The Legend of Charli XCX Grows

The pop star’s latest album, Crash, is a joyful exercise—a clever party starter that is well timed for the spring thaw.

Charli XCX stares at the camera in "Beg for You"
Terrence O'Connor

The Atlantic’s style guide for writers bans the use of the word iconic, as it does many other words that are overused to the point of meaninglessness. So it will be hard for me to write about the delightful new Charli XCX album, Crash, at least judging by how the artist and her fans have been speaking. The term has shown up in press releases and tweets to refer to the singer, her planned tour, her album’s track list, and the Nintendo ad she soundtracked.

The I-word gets thrown around like this a lot lately. A president or a movie star can be iconic, in modern parlance, but so can a Taco Bell menu item or the facial expression of a Real Housewife. This slang clearly points to a fame-hungry, self-aware, exaggeration-prone culture. It probably also represents nostalgia, in our era of niches, for the sort of acclaim that everyone agrees on. But maybe, and most poignantly, the term also embodies a longing for renown that is static and lasting, that won’t burn out from social-media exhaustion or find itself subject to cancellation. Once you’ve reached icon status, you can stop performing all the time. You’re already on the wall.

Charli XCX, like most people, is surely kidding a bit when she uses the word. She knows that, despite her being involved with multiple top-10 hits, most people would not recognize her on the street. On The Tonight Show, she recently joked about Cardi B mistakenly swapping XCX for STD in a tweet about a song they collaborated on (she also called this error “i****c”). In 2011, after breakthrough albums by Beyoncé and Lady Gaga reminded the world that diva-level pop could feel auteurist and personal, the teenage Charlotte Aitchison attracted acclaim with smoldering, finely honed singles that seemed to announce a next-generation hitmaker. But the market shifted, leaving Charli’s micro-generation of ambitious young performers playing arena-ready songs for theater-size audiences. Charli cut an exciting path all the same. Her second album, back in 2014, predicted the present pop-punk resurgence. Her subsequent work helped codify the sound known as hyperpop, with noise and chaos serving to keep some listeners away and draw others closer in.

Her fifth album, Crash, has been touted as a reset: Charli forgoes her recent experimentation to present herself as the “main pop girl” her fans already treat her as. Supervillainous public statements and witchy music videos have spun a story about her selling her soul to the devil, a.k.a. the music industry. Given Charli’s own struggles with record-label pressures and public scrutiny, the concept is post-ironic: She’s joking but not joking, sneering at careerism while also obviously hoping for a windfall. If the accompanying music were formulaic, trend-chasing fluff, this shtick would be intolerable. But instead Crash is a joyful exercise—a clever party starter that is well timed for the spring thaw. Charli is not making a desperate bid for the mainstream so much as giving the listener a fantasy of a mainstream in which she’d rule.

Which means the album is an exercise in time travel, to the defining era of unimpeachable pop icons—the 1980s. Think Prince, Janet Jackson, and early Madonna, with their arid, echoing drum machines and “orchestra hit” keyboard samples. Some listeners will be deflated that the depth and daring of her pandemic album How I’m Feeling Now are gone. Others will note that the Reagan decade has become a trite touchstone for forward-thinking artists making plays for radio—check out Mitski’s and The Weeknd’s 2022 albums. But the ’80s turn certainly fits with Charli’s core musical identity. She has always excelled, like Jackson, at finding melody in Morse-code-like repetition (Charli once described her writing style as “pick a note and yell it for a while”). Her voice also has an almost George Michael character to it, moving from pinup poutiness to childlike abandon.

Most important, Charli’s craftsmanship remains fresh and dynamic. In the album’s opening measures, she chants hypnotically while exuberant production builds around her; the effect is to illustrate her lyrics about getting amped up while looking in the mirror. On the lead single, “Good Ones,” a massive, churning synth riff brings to mind the image of a glitter-painted monster truck doing doughnuts. The standouts “Baby” and “Yuck” toy with rhythm and tension from opposite perspectives: The former is taut and carnal, while the latter is loose and unbothered. Amid such bangers, calmer tracks such as “Constant Repeat,” “Every Rule,” and “Twice” end up standing strong, with interlocking melodies that ensnare the listener in silvery webs.

Tellingly, two songs brazenly recycle elements from the hits of earlier artists whom, perhaps, Charli feels some kinship with. Robin S’s early-’90s single “Show Me Love” and September’s 2006 hit “Cry for You” are both club classics whose singers remain relatively obscure. As Charli’s tracks “Used to Know Me” and “Beg for You” blend those women’s respective hooks with her own warmth and playfulness, she pays tribute, demonstrates the ineffable qualities that make her distinctive, and points out how many cult stars do have legacies that deserve to be called iconic. In a streaming environment driven by memes and vibes and weird luck, Crash’s songs are not guaranteed ubiquity. But they will be worthy entries into the halls of fame maintained by the listeners for whom Charli stays, quite reasonably, legendary.