Charli XCX’s ‘Pop 2’ Subverts Everything About Music for the Masses
The mixtape, exec produced by PC Music's AG Cook, is a masterclass in turning pop on its head.
Charli XCX (Photo by Charlotte Rutherford via PR)
I like listening to Pop 2, Charli XCX’s second (and best) 2017 mixtape, when I’m at the supermarket. Supermarkets are built on pretence: identical, perfect-looking products stand shoulder-to-shoulder on shelves, while packaging and pricing turn the biological need to find food into a capitalist pursuit. Pop 2 is all about fakery in plain sight too, so to my brain, there’s no better time to hear it than when razzing around my local Asda.
To continue on in supermarket terms, you might say that Pop 2 is alternately (and, importantly, purposefully) a polished Whole Foods fruit and veg section without a bruised banana in sight, and the reduced aisle of a Tesco, where the defective tiramisus and nearly out-of-date sandwiches live. In combining robotic faultlessness with glitchy flaws, Charli and her producer AG Cook seem to be interested in both ramping up the artifice that defines pop, and deconstructing it. In Pop 2, therefore, they have created a work that is dazzlingly self-aware, and, along with their host of specially curated, international collaborators, they’ve also quietly ushered in a new era of the genre.
One reason for this is that, intentionally or not, Pop 2 engages with theoretical discourse about art, popularity and capitalism. In doing so, it offers a suggestion as to how deliberately generic pop music, in showing creativity and playfulness, can possibly reach beyond perceptions of it as populist commodity first, and art second. Like most popular – that is, monetised – art forms, pop music is centred on conventions. When we turn on the radio, we expect the verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus song structures we are used to. It’s in appealing to our tastes for this predictability that much pop music is sold to us, and therefore becomes product.
In 1963, the Marxist theorist Theodor Adorno wrote about what he termed “the culture industry.” He stated that within capitalism, cultural products like music are often created to appeal to as many people as possible (in order to make money) rather than as art for art’s own sake, writing that “products which are tailored for consumption by masses, and which to a great extent determine the nature of that consumption, are manufactured more or less according to plan”. Mainstream pop music in its current form would, certainly, meet his ire.
While here he’s rightfully bemoaning the homogenising effects of capitalism on culture, it is also easy to see words like these as snobbish and elitist. In some ways, Adorno’s kind of the 1963 version of those guys on Twitter who say they hate Beyoncé and Yorkshire puddings purely because loads of people like them (though for Adorno, it’s slightly more complex, as he holds that art which is made for ends that include profit is diluted in artistic value). Theory, however, is just that: we can’t always apply it directly on top of real life. In this case, the truth is that we live within capitalism, and so does pop music, so we have to compromise. If something has been designed to be bought by many, it was also made to be enjoyed by many. The intentions behind its creation don’t make those people’s enjoyment of it any less important or valid, and they also don’t have bearing on whether or not its different consumers class it as art.
On Pop 2, Charli XCX plays both sides, offering an insight into what pop music that embraces, but is also aware of, its own stereotypes can achieve. Throughout, she and AG Cook gleefully use the sort of expected pop tropes which would make Adorno’s eyes roll into the back of his head like bowling balls, but they fuck with them too. On “Femmebot,” perhaps the tape’s most balls-to-the-wall pop song, the simple structure, added-sugar bubblegum sound and camp extended metaphor are interrupted and complicated by the late inclusion of Mykki Blanco’s rapped verse. It’s an interesting play on the longtime pop trend of a rap feature, coming later in the song than usual, and changing its mood rather than acquiescing to it. Samples of shattering glass announce both the verse and its jarring nature – it’s so literal and hammy as to verge on loving parody (which, as the postmodernist Frederic Jameson has it, is about “ulterior motive,” “satiric impulse,” and “laughter,” all of which are observable on this tongue-in-cheek track), and it’s happily transparent about it.
Pop conventions also find themselves pushed to an almost absurd limit on Pop 2: take, for example, repetition on choruses and bridges. On most songs throughout the pop genre, hooks comprise of the same phrase repeated a few times, but here, Charli takes it to extremes. As pointed out by Twitter user @promiseweadored, on “I Got It,” the chorus is the phrase “I got it” spoken repeatedly – at one point 42 times in sequence. On “Tears,” the bridge is “yeah,” sung over and over by Charli and collaborator Caroline Polachek; on “Backseat” she enlists Carly Rae Jepsen to join her in wistfully trilling “all alone” 40 times, their voices melded into a mournful chorus by effects.
Elsewhere, on the chorus of “Porsche,” (below) Charli messes with pop music’s classic – and sometimes gutless – romantic impulse. Full marks from Adorno et al so far, for unpicking an element of what can make pop formulaic, in order to create something different. However, spurned by a person, Charli instead turns to brazen commodity fetishism (in part self-awarely drawing attention to the potential of the song itself as a commodity), and makes the subjects of her love song an expensive car and the general concept of getting rich as hell. “I been fantasising ‘bout a Porsche, get that dough-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh,” she coos on the chorus in deliciously typical pop phrasing.
While the lyrics to the song as a whole suggest that the Porsche fantasy is actually just shorthand for anticipating the spoils of hard work that’s been a distraction after the end of a relationship, it does brings Pop 2’s preoccupation with automation to the fore. Manual instruments are largely, if not entirely, replaced by synths, samples and electronic sounds across the mixtape. It’s shrouded in a hollowness and a coolness that’s almost metallic (hear it especially on “Lucky,” “I Got It,” “Backseat,” and “Track 10”), with AutoTune lavished throughout to make the vocals sound consciously artificial. Pop 2 sounds like what people in 1980 thought the year 2000 would sound like, and aesthetically it throws back to a time when computers were strange and exciting, rather than part of the fabric of living. This use of on-the-nose mechanical sounds to break with our expectations of pop feels like an aural example of the fact that using machines doesn’t immediately spell laziness, or a lack of creativity, as is often perceived, especially with pop (over other genres like dance and electronic).
None of this is to say, though, that projects similar to Charli XCX’s haven’t been undertaken before, by various artists throughout many different genres; it isn’t to say that self-aware pop has lived and died by Charli XCX’s hand. Her frequent collaborators in PC Music (the label and collective of which AG Cook, for one, is part), for example, surfed a similar pixelated wave of artificiality-saturated output during their main period of notoriety back in 2014. Charli XCX is different, however, because she’s a major label act who began her career making straight up pop – True Romance and Sucker carry some of her current essence but their sound is very different to what we hear on Pop 2.
She also has a global following, whereas PC Music were (and are) viewed as UK DIY upstarts. Charli, therefore, has the clout to turn the wry self-awareness of the boldly-titled Pop 2 (the name itself suggests that she’s shoving us into a new, convention-meddling stage of a genre plagued by accusations of uniformity) into an actual movement. She begins to do so on the tape itself, bringing multiple international performers – singers, rappers, visual artists, a model, a drag queen – along for the ride, following a feature-heavy mixtape model established by hip-hop (the mixtape form prioritises creativity, process and experimentation to a higher degree than the traditional album). It includes a diverse roster of artists from countries including the USA, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Germany, Brazil, Estonia and Denmark. Some of the featured musicians are lesser known, while others (OK, Carly Rae Jepsen) are literally credited by critics and fans both with reinvigorating pop music: clearly, Charli understands who and what will be moving into the future with her.
Pop music is by its very nature popular. It is, largely, a product of Adorno’s “culture industry” – it’s designed for large audiences to enjoy. Pop songs are created following conventions, which exist so that people know what to expect from the music they’re exposed to. On Pop 2, Charli XCX confuses this. She does something new, and though she can be said to be engaging with theoretical ideas through the tape, this isn’t what gives it its value, and its brushes with theory don’t, in and of themselves, make it any more worthy of intellectual debate or critical examination than other pop music.
What they do, however, is give us a handle on what Charli XCX is doing. Marxist theorists like Adorno decry the culture industry and the formulaic nature of what it makes, but at the same time they refuse to consider the joy these productions can bring or the artistic merit they contain. Pop 2 feels like a middle ground. It doesn’t throw the conventions of pop out, but it understands they need shaking up. It recalibrates what we’re used to, throwing it into disarray, amping it up, reframing it. It uses a slightly different mode of working (the mixtape, though still released via Asylum Records, which is owned by Warner Music Group, offers a freer, less structured type of release – she put out two in 2017 alone) in order to gesture towards how pop could be.
For me, Pop 2 imagines a purple landscape in the near future, where pop music (and the conventions that define it, for better or worse) is given proper space to become strange. Of any style of music, it is by nature the most constrained by radio, streaming, social media, and labels. But it’s also a living, breathing genre with its own rich language and history: Pop 2 recognises this. It bases its aesthetic in pop’s most recent classic bubblegum period (the late 1990s and early 2000s), and uses this, along with Charli XCX’s ever-growing platform, as a starting point from which to conceptualise a sort of pop utopia. There, creators of pop music can come together and make it not necessarily to turn a profit, but because it sounds wonderful, and even a little bit challenging within the boundaries of what we have come to know as ‘pop.’ In refusing to disavow the elements which have come to be part of pop, and in simultaneously reshaping them, Charli XCX, along with AG Cook, finds the happy medium between the past, present and future, which she always seems able to predict. In doing so, she welcomes us to Pop 2.
You can find Lauren on Twitter when she's not in Asda.