Here is one example of how pop might adapt to social distancing: with more participation, with more transparency, and with obsessive descriptions of monotony replacing obsessive descriptions of partying. For the most part until now, celebrity-made music defined by gloss, physicality, and extroversion has seemed ill-suited for lockdown culture, which is schlumpy, digital, and lonesome. What’s more, the logistics of the mainstream-hit machine—which relies on pro songwriting camps, copious studio time, and flesh-pressing promotional tours—have been disrupted. Meanwhile, the defining quarantine musical experiences have been relatively scrappy and communal: ballads belted from balconies, bands jamming on FaceTime, families singing along to Disney tunes from their couch.
But Charli XCX, at least, seems energized to build a bridge between the old ways and the new. Everywhere I scrolled on Instagram in the early days of social distancing, she seemed ubiquitous, whether in live-streams with other celebs or in newly buzzy Zoom galas. By April 6, she’d announced that she was going to make an entire album in quarantine, and fast. She set a May 15 deadline for its release, and expressed that she wanted it to have a DIY, collaborative sensibility. She’d use her home equipment and producer contacts. She’d loop fans in on the artistic process. And she’d make it about the experience of living in a pandemic, titling the album How I’m Feeling Now.
It’s fitting that Charli would be the pop figure to help shepherd our new 100 percent–online culture. She has landed big hits as a solo star (“Boom Clap,” “Boys”) and as a collaborator (“Fancy,” “I Love It”), but she’s also made experimental, radio-agnostic fare heavily influenced by the electronic-music online underground. Her recent albums have come off as glitchy satires of club music, in which her pouty croon becomes a silvery, cybernetic instrument. Yet if the perpetual hype around her as “pop star of the future” has had merit, it’s been less from her sci-fi aesthetics than from her internet-native sense of authenticity. Her fans are ultra-devoted—but it often seems like the devotion of friends rather than worshippers.
Throughout the creation process of How I’m Feeling Now, those fans had a chance to quiz Charli in Zoom meetings whose attendees also included famous admirers (such as Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams, the comedian Jaboukie Young-White, and Rebecca Black, of “Friday” fame). Between those gatherings were impromptu Instagram live-streams, which had a rambling, brainstorming vibe. Often, Charli conveyed not the peppy salesmanship one expects of a celebrity influencer but the bored, glassy-eyed air that so many of us normies radiate during conference calls. She said she undertook recording an album because that seemed to be the only way to stave off quarantine-induced feelings of listlessness and futility. As the self-imposed deadline neared, she confessed to not being able to keep to her schedule, to feeling inexplicably pressured, and to having mental blocks. Relatable!