2017: The Year Pop Finally Caught Up To Charli XCX
She has always been several steps ahead of her time, which is something I learned before, during and after a chat we had over several months.
Illustration by Kim Cowie.
There’s a renewed sense of energy around Charli XCX right now. You could say it’s because she directed one of 2017’s most screenshottable music videos in “Boys.” You could thank her mixtape Number 1 Angel, whose lustrous sound and selection of features (ABRA, CupcakKe, MØ) positioned her firmly within the embrace of experimental pop. You could even call these things an “arrival” or a “rise” or a “rebrand,” but you’d be doing her a massive disservice. Charli XCX has been pumping out catchy, kick-the-doors-in pop bangers since her 2013 debut True Romance (and indeed long before that, as she cut her teeth performing at warehouse parties in London as a teenager).
At just 25-years-old, Charlotte Emma Aitchison has long been one of the most exciting songwriters UK pop has to offer. However it’s seemingly only now in 2017—with the arrival of collaborations between Danny L Harle and Carly Rae Jepsen or Miley Cyrus and The Flaming Lips—that the sound of pop finally caught up with Charli XCX. After several years spent in flux with her label, it feels like she’s taken a scythe to any creative hobbling or sales-based doubts that were in her way and cleared a path to Absolutely Smashing It, sitting atop a landscape of pop artists that skew slightly left of centre.
Rewind to April of this year, though, and things were a little less certain—at least from the outside.
Charli has barely tumbled out of border control before we’re plonked opposite each other in a diner off Oxford Street. It’s the sort of schedule that would give me anxiety dreams and involuntary eye spasms, but is just business as usual for her. “I feel like I haven’t been home for ages,” she says, offering me some water from across the table before reeling off a checklist of recent destinations: China, Seoul, Hong Kong, LA. Just a few days prior to our interview she made her first pilgrimage to Coachella, where she didn’t do a set herself but guested for Mura Masa and closed out a pool party with Brooke Candy and CupcakKe. Mostly she was there to have a laugh, which seems to be Charli’s primary motivation for doing anything.
In theory, there are plenty of things for Charli XCX to be justifiably frustrated about right now. It’s early April, just after the release of Number 1 Angel confirmed her current direction but before the release of “Boys” solidified it in no uncertain commercial terms. Her elusive third album has been “forthcoming” for about two years, and isn’t due out until a TBC date in 2018.
When I bring up The Third Album™, she doesn’t swerve the questions but isn’t massively keen to talk about it either. Sophie, Bloodpop, and Stargate were tapped as producers, it’s party-themed, and Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” has been cited as an inspiration. These are some of the facts, but much of it is up in the air. “My email got hacked and people leaked most of it, so I think I’m just going to start again,” she explains, “But that’s fun for me, anyway. I write fast so I’m not really worried about anything.” Today, Charli is much more interested in discussing the video for “Boys,” which she directed herself and will drop a few months after our chat, much to the delight of a million thirsty feminists.
“The first person we shot for it was Diplo,” she says, lurching across the spread of fries, burgers and macaroni cheese between us on the table to show me her phone. “Look, here he is bench pressing some puppies. Yesterday we shot Joe Jonas being sexy with pancakes and milk.”
Starring a combination of personal friends and people she “bullied” into being involved (she tells me she joined exclusive dating app Raya before making the video with the aim of befriending people and convincing them to be in it, “like a true evil genius”), “Boys” parodies the way women are most frequently portrayed in music videos—i.e. washing cars, eye-fucking the camera and necking milk in slow motion. It also doubles up as an enormous thirst trap in itself. “I suppose the idea behind it is to revert the male gaze in pop videos,” Charli begins, “But also just to make a really fun pop video with everyone’s favorite dudes!”
Charli always writes her own songs, but “Boys” was one of the first she took from someone else. It’s written by Grammy-winning songwriter Emily Warren, who is quietly responsible for Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” and Fifth Harmony’s “Them Girls Be Like” as well as a large portion of The Chainsmokers’ debut album Memories...Do Not Open. Firmly rejecting monogamy by reeling off a shopping list of men for every day of the week, “Boys” is a shamelessly greedy pop song whose main instrumental hook is the 1UP sound from Super Mario. It’s smart but simple; feminist in principle but playful in execution. It’s perfect for Charli.
“The reason I took it is because I had this idea for the video straight away,” she explains, “That was my connection to the song. I wasn’t really thinking lyrically so much about subverting things, but I respect someone who can write a good pop song and Emily Warren is definitely one of those people.”
Charli’s music has always been fun, but since 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP—four tracks of rubbery, nihilistic party pop produced by Sophie—it has taken a deep plunge into the sesh. Now her music is less the sort of thing you could imagine playing over a montage of your best Glastonbury memories, and more the sort of thing you could imagine thumping through the walls as you spin out in the club toilets. Like the 90s eurodance or 00s pop that feeds into it, Charli XCX’s recent output—“After The Afterparty,” “Trophy,” and “3AM,” for example—is music that creates emotions, creates memories. And now that things previously viewed as vapid or throwaway are being approached with ever-increasing consideration by the media—GQ presenting Kim Kardashian as the business behemoth that she is, Harry Styles being given the same profile treatment as a traditional rock star in Rolling Stone—there’s also less resistance to pop’s place among the ranks of more historically acclaimed types of music. But for Charli, art and partying have always been integral to one another.
“The times you let go and feel some kind of euphoria or a sense of super happiness is often, for me, at a party,” she says, “If you want to get over something you go to a party. If you want to spend time with people that you love, you’re at a party. If you’re young and you meet someone and you fall in love, it’s often at a party. I think it’s an important part of growing up. There’s other serious shit too, but music affects me so much more emotionally when I hear it at a party and I’m a bit fucked up rather than listening to it at home.”
What Charli is talking about isn’t unlike the fondness with which ravers describe their halcyon days of acid house and transcendental pill-popping. They’re both rooted in a similar lust for life that exists purely in the moment; each attempt to explain how it takes you further and further away from the elusive magic you felt in the first place. And so, Charli XCX doesn’t tend to dig deep when she’s talking about her own music. She doesn’t over-analyse or conceptualise, she simply does. The results speak for themselves, and more often than not they are saying: we’re having a sick time.
It’s not just her own music that’s a vehicle for Charli’s thrill seeking, either. Her Beats 1 show, Candy Shop, feels like an intimate clubbing experience where Charli XCX just DJ’s her favourite Britney Spears songs to you personally. Her house in LA—where she spends half her time—has become something of a go-to party location for friends and anyone who happens stumble upon them. One time things got a bit out of hand and 5SOS drummer Ashton Irwin cut down one of her trees with a saw he found in the garden. “I didn’t even know he was there,” she says, “He told me about it when I did a session.”
It was at one of those parties, not long after she moved in, that she met A. G. Cook. “I didn’t really know a lot about him apart from things that I’d read, and I think a lot of the things that are written about him are very kind of, you know…” she trails off, “People talk about him as this Svengali character, and I met him and was like ‘wow you’re not like that at all’. He’s so approachable and down to earth and loves making fun pop music.”
Aesthetically speaking, his influence can be felt on everything from the Vroom Vroom EP onwards. Introducing her to “so many new visual artists” and “making [her] think about fonts and stuff,” which she usually finds boring, A. G. Cook has undoubtedly helped Charli XCX execute her music in a more three dimensional way. The cover for Sucker is striking and representative of her music—bright, bold, full of attitude—but it also could belong to anybody (Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato). Now, her artwork tells you exactly who Charli XCX is even when she doesn’t appear in it.
Obviously it goes without saying that all of this would be in vain without the tunes to back it up. Charli XCX is the gift, A. G. Cook is the one who knows how to wrap it. Talking about their working relationship, she tells me it sprung from text conversations they were having about ANTI and The Life of Pablo.
“I was very much coming at them from a musical standpoint and he was talking about them from a completely different one,” she says, “He was talking about Kanye’s personality and the way the album is hectic in the way Kanye is hectic; the way the samples cut in and the songs end and the tracklist is pretty bizarre; none of the features are written down… He was discussing the album like that, and the same with Rihanna. He has such an interesting perspective. The way he looks at music is so different and so—I hate this word, but—brand-based, and I never think about music that way.” After that, she hired him to do the same for her.
It’s no surprise that Charli XCX would pluck something like PC Music out of the relative underground and scare the shit out of her label by veering into a sound that wasn’t predestined to do well commercially. “They totally freaked out,” she tells me when I ask what their response was, “It was just a journey that I had to go on, you know? I have no interest in ‘Oh this producer has the number one selling song on the Hot 100 you should work with them.’ I have no interest in working with someone just because they’re the new hot shit. I have interest in working with people who inspire me and people I think could make an impact on pop culture and the way music sounds, and that’s what I see with PC Music.”
And so, although it might appear this way, the story of Charli XCX’s career thus far hasn’t been one of stop and starts as much as it’s been Charli XCX always being several steps ahead of her time and not having the patience to wait for the world to catch up. She gets bored quickly, moves on, and leaves a string of hits behind her that she’s artistically over by the time they’re out but experiences a second life through her fans’ enjoyment of them.
Right now she’s working on a TV show, with other artists, her own shit, maybe another mixtape. Her experience directing “Boys” has sparked an interest in directing other people’s music videos too. “There’s always a project,” she says, “I’m always going.” I wonder if that must make it hard to feel satisfied.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt satisfied,” she says, “It’s bleak, but I’m a pessimist in a big way. I’m never happy with what I’ve done. Maybe I need to see a therapist. All my friends in LA see a therapist and I feel like it’s not a cool thing, but maybe I should start doing that and maybe then I’ll feel satisfied. I don’t know. Maybe I’m too British for therapy.”
It seems pretty chaotic, being Charli XCX, but at the core of her existence as a pop star is a very simple desire to have fun, create fun, and share that fun with total strangers. A truly noble cause in these majorly depressing times, but one that’s not always easy when your ability to do it for a living is made possible by the fact that you’re making money for other people. But it’s a framework she’s working with rather than against. After all, the best nights don’t happen without having to wrestle with a few rules.
A few months on from our initial interview, I’m speaking to Charli over the phone as she zips around Berlin in a cab. “Boys” has finally come out, and she’s about to head off on the biggest tour she’s ever done—a 30-date arena tour of North America with Halsey and PartyNextDoor, followed by a stint around Australia with Sia. We had planned to have another conversation, the second chapter to our chat in April, the dual side of this feature. In the end we spoke for five minutes because of very boring reasons to do with timing and schedules, as is often the way with pop stars who are in the midst of an absolutely banging year and loads of people like me want to speak to them. But I get the impression that Charli would be just as happy making music and playing to her fans regardless of what portion of the outside world was paying attention.
Although it’s not intended as such, each release this year has felt a bit like a told-you-so; an explosion of energy and pop genius and self-assurance that she should have been getting dues for from the start. I ask whether this renewed energy that feels palpable from the outside also feels real to her, too.
“Definitely, I think you’re totally right. I suppose there’s more structure in my world now, which is nice…” she begins, then pauses for a second as if contemplating saying something serious. Instead she puts on a faux Music Industry Voice and says: “It feels like a pop release is coming together!”
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