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Charli XCX and the Problem With Playing by Pop Music’s Rules

On ‘Crash,’ the artist once dubbed the “quirkiest pop star” mostly plays it safe. Is it worth the sacrifice?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Is Charli XCX a pop star? The question has followed the British artist since she broke out with a feature and writing credit on Icona Pop’s “I Love It” in 2012. Music critic Steven Hyden compiled media coverage on the topic into a thread in 2019; she’s been an “imperfect pop star,” the “pop star of the future,” and the “quirkiest pop star.” What keeps reviving this question is that Charli makes music that’s undeniably pop but doesn’t chart well. The fact that she makes pop music must mean that she’s angling for mainstream fame, right? In Charli’s case, the answer has never been clear.

On Crash, Charli’s fifth studio album, out Friday, she’s playing into the pop-star game that’s been dancing around her for a decade. She told Rolling Stone last month that this album is her “main pop-girl moment,” a month after she tweeted “imagine if this entire album campaign was just a commentary on navigating the major label system and the sadistic nature of pop music as a whole.” (Which she promptly followed up with “another thought: what if i just love pop music and wanna be super famous ?”). Making the late-show rounds and even a Saturday Night Live appearance, Charli’s Crash promo tour has all the elements of the pop-star package.

Seemingly forgotten here is that Charli already had a “main pop-girl moment.” Coming off some of the biggest hits of her career in “I Love It,” “Boom Clap,” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” 2014’s Sucker seemed poised to launch her into the stratosphere. But Sucker’s sound wasn’t at all reflective of the artist Charli would become, or even the electropop she experimented with on her debut, 2013’s True Romance. By contrast, Sucker was guitar-driven, shout-along pop-punk. In 2017, she told Q magazine that she “made some rash decisions” with her second album. Singling out the Sucker hit “Break the Rules,” she said, “That was so bad. I hate it. I wrote it at a writing camp … and I was like, ‘Whoever sings this song is an idiot.’” In 2018, she told The Guardian that parts of Sucker “feel fake” when looking back on it. “It was definitely a confusing experience, after ‘Fancy,’ when things didn’t really go my way. I didn’t become, like, this huge big artist or whatever. That was definitely hard at points for sure.”

While her stance on Sucker has softened (“we all know Sucker wasn’t my best,” Charli said in an Instagram comment early last year, “but she had some moments”), there’s a reason why she hasn’t made another album that sounds like Weezer. On her recent tours, she hasn’t performed the album’s biggest hit, “Boom Clap,” or any song from Sucker, other than in her sets at festivals or as an opening act. Even though it’s her bestselling record to date, it just isn’t the sound she’s known for anymore. To savvy pop fans, Charli’s been innovating some of the most exciting music in the genre for years now, and they’re not waiting around for people who know her only as the girl who made the song from The Fault in Our Stars to catch up.

Enter Crash, Charli’s latest stab at appeasing the mainstream pop machine, but this time with music more in line with her post-Sucker output. Crash is synthy and sultry, complete with a dark-glam aesthetic, like Charli’s undead choreography in the “Good Ones” music video. But that’s not to say that Crash doesn’t come with its compromises. After Sucker, Charli began working with PC Music, the influential collective of electronic musicians. PC Music founder A.G. Cook became her creative director and most frequent collaborator, and the late hyperpop pioneer Sophie produced her initial follow-up to Sucker, the electric Vroom Vroom EP, which totally reset her career trajectory. On Crash, Cook has credits on only two tracks, “Crash” and “Every Rule,” and Dylan Brady from the PC Music–inspired duo 100 Gecs has a writing credit on “Used to Know Me.” Otherwise, the album is largely credited to Charli and many journeyman songwriters and producers who’ve made the rounds with big pop artists like Halsey, Taylor Swift, Selena Gomez, Ariana Grande, and the like. There are some other interesting names in the mix, including the prolific Ariel Rechtshaid, who was all over the great True Romance, while the 1975’s George Daniel coproduced “Crash” with Cook, and the result sounds much more 1975 than PC Music.

Although the sounds of Crash work within the electropop space that Charli’s inhabited for much of her career, it isn’t as daring as her music often is, yielding a mixed bag. “Used to Know Me” and the Rina Sawayama–assisted “Beg for You” feature interpolations of classic club anthems, Robin S’s “Show Me Love” and September’s “Cry For You,” respectively, that are fun but don’t offer much of a take on the source material. “Yuck” could be a Dua Lipa B-side, and “Every Rule” is a tender ballad that disappoints given the high expectations for a collaboration among Charli, Cook, and Oneohtrix Point Never. Elsewhere, the album has its highlights: “Lightning” stands out with a fantastic use of vocal distortion that blasts into a big chorus, and “Baby” is cool and catchy. “Constant Repeat” also comes alive on the chorus, thanks to Charli’s hook-writing ability.

The album is enjoyable, but it’s missing a sense of urgency. As Charli has seesawed between full-length releases rolled out over several months and smaller projects made in the spur of the moment, she’s shined more consistently on the latter. Going back to her Tumblr days, when she posted mixtapes that would make up the bulk of True Romance, to Vroom Vroom, to 2017’s Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 tapes, to her quickly made early-quarantine album How I’m Feeling Now, Charli has excelled in spinning gold out of a stream of consciousness. Songs like “Anthems,” “I Got It,” and “Roll With Me” have such a life to them—intense and exhilarating in a way that’s hard to replicate on a big pop record curated over many months with many different hands on the work. Even 2019’s Charli, which had some excellent songs, suffered from the album treatment and came out scattered. On Crash, songs like “Move Me” and “Twice” just feel inert compared to her best work.

Despite the shift in sound, Crash ends up making similar mistakes as Sucker did. Both are solid records that don’t best put forth what makes Charli an interesting artist. Almost paradoxically, her music sounds bigger when she’s working small with a trusted circle of collaborators capturing a spark of inspiration. So what’s the point of playing the pop-star game anyway? She is a pop artist on a major label—at least for now—so there are expectations, and Charli’s been self-aware about the whole thing. “I’ve always been interested in the idea of what a ‘sellout’ is in modern-day pop music and if it even exists,” Charli told Rolling Stone of Crash. “I’ve been signed to a major label since I was 16. I think I’ve had quite an untypical major-label-artist journey, so it’s interesting to operate within that framework. I suppose this record and the imagery is partially a comment on that.” But there’s still acknowledgement that the music can get watered down in the process: “heres the thing: if beg for u continues to grow & get massive it will give rina & i a platform to bring more avant garde music to the mainstream,” Charli tweeted after “Beg for You” was released, “then the charts & everyones minds will be filled w bops like xs & vroom vroom.. which is kinda the ultimate goal.” Considering that the mainstream has never offered much to Charli’s music, the sacrifice doesn’t seem worth it.