It’s not as glamorous as it might sound, playing the opening slot on one of the biggest stadium concert tours in the world. For one thing, your set time will be something absurd and offensively punctual, like 6:35 p.m. You might play under the glare of the sun or, worse, partial house lights. At best you will probably perform for a cavernous room that is two-thirds empty, and while you give it your all members of the audience will soberly and indifferently file in, settle down with a plate of chicken fingers they will eat in a crouched position, and quietly resign themselves to paying $14.50 for a Bud Lite that they will have to drink, dehumanizingly, through a straw. This is no one’s home turf, least of all intergalactic pop party-girl Charli XCX’s, but this summer she’s giving it a valiant try as the opening act on Taylor Swift’s blockbuster Reputation tour. Luckily for her creative spirit, it’s not the only gig she’s got going right now.
Consider a recent, characteristically contradictory week of her life. Between June 19 and June 23, Charli played in London three times. The first show was a headlining performance at the Village Underground, an East London warehouse space with a maximum capacity of about a thousand people. The second two were the Wembley Stadium dates of the Reputation tour. The set lists from these disparate shows looked nothing like each other and, aside from the 2017 crossover mini-hit “Boys” and the new song “Unlock It,” seemed almost like the work of two entirely different artists. The Village Underground show was said to have the feel of a homespun rave; the Reputation dates took place in the second-biggest arena in Europe. It’s all a little mind-bending, but it’s her reality in 2018: Much like Westworld (I think?), Charli XCX’s current career is playing out on multiple timelines, simultaneously.
Take, for another example, the disparate fates of two recent singles that feature Charli XCX: “Out of My Head,” a standout from her wildly imaginative mixtape Pop 2, and “Girls,” a summertime Rita Ora song on which Charli sings the hook. “Out of My Head,” coproduced by Charli’s frequent, inventive collaborator Sophie, was recently praised by The New York Times Magazine as one of “25 songs that tell us where music is going.” “Girls” was … how do you say … not. Ora’s sing-songy females-only posse-cut (which revolves around the hook, “sometimes I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls”) was widely criticized for its retrograde depiction of bi-curiosity. (Somewhere, Katy Perry let out a long sigh of relief that “I Kissed a Girl” was released before social media overwhelmed the discourse.) Queer artists Kehlani and Hayley Kiyoko publicly condemned “Girls,” and Ora eventually issued an apology. “Girls” might be the most notorious flopped pop single of the summer, and yet it has still been streamed on Spotify 14 million more times than “Out of My Head.”
And because justice is a lie, “Girls” will likely be heard by more people than the two excellent new singles Charli just released, the hyperactive “Focus” and the bouncy, fan-favorite rarity “No Angel.” “No Angel” was long rumored to be a track on Charli’s endlessly delayed third studio album (think of it as the Chinese Democracy for the Carly Rae Jepsen set). “XCX3”—as it’s whispered about on message boards and subreddits—was initially slated for an early 2017 release, but after months of vague friction with her label, Charli has started telling people she’s not sure if it will ever be released at all—or if a pop artist in 2018 even needs to release something as formally traditional as a major-label album. “I will put something out,” she told Vulture late last year, “I just don’t know if it’ll be 10 songs with two lead singles. Or if it’ll be 20 songs, or a whole visual album, or four EPs, or a constant flow of demos done in a structured way. ... [T]he music landscape has changed so much. For some artists, albums work. I’m trying to figure out whether that’s me or whether I could do something different.”
As she hits a stride making some of the best and most daring music of her career, Charli is right now exploring the freedom and the limits of working on the margins of mainstream pop. And thank God someone is—it could certainly use some shaking up.
Must music be popular to be “pop”? Charli’s current status begs that question. But also, in some sense, her entire decade-long career has been a meditation on that sticky bubble-gum koan.
Born Charlotte Aitchison, Charli started uploading self-recorded demos to her Myspace page when she was 14. (Now and forever, she bleeds internet: “Charli XCX” was one of her early MSN screen names.) She was a precocious songwriting talent: She’s often repeated a story about her parents accompanying her to her first live show, at a rave, where she went on at 3 in the morning. In 2011, she began writing and releasing the songs that would later appear on her lucious, moody debut album True Romance, like the goth-ballad “Stay Away” and the neo-new-wave gem “Nuclear Seasons.” On a particularly productive night during those sessions, the producer Patrik Berger sent her two beats, and within about an hour she’d written two songs. She kept one for herself (the aching, crush-struck “You’re the One”) and gave the other away, to the Swedish duo Icona Pop. That song was called “I Love It.” Maybe you’ve heard it.
Though critically acclaimed, True Romance sold only 12,000 copies in the U.S. “You’re the One” did not chart; “I Love It” went platinum in eight countries and was covered by the likes of Robin Thicke and (separately, thank God) the Kidz Bop kids.
The next phase of Charli’s career brought similarly surreal mixed blessings. In 2014, she once again scored big on someone else’s song, writing and singing the hook and bridge of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.” (You know, the good parts of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.”) Quickly and savvily she followed this up with the unabashedly romantic synth-pop hit “Boom Clap,” which was featured prominently in that summer’s teen tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars. (In the U.S., it’s still her highest-charting and most-streamed solo hit—and the song she opens with on the Reputation tour.) But commercially speaking, Sucker, her 2014 sophomore album, was less of a sure thing. The opening track was a brash, agit-pop fuck-you … literally: The chorus is just Charli screaming at the top of her lungs, “FUCK YOU! SUCKER!” During the verses, she affects a sardonic deadpan as she catalogs the “perks” of mainstream pop success. “You joined my club, Luke loves your stuff,” she sneers at one point. This was 2014, at the height of Dr. Luke’s reign—Kesha’s account of sexual abuse was just surfacing. And yet, ever the vanguard, Charli was already calling bullshit. “People would always come up to me and say, ‘Oh, [Dr.] Luke loves your stuff, well done’—as if that means, ‘You’ve made it,’” she said in a Pitchfork interview promoting the record. “That’s fucking weird to me.”
In an interview with The Guardian last month, Charli reflected that some of the songs she made right after “Fancy” “feel fake to me now.” In a January 2017 conversation with Q Magazine, she was even more blunt. Speaking of Sucker’s second single, “Break the Rules,” she said, “That [song] was so bad. I hate it. … I was like, ‘Whoever sings this song is an idiot’ … Cut to: four months later, it’s on my album and it’s my new single.”
She is also playing it almost every night on the Reputation tour.
It’s not even close: There is no album I’ve listened to in 2018 more than Charli’s mixtape Pop 2. That it was released at the tail end of 2017 is a minor temporal distinction: Pop 2 is so constitutionally forward-thinking that it feels as fair to call it one of the best albums of 2018 as it does one of the best albums of 2028. Pop 2 is a strange, immersive state of mind. I just like saying it—Pop 2—and thinking about the alternate realities and quasi-utopian possibilities it conjures. (“[A] sequel, but to what?” mused one writer. Exactly!) It is all, deliciously, a little bit off. Pop 2 is an invite-only party in a warehouse so remote that the air inside actually mimics the atmospheric pressure of Mars. Pop 2 is like the Mandela Effect, but if we all collectively imagined a Ritalin-addled Spice Girl who never existed.
Pop 2 is a collaboration with the producer A.G. Cook, one of the masterminds behind the avant-pop collective PC Music. Contrasting with the solo-star-as-personal-brand dictum of mainstream pop, Pop 2 is inherently collaborative; Charli has said that she wanted to let “everyone be the star.” And so you get songs like the ecstatic “Out of My Head,” where the grainy-metallic voices of Tove Lo, Alma, and (almost as an afterthought) Charli fuse into a collective sugar-rush sing-along while the beat springs around like a Top 40 song that has injected a balloon full of helium. “Femmebot” is a well-oiled machine of manic cyborg-pop featuring a gleefully sexed-up verse from the queer rapper Mykki Blanco (“ex machina na na you can’t win / I’m A.I., fly, I am that bitch”); “Porsche” is an eerily sad ballad that makes a case for a foreign car being a more reliable object of desire than an emotionally unavailable human being.
The closest Pop 2 comes to pure fan service is “Backseat,” a huge, surging duet between Charli and Carly Rae Jepsen. In some ways, Jepsen is Charli’s closest kindred spirit—a pop star who had a brief flirtation with world-dominating mainstream fame before settling (almost accidentally) into a more modest kind of stardom, worshipped by the kinds of in-the-know music fans who treat superior pop music like fine wine. Like Jepsen’s relatively commercially unsuccessful but internet-worshipped Emotion, Pop 2 raises some questions about the very essence of pop’s appeal. Can a listener be discerning and even a little bit snobby about pop music—or is that entirely beside the point? Even the “weirdest” song on Pop 2, the closing number “Track 10,” is not exactly Metal Machine Music: It’s an irresistibly catchy melody that, through virtue of its inventive production, begins about halfway through to disassemble its own parts, like a suicidal robot. But still, you can hum it while you’re driving.
At its most utopian, I’ve always thought of pop music as a kind of big-tent collective unconscious, a space where you—and your friend from your hometown, and the most intimidatingly cool person on the subway, and also your uncle—can experience the sort of huge, cathartic emotions that we spend most of our life being told to suppress. The one-size-fits-all quality is part of its appeal. So does pop still have that magical effect if your uncle and your hometown friend never hear it?
Artists like Charli XCX and Carly Rae Jepsen, and the other people on the internet who freak out and make memes about them, have helped me believe that yes, it totally can—and it might be providing even more of that catharsis and feeling than most mainstream pop music. (This year in particular has been dominated by hits that value numbness as a sonic virtue, from the flat feelings of Drake’s “God’s Plan” to Post Malone’s somnolent singles.) Last year, the critic Craig Jenkins wrote a perceptive essay identifying modern pop music’s aesthetic “centrism” and creative stagnation. The day’s most successful pop producers are, he wrote, “perfectionists providing a service a little too cleanly,” churning out mathematically proven Hit Records with an odd detachment from messy human emotion. “I do believe that pop, as an art form and a business, is letting its capitalist roots show by zeroing in on a median sound and simply cloning it ad infinitum. The tactic only works for so long before interest trails off.”
It’s inspiring that Charli is looking for radical alternatives, and perhaps even more so that she hasn’t become elitist enough to completely cut herself off from the world of, shall we say, Pop 1. She’s needed there too, as a galvanizing and disruptive force. But as she put it to The Guardian, her time in the mainstream made her realize she’d always prefer “not being told what to do, not wearing the thing that is going to look the most appealing in the music video, not smiling all the time in every fucking photo.” What she’d much rather do, she said, was what she finds herself doing now: “creating my own language and my own world.”