Charli XCX: The pop futurist who broke every rule in music

As Charli XCX releases an album written and produced entirely in quarantine, Adam White explores how the British singer-songwriter defied the odds stacked against her and moulded pop in her image

Wednesday 13 May 2020 06:32
Radical pop creativity: Charli XCX in the artwork for her single ‘Claws’
Radical pop creativity: Charli XCX in the artwork for her single ‘Claws’

Charli XCX was not offended by the anal douche. For a few days last October, it was decided that the internet-friendly British pop star had been at best embarrassed, and at worst exploited, by her own fans. Her pre-concert meet-and-greets, in which her legion of queer supporters line up to deify and worship her, bore witness to a strange game of one-upmanship involving the weirdest items fans could get her to sign. There were poppers. The ashes of a poor boy’s dead mother. The douche. Columnists were outraged, a number of fans were embarrassed on her behalf. Then Charli herself released a statement denying that she was ever offended, while calling out those who had determined she was a “helpless damsel” at the mercy of inappropriate homosexuals. It was not the first time, nor the last, that we’d misunderstand Charlotte Aitchison.

Over the course of her decade in music, the 27-year-old Charli XCX has never not been a glorious enigma. A child of the Britney Spears era of pop, and raised within a bubble of DIY music production software like GarageBand, she exists both inside and out of the mainstream. She is a woman who can perform big, brash singles she publicly despises while opening for Taylor Swift, and then later that evening transform into a punk-rock raver dripping in sweat and performing produced-in-a-blender alt-pop. This isn’t inconsistency, though. It’s a reflection of a boundaryless climate of radical pop creativity.

This week, she releases the first pop album of the Covid-19 age. How I’m Feeling Now has been written and produced in her own home under quarantine, its progress documented on Instagram Live, its contents, artwork and production flourishes determined and occasionally crafted by fans. There’s a brilliant train-wreck quality to the tracks unveiled so far, all of which sport deliberately tinny vocals and an abundance of synthy clunks, bashes and bangs. Most importantly, it feels like her – gorgeous pop melodies buried under a cacophony of noise, and of a kind that could only have come about in the wake of being entirely alone with her thoughts for two months.

Who Charli XCX “is” has always been at the heart of her ambiguity. At different points in her career, she has played in every possible field of pop. After getting her feet wet as a performer at underage all-night raves and recording a promising if unspectacular debut album, she broke out as a songwriter and guest vocalist. She was responsible for the cheeky chorus of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”, and memorably boasted of being a “Nineties bitch” on the 2013-in-microcosm smash “I Love It” by Icona Pop.

Her solo music, meanwhile, saw her transform into roles in which she never felt entirely comfortable. Sucker (2014), her second solo album, was designed to propel her into the pop big leagues, courtesy of a dreamy single titled “Boom Clap” that soundtracked the beautiful-and-dying teenager weepie The Fault in Our Stars. She would later remark that the album “felt fake”, carrying a glossy if middle-of-the-road sheen atypical to her artier, more queer-friendly pop that was already blowing up gay clubs, as well as the music she felt most inspired by.

A decade ago, this might have been the point that Charli XCX became a musical footnote. Pop history is filled with ambitious young women who have demanded some semblance of autonomy only for record labels to slam doors in their faces. When Sucker didn’t transition her into pop’s A-list, however, she would rework the major-label industry in her image instead. She released mixtapes – low-stakes ventures directly beamed to her fans, that would shift away from Top 40-friendly hooks and into more experimental arenas. Created alongside her longtime PC Music collaborator AG Cook, 2017’s Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 were demented masterpieces, glitchy and strange pop euphoria that sounded as if they had been birthed by cyborgs.

Last year’s Charli, her appropriately titled third album, felt like the first time her various guises properly coalesced. It sounded expensive and polished in its sonic knottiness, cribbing the chaotic noise of her EPs while retaining the airy glam of Sucker. “Gone”, her collaboration with Christine and the Queens, remains one of the greatest tracks of the 21st century so far – a breathless racket that smells of sex, anxiety and dire feelings of hopelessness.

Breathless racket: Charli XCX performs in Sydney in 2018 (Getty)

By flirting with so many different worlds at once, and never feeling particularly attached to any one of them, Charli XCX has rapidly become one of the most influential artists in modern music. Along with Sky Ferreira, she is a force when it comes to influencing left-of-centre pop that is as indebted to Britney as it is to Kraftwerk.

Her fingerprints can also be found in the diminishing of the traditional pop-release model, with Ariana Grande casually recording and releasing an entire album mere months after her previous one dropped, and Dua Lipa rush-releasing her cosmic masterwork Future Nostalgia the week every club in the world shut its doors. Meanwhile, by the time Lady Gaga had cancelled and then resurrected the release date of her new, long-in-the-works record, coronavirus be damned, Charli XCX had nearly completed an entire album.

It used to seem impossible for one pop artist to be both cult and commercial. But Charli has bridged the gap, all the while refusing to enable the kinds of narratives about pop music and female autonomy that underpin much of our understanding of the music industry.

With its performatively rebellious lyrics and teen-girl-gone-bad music video, her 2014 single “Break the Rules” is not one that she’s proud of – despite its admittedly smart presence on her more commercial festival setlists and the aforementioned Swift tour she opened throughout 2018. But it’s arguably her most apt song title, reflective of exactly where she stands in music, and her pointed refusal to be anything but herself. If anyone was going to produce and release an album at a time when almost every promotional opportunity is off the table, it was going to be Charli XCX.

How I’m Feeling Now is released on 15 May

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