. The gig with Santana led to an endorsement from Paul Reed Smith’s PRS Guitars, and after independently releasing her first LP Violet Journey in 2005, she moved to L.A., signed with Geffen Records and started work on her major-label debut, Believe.

Before the album’s release, Orianthi was recruited to perform at the 51st Grammy Awards as country hitmaker Carrie Underwood’s lead guitarist, which resulted in an invitation to tour as a member of Underwood’s band. Shortly afterward, Orianthi was asked by a representative of Michael Jackson to audition for his forthcoming This Is It tour. “I came in and played the ‘Beat It’ solo for him,” she explained to the Boston Herald; Jackson hired her on the spot as the tour’s lead guitarist, and over the next few months, Orianthi appeared at every one of the This Is It rehearsals, preparing for the biggest stages of her life.

Singer Carrie Underwood performing onstage at the 51st Annual GRAMMY Awards held at the Staples Center on February 8, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)

Then, less than three weeks before the start of the tour, Jackson suddenly died from a prescription overdose. His death paralyzed both the internet and the world at large, and after the shock subsided, millions wanted to know who the blonde guitarist was in all the released rehearsal footage. Orianthi was stricken with grief for her deceased mentor, and yet the resulting attention led to a series of high-profile opportunities. The timing of Jackson’s death certainly wasn’t lost on Geffen, which made sure that Orianthi performed at Jackson’s memorial, an event televised live across the globe. She also served as a presenter at the American Music Awards, contributed to a 25th-anniversary reimagining of “We Are the World” (which Jackson co-wrote with Lionel Richie) and featured on his first posthumous record, Michael — all strengthening her ties to the late King of Pop’s megacelebrity. 

Geffen finally released Believe, which Orianthi began recording two years earlier, on the same late October day as the soundtrack to Jackson’s This Is It documentary. “According to You,” the album’s lead single, dropped in her home country on Oct. 6. At the time, Geffen figured that the best way to market someone like Orianthi — a woman playing an instrument synonymous with an overwhelmingly masculine clientele — was to lean into those extremes. “According to You,” by extension, has much more to do with Underwood than Santana, or even Jackson. Although Orianthi contributed to the composition of most of Believe’s tracks, “According to You” is an exception: the song, co-written by Steve Diamond and Andrew Frampton, is essentially a pop track in the vein of superstar singer Kelly Clarkson, who won the televised talent contest American Idol three seasons before Underwood claimed the crown. (Not coincidentally, American Idol creator Simon Fuller is one of three executive producers credited on Believe.)

Orianthi performs at the Z100 & Coca Cola All Access Lounge pre-show at Hammerstein Ballroom on December 11, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Rob Loud/Getty Images)

For about 30 seconds, nothing about the song feels out of step from a standard post-Idol radio hit, but then, right before the chorus drops, you hear the squeal of Orianthi’s (PRS) guitar as she delivers a brief shred straight out of an Eighties hair metal song. She’s obviously a talented player, but besides the fleet-fingered solo after the bridge, her talent is largely an accessory to “According to You” and not its primary source of appeal. Though Orianthi showcases her virtuosity across Believe (especially on its second single “Highly Strung,” which she co-penned with Vai), on “According to You” her guitar exists solely to provide the dissonance that Geffen hoped would intrigue the average fan of guitar-based music: the focus is otherwise on adhering to the rules of the singer-songwriter pop game.

In that regard, “According to You” fits the format to a T. Its lyrics lambaste an unappreciative ex-lover who pales compared to the singer’s current, more supportive partner — typical “break-up” fare that insinuates self-esteem is found mainly in another person, implying a passivity that threatens to paint Orianthi (whose guitar mastery innately subverts gender roles) a little too traditionally “feminine.” Her voice hits the right spot for the material, although it’s hard to discern her naturally thin Aussie accent underneath the production’s metallic sheen. The instrumentation that supports Orianthi’s guitar and her voice is utilitarian at best — the unmistakable tinniness of MIDI drum programming appears early, and the impact of the chorus is dulled by an overactive bass guitar playing sixteenth notes for the Guitar Hero crowd. But despite its cookie-cutter structure, “According to You” operates according to a formula that’s been proven to work, and the surprise surge of Orianthi’s guitar is the cherry on top.

Allison Iraheta and Orianthi perform at the Ryman Auditorium on July 7, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Taylor Hill/WireImage)

“According to You” surged up the pop charts in Australia, eventually hitting number eight. In response, Geffen serviced the song to mainstream radio stations in the U.S. and Canada, and it did similarly well in both countries, hitting the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 and eventually achieving platinum certification. Several coinciding factors contributed to its success. Orianthi’s association with Michael Jackson’s final moments notwithstanding, “According to You” scratched the country’s continuing itch for music in the American Idol mold; on top of that, rock-based rhythm video games like the aforementioned Guitar Hero and Rock Band were at their peak, and Geffen capitalized on their popularity by licensing the song as downloadable content for both franchises. In fact, the “According to You” music video, directed by Marc Klasfeld, pays direct homage to those games by juxtaposing background footage of Orianthi playing with footage from a camera strapped to the arm of a guitar, simulating the game’s treadmill-like center track. (When the song was later licensed to Guitar Hero Live, players were able to play along live to the video.)

Orianthi’s series of lucky breaks petered out as she entered the new decade. Public attitudes toward both guitar-based music and American Idol pop started to diminish in comparison with clubby EDM and mainstream hip-hop, and after her Believe follow-up Heaven in This Hell failed to chart, the pop stardom “According to You” was calculated to attain seemed less and less feasible. Instead, Orianthi retreated to the background, playing lucrative shows with Alice Cooper, Dave Stewart and Michael Bolton while also collaborating with Bon Jovi lead guitarist Richie Sambora. By the start of the 2020s, she was ready to release music under her own name again, signing to smaller rock label Frontier Records for O and 2022’s Rock Candy.

Though she’s inspired many to pick up the guitar, Orianthi still tries not to forget the formative moments that made her a fan of the instrument. “I don’t take any of it for granted, believe me,” she offered in a 2022 interview with VWMusic. “I feel like such a student sometimes. I mean, you never stop learning.”

Guitarist Orianthi performs with Richie Sambora at the Malibu Guitar Festival at Casa Escobar Malibu Beach on April 29, 2016 in Malibu, California. (Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images)

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