backstage at charli xcx's pop 2
Balls-to-the-wall music that knows its own excellence -- this is why Charli XCX is the rare pop weirdo we can't live without.
All images courtesy of Charli XCX
The most boring popstars are the ones who pretend to be unaware of their own greatness; who act bashful when journalists and fans pay them compliments about their music, feigning modesty to seem like pleasant, normal people. But back in January of this year, pop juggernaut Charli XCX let her stream of consciousness seep into a single tweet that summed up everything you need to know about her.
“i think i’m underrated” -- she tweeted, knowing full well that there was nothing incorrect or egotistical about that statement. It came nearly a month after she dropped her most impactful full-length effort to date, a mesmerising collection of erratic, excellent bubblegum pop that left high-brow music critics, queer kids and pop enthusiasts -- everybody but, perhaps, mainstream pop listeners -- all suitably shook. Like every top 40 track you’d been raised on, but skewed in a way to sound like nothing you’d ever heard before, the record was called Pop 2, and its arrival felt like the future of a genre unfolding in real time.
What Charli has created with PC Music’s A.G. Cook is hyperreal dance-pop; like a Lamborghini buffered so much its metallic finish starts to resemble plastic. Lyrically, it’s so loyal to the pop songbook -- catchy, sometimes melodramatic, often nonsensical – that the songs veer on artificial, like they’ve been made in a malfunctioning pop music machine. The production is abrasive and wildly complex, the collaborations unworldly (SOPHIE, Carly Rae Jepsen, Caroline Polachek of Chairlift fame, Kim Petras, Tommy Cash), and the resulting package so perfectly formed it’s practically gobsmacking. In an era that considers artists releasing two smash singles as part of a 12-track filler record a passable success, it felt as though Charli XCX had discovered a secret and effective pop formula; the girls and gays lapped it up.
Tracks like I Got It and Femmebot, Pop 2’s furious and busy dance-pop cuts are harnessed by earwormy, melodic hooks that can make crowds go wild. And while those are the songs that make up the bulk of Pop 2, they’re spliced with songs about heartbreak too. Take the Caroline Polachek collab, Tears as a prime example: it layers esoteric, vocoder-heavy production under apocalyptic screeching, allowing Charli’s vulnerable, melancholic songwriting to run wild over it all.
Perhaps it’s that flitting between agonising emotion and hyperactive ecstasy that turned Pop 2 into a cultural touchstone for millennial queers everywhere. For a Billboard-topping artist with plenty of hits under her belt, the record’s refusal to offer up any major chart hits (its only single, the ALMA and Tove Lo collab Out of My Head failed to chart) felt like a conscious move on Charli’s part.
Pop as a genre is, by proxy, universal, but here was a record that took the tropes of mainstream music and manipulated them into something freakish, intimidating and brilliant. For any kid who’s spent their lives feeling like they didn’t belong; the ones who, over time, learned not to give a fuck about what anybody thinks, an artist like Charli and a body of work like Pop 2 offers up the kind of validation that the impossibly preened and beautiful world of chart-pop can’t quite convey in the same way. Here was a record that took the idea of being brazen, strange and not giving a fuck, and transformed it into a work of art. It didn’t hurt that Charli’s mates also happen to be a ‘who’s who’ of niche gay icons, either.
So it was no surprise that every queer weirdo in a 20-mile radius stopped by to see Charli XCX bring her monumental Pop 2 show – already staged in New York and Los Angeles – to Village Underground in Shoreditch last night. The show’s scarce and unpredictable nature has transformed them into a real ‘I was there’ moment for those lucky enough to grab tickets; her London show sold out in under 30 seconds.
It wasn’t like any other show -- but after all, Charli isn’t like any other artist. She doesn’t release albums (much to her label’s dismay); but churns out immaculate mixtapes at breakneck speed. The gigs feel like unique, one-off events where a bunch of her musical mates (Rina Sawayama, SOPHIE, Raye and Tommy Cash among others made it down to last night’s show) show up to sing a few songs with her, dancing around on stage in front of a sweaty crowd of queer-friendly pop music’s most fervent fans.
Not only that, but in an era of ‘in-and-out’ pop shows that see musicians rattle out their hits, do the obligatory new singles and piss off half an hour before curfew, Charli seems to adore the idea being on stage -- she was still blasting out bangers mere minutes before she was due to get kicked off stage. Her refusal to commit to the rigid strategy most pop stars are stuck in, with label-shaped release schedules and lucrative endorsement deals, means she has the power to give fan favourites and deep cuts the time of day. Heck, she even finished her Pop 2 show not with the once ubiquitous pop smash Boom Clap (which was omitted from the setlist completely), but with an unreleased demo titled Girls Night Out that fans have been bopping to via a YouTube leak for the past nine months.
Accessible, popular music has a unifying effect, but there are a handful of artists who ‘get it’ on a strange and cerebral level. Like she was born with a historical knowledge of the kind of music she makes now, Charli XCX is one of them, and she’s using that know-how to propel pop into a gleaming, risky and audacious future. It’s a cliche to call pop shows a religious experience -- perhaps because such a stupid hyperbole rarely makes sense -- but if you were to look around you and on to the stage at London’s Pop 2 show, you would’ve been met with the faces of like-minded queer kids and pop-obsessed freaks. For so many of Charli’s ‘Angels’ it felt like home.
Part of us wants to shake anybody who’s not taken the time to sit down and listen to what Charli XCX is doing right now, but an even greater part wants nobody bar this isolated and infatuated few to know about it. Pop 2 is a creation that has the freakishly perfect, genetically-modified DNA to crack the mainstream, but there’s a beauty in the fact it’s brought together the people it was made for so strongly.
Last night, Charli jumped on the mic between songs to reiterate that fateful tweet in new form. “I may not be the biggest,” she shouted, “but I’m definitely one of the best.” Thank god our country’s unrivalled pop queen knows it.