Charli XCX is Breaking Pop Music’s Mold
Story / Ngozi Ekeledo
Photos / Angelo Kritikos
Charli XCX is late for our interview, but she has an amazing reason.
“I was watching Freaks and Geeks, and my phone was on silent,” she says apologetically. There is no attempted lie or awkward dance around about a schedule mix-up. She’s just honest.
It’s refreshing, and if you’re one of her three million followers on Instagram, this is the candid Charli XCX you see daily – the one who grins playfully while flashing you the double bird or who chronicles her tour pit stop adventures at America’s most fantastic landmarks like Dolly Parton’s “Dollywood.”
To outsiders, Charli XCX gives off a persona as pop music’s futuristic cool girl. She’s the guest at the function everyone notices and also secretly wants to vibe with, and while Cardi B gave us a certain phrase, XCX actually embodies it during her grimier “XCX parties” at intimate clubs: Your bitch really does want to party with Charli.
With a bouncy swagger, it’s hard to imagine Charli XCX as anything other than the confident lead woman. The talented British artist certainly has hits. Thing is, in the past, others benefitted from them more. Remember the Icona Pop jam, “I Love It”? Charli co-wrote it as a track originally meant for her (she ended up as a guest on the song). As well, Iggy Azaela’s biggest song to date, the 2014 single “Fancy,” was co-written by XCX, who also delivered the hook on the smash hit (the decibels from that infectious opening riff were probably felt through the walls at every college party that year). The song topped Billboard’s pop charts and just a few months later, XCX took the top spot once more– but as a solo act. Her single, “Boom Clap,” which was featured on the Fault in Our Stars movie soundtrack, was one of the best uses of musical onomatopoeia in recent years and is still her most popular mainstream single to date, with nearly 575 million streams and views combined.
But even with that song’s success, Charli XCX still wasn’t quite there yet for Top-40 audiences, and she admits it was a challenge. Becoming a huge pop star is not so easy these days; the formula for success that built careers ala Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera isn’t so foolproof. Sure, there’s branding, promotion, image and then the music, but clout comes into the equation – and modern music stans can get messy, firmly drawing their lines in the sand when it comes to picking their chosen one. Fans can see right through PR stunts like the “fake relationship” move before an album drops or sudden celebrity friends essentially spamming an artist’s IG comment section ahead of a new single dropping.
To be a popular public figure these days you have to strike the proper balance when playing the game correctly – and that means capitalizing on authenticity. Charli XCX has hit her stride in that department. A couple of years ago, she finally just said “fuck it,” coming to terms with the fact that the traditional pop album manufacturing conveyor belt just maybe isn’t for her. Since releasing her second studio album, Sucker, in 2014, she’s only dropped EPs or mixtapes. The demand for her to put out “unreleased” songs that she often performs at her shows has grown so strong among her fan base that she surprised listeners with a series of music drops this summer, including the highly-requested “No Angel,” infectious bop “Girls Night Out” (it’s like a cross between “Barbie Girl” and the perfect 80’s pregame song) and “Focus,” an up-tempo come-hither synth track.
Not that Charli XCX is not a new phenomenon. For the pop fans used to digging under layers of Top-40 charts for a more experimental sound in the genre, the 26-year-old has been right there as a purveyor of solid records for nearly a decade. It was last year’s brilliant Pop 2 mixtape that really captured people’s attention, though – and for Charli, it was a big sigh of relief.
“I think it really tested my skills as a curator, and I have so much confidence in that aspect of what I do now,” she said. “I feel like for much of my career I’ve been like the underdog or the person who didn’t break through or didn’t quite make it; or the person who’s like ‘the feature’ or the one who wrote the song but didn’t really get the credit for the song or whatever, and I just feel like Pop 2 just weirdly kind of encompassed all of those things – like that sense of being a collaborator and maybe not being in the foreground all the time, but it makes it kind of my own thing, and it makes it okay.”
XCX created the project’s futuristic earworms primarily with producer A.G. Cook and says when the two of them get together they just hit a wavelength that works really well. In Pop 2’s embryonic stages, Charli wasn’t thinking about sales, streams or hitting the perfect note (in fact, she croons in auto-tune on the entire album). She was just loose.
“I’m so selfish when I make my music. I just make things that I want to listen to – I don’t really think about anybody else. But I was just making music that I would want to hear in a club when I went out. So, yeah, I knew it would be special for me,” she said with a laugh, “but I’m really happy that people connect to it. It feels like when I play Pop 2 stuff live, it feels like the most special experience.”
A part of that feeling stems from the heavy roster of artists featured on the mixtape. Charli pulled a wave of talent from around the globe like Carly Rae Jepsen, Jay Park, MØ, Kim Petras, CupcakKe and Tove Lo, and included thirteen artists total on the project. Because she was so often the unappreciated featured “glue” on songs, XCX has made sure her collaborators get their equal shine, often as rowdy guests during her shows.
“All of them really are so special and do their own thing and are kind of like their own champions of their own freakiness, I suppose. It just makes the show, when I play that mixtape, so special and a safe space for people who didn’t quite fit in ever – which is kind of how I always feel in the pop world, like I never quite fit in,” XCX said. “Those shows become an emphasized version of that, you know? It’s just a space for all those people who were never in a clique, and now we have our own thing, and that’s really fun.”
Charli XCX makes pop music that is fun. Not in a trite way but in an escapist fashion. In a climate filled with political separation, social angst and raised blood pressure from current events, it’s nice to turn on some music and just party. Not everything has to have some deep message or underlying thread. For XCX’s newest single, “1999,” which features Troye Sivan, there’s no melancholy undertone about simpler days. The British singer just wants you to have a good time.
“It’s not really that deep about wanting to go back or wishing we just weren’t all on our phones or shit like that,” she said. “I thought it would be cool to write a song with the title ‘1999.’ I just think it’s a very catchy, cool title and a dumb year.”
In 1999, Charli XCX was just seven years old and known by her government name, Charlotte Aitchison. The XCX persona fans see today wasn’t born yet, but there were definitely inklings of it through the singer’s fashion choices – even then.
“I was probably wearing some jelly shoes and some tie-dye shit and wishing I was Baby Spice,” she said with a laugh. In the song’s music video, XCX plays her own version of the Spice Girls, as she and Sivan pepper us with plenty of pre-Y2K references – including a shout-out to the Matrix, Jack and Rose from Titanic, and Sivan as Justin Timberlake during his curly hair phase.
The collaboration between the two made sense – they’re part of pop’s fringe stars – but Charli took on a whole new audience recently as a part of Taylor Swift’s Reputation tour. Along with Camila Cabello, XCX opened for Swift, but she came as the rare anomaly to the main act; how many openers can sell out their own separate shows on the very same night? Charli did just that. She often pulled back-to-backs in major cities, performing in huge 70,000 seat stadiums before it got dark and then following up her Reputation set with her own packed club shows that bled into the wee hours of the morning.
“I definitely prefer the more intimate shows because it’s more fun,” she said. “I like being able to literally connect with people, and those parties that we throw are fucking wild, which is so fun. Playing at the Reputation Tour was also really fun, it’s just a completely different thing.”
The day we chatted the singer was in the midst of the madness, once again. She was hours away from performing in front of another jumble of excited faces, hence the need for some pre-show downtime to collect her thoughts and even take some time to reflect. A decade ago when she started out, someone like Charli XCX wouldn’t necessarily align in the same pop orbit as Taylor Swift, but the genre has shape-shifted, and others are finally catching up. Charli, though, has always been one step ahead of the group, creating her own futuristic pop paradise with a message of inclusivity – and everyone, of course, gets an invite to the party.
“I think pop music has become a space where I think there are no rules anymore, and that’s great. I think things are more experimental, and I think that’s brilliant, and whether I’ve had an effect on that or not is great either way,” she said. “I feel really happy to have really embraced this sense of collaboration and this idea of creating my own pop world.”
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