Charli XCX Is Probably Not the Future of Pop, and That’s Okay
The songwriter’s cybernetic new album, Charli, is a complement to the mainstream, not an invasion of it.
One of the great things about living in the future is that you can watch the now as it was supposed to be catch up to the now as it is. Charli XCX has been tagged as a pop star of tomorrow since 2012, when early singles by the Brit born Charlotte Emma Aitchison made music bloggers—still a force back then—swoon. The press has continued to portray her as a next-big-thing as she’s moved from black-lipstick operatics to Blondie-ish pep rallies to anchoring Iggy Azalea’s No. 1 hit “Fancy” to her current phase: catchy noise art.
Presumably if she was the future in the past, the present is indebted to her work till now. That’s turned out to be true, sort of, but the 27-year-old Charli is influential less as a pioneering celeb than as a behind-the-scenes writer. She co-created hits including Icona Pop’s trembling ball of energy “I Love It,” Selena Gomez’s seesawing “Same Old Love,” and Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s current tabloid-tease ballad “Señorita.” There’s a bleating, rat-a-tat quality to her hooks, which allows performers to convey personality in vocal inflection rather than range. Of course this style, such as it can be identified, builds on long-established hitmakers like Max Martin, whom she’s a fan of.
When people talk about Charli as futuristic, though, they’re not talking about her workaday writing. They’re talking about her brand in relation to the marketplace: like Madonna if she’d never left CBGB, or like someone playing Pitchfork Fest but also Good Morning America. They’re also talking about her production choices. Her new album, Charli, builds on the style of her 2017 mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, which took all the buzz about her as a visionary and converted it into an explicitly “futuristic” aesthetic—chipperly artificial, digital, distorted. The related visuals have her plastic-wrapped, or gel-coated. Often it sounds like she’s trapped in glitching Bluetooth frequency, or that she thinks the next great single will be in the form of an iPhone notification sound.
This sonic-hologram approach owes much to the U.K. collective called PC Music, led by A. G. Cook, who’s now Charli’s “creative director.” Back around 2015, PC Music’s outrageous dance tracks—jagged but irrepressible, sugary like ant poison—attracted acclaim as, say it again, the future of pop. The time since then has seen mixed success at making that hype a reality. The PC Music ally Sophie, for example, put out one of the best albums of 2018, but her work with Madonna and Vince Staples hasn’t exactly slayed the charts. When the 2015 Sophie-produced Charli XCX single “Vroom Vroom” went big on TikTok, it was like a prophecy fulfilled: The tune had captured the attention-strained, jokey, energy-drink vibe of that platform before it even existed.
PC Music’s work, in fact, usually reads as satire of the desperation and false cheer that rule tech-pop culture. Its best songs are the ones in which humankind seems endangered, its voices trapped in a ZIP file while eager-to-please Siri-like bots take their place. The collective’s collaborations with flesh-and-blood singers like Carly Rae Jepsen thus sometimes feel wrong: You’re not sure who the joke’s on. The sardonic Charli XCX makes for a better team member; she’s game for her pouty voice to be treated less as an instrument than as a sample. Still, the tension between songwriterly communication and sonic mischief can be awkward. She never lands a square triumph of a song on Charli, though she gets close enough that the interesting factor makes up for it.
The album starts jarringly with “Next Level Charli” issuing a monotonous rallying cry for some species that has less-sensitive ears than our own. It features the signature Charli/Cook ingredients—video-poker synths over a simple beat with warbly and watery vocals—but every knob is turned so high that what’s conjured is the after-party migraine rather than the pre-party adrenaline rush. Luckily, Charli follows with “Gone,” an agreeably swirling anthem about that very 2019 sentiment of hating the party you’re at. The bridge goes bonkers in the style of Aphex Twin, but the biggest breakthrough is in the fun, lyrical mouthfeel: “They’re making me lo-oa—oathe,” Charli and the guest frontwoman of Christine and the Queens croon.
Charli continues in much the same alternating fashion, with gnarly explorations sidling next to swings at the radio, all while a cast of trendy alt-pop guests rotate in. Neither the normcore nor the hardcore fare has a monopoly on the album’s highlights or lowlights. One commercial play, the cartoonish nostalgia binge “1999,” is too crass and jingly to tolerate, though Troye Sivan’s bridge about Jonathan Taylor Thomas is inspired. Another centrist single, the Lizzo-featuring “Blame It on Your Love,” reworks a 2017 experimental ballad using dancehall rhythms and warm chords likely drawn up by the super-producer Stargate. It deserves prime party placement.
The weirder songs deliver the thrill of dropping the listener in an odd neighborhood that, despite initial appearances, actually turns out to be welcoming. In “Shake It,” a quartet of femme rappers provide an overdue answer to the Ying Yang Twins’ “Wait (The Whisper Song).” Between choruses, Charli comes off like a poltergeist with an ASMR podcast. What’s not to love? Other standouts like “Thoughts” and “February 2017” place moving narratives and sticky melodies into an ever-melting, up-becomes-down-becomes-up production context. Once you unlock the core concept of these songs, they’re all the more enjoyable for the effort.
Will radio eventually sound like these Philip K. Dick swarms? It already does to some extent, but less because of Charli or PC Music’s efforts than because hip-hop has long pushed toward a cyborg art form. Really Charli is just playing with “the future” as a decades-old sci-fi aesthetic while enacting some of the inclusive ideals of utopian dreamers. What’s refreshing in a world of cynical songcraft is that Charli’s actually not trying to reverse engineer music’s next phase. She’s just playfully panning for that same treasure that bankrolls pop in all eras: novelty.