A household name, but an alternate reality. Charli XCX is caught in the crosshairs of being the alt-pop star, the chart topping songstress, the LGBT+ icon and the human being. It’s a battle she’s yet to conquer.
Along with the run of the mill slogan T shirts and vinyls on the merch stand are brunette bob-cut wigs, tipped with maroon and adorning Charli’s iconic full fringe. An audience of (mainly) young, excited hopefuls huddle to the middle of Birmingham’s O2 Institute, many dressed in neon and with glitter on their face, excitedly taking selfies before their star of the moment takes the stage. Charli XCX has managed to sell out not only this Birmingham gig (Monday, October 28th) – but other dates up and down the country including London’s Brixton Academy. Her entrance to new-album-opener ‘Next Level Charli’ is almost angelic, shrouded in white and just visible through smoke (and audible through screams) – it’s the reception anyone would expect for a pop idol, no one would guess Charli has had to painfully explain herself on Twitter and was crying on Instagram live over criticism just weeks before.
‘Charli’ is the first record since Charli XCX left behind the sugar coated sucker punch pop of 2013 (her hit ‘Boom Clap’ she now calls ‘Boom Crap’) for a more eccentric pop outlook. “This album is my most personal… I’ve put as many of my emotions, my thoughts, my feelings and my experiences with relationships into these 15 songs and I am so proud of them… I really hope Charli is all you can imagine and more.” More of a service to herself than a service to fans, ‘Charli’ is some of Charli XCX’s most ambitious work, yet also the most chart-worthy. It’s an album littered with features, from Christine & The Queens in ‘Gone’, to HAIM with ‘Warm’ along with Lizzo on ‘Blame It On Your Love’. It’s a pop album, although purposefully fragmented with more left field cuts, including the fiery ‘Click’ and the liquid ‘Shake It’ – the latter Charli’s chance to party with local drag queens Jenna Davinci, Black Peppa, Cocoa Kink, Jay Andre and Lacey Lou on stage.
Hence the cross roads that Charli XCX sees herself in. A prolific songwriter (she’s the wordsmith behind chart topper ‘Senorita’ and has penned songs for Blondie, Iggy Azalea, Selena Gomez and more), Charli has often seen success through others. Her previous efforts of an album were leaked before finishing, which led to the crushingly-adored ‘Vroom Vroom’ EP that has seen her take a LGBT+, club kid status. She’s released two ‘mixtapes’ – implying unfinished business. One containing ‘Track 10’ – an early version of ‘Blame It On your Love’ that was deemed one of the best tracks of the decade. All this, and yet ‘Charli’ stands alone, a separate entity that fans struggle to place.
So, to serve both worlds in one fell swoop proves difficult. Take for example the third song she performs ‘Cross You Out’ – a bare all diary entry into cutting out toxic friends and situations, seen as a ‘flop’ amongst fans for being tender rather than tenacious; its a slow number that takes a breather from the popper-sniffing and sexual promiscuity. Charli XCX is, of course, sensationally commanding of her crowd. This tour would always be primarily ‘Charli’ orientated, including the aching ‘Official’, ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ and current melting-pop ballad ‘White Mercedes’, along with the aforementioned ‘Cross You Out’ that fans bashed so much they reduced Charli XCX to tears. These glowing moments are impaled with the mechanical beats and metal shines of the clubbier ‘Vroom Vroom’, ‘I Love It’ and ‘Unlock It’ – its a tug of war of power between creator and audience.
Charli XCX’s work, tours and sheer existence has opened this conversation about power, ironically one she never wanted to start. Fans have landed in hot water, posting pictures from meet and greets of Charli signing douches and posing with human ashes. There’s articles claiming a misogynistic undertone from the fans, using Charli as their prop – telling her what songs are good or not and using her LGBT alliance as a way to speak for her. Ironically, not one journalist asked Charli for a quote, and she slammed their ‘fake wokeness’ on Twitter, saying its adding to the toxic behaviour.
Hazy lights shroud Charli XCX as she re-enters from a costume change, ethereal synth harmonies ascend as the giant light up cube behind her is incased in rainbow. It’s at this point, before ‘February 2017’ that Charli is her most open: “I want to make you feel as good as you make me feel.” It’s hard to tell if this is Charli staying humble and honest with fans who have always supported her, or explaining herself to stay on their good side.
There’s no denying that the ‘Stan’ culture we are in can be problematic – what may seem as an inside joke to fans could be seen as micro aggressions. Support Rina Sawayama touches on this before her champion track ‘Thicker’ – ‘Rina Wagamama’ may be a joke to some, but to Rina is a way to keep her down and not take her seriously as an artist.
Led by the ominous cube of light behind, Charli XCX moves into her more mechanical pop tracks. ‘Track 10’ in its full to bursting, harp filled and angelic synth glory then shape shifts into ‘2099’ – a futuristic, robotic track that breaks down into metallic clashes, hydraulic shifts and lasers under 90’s R&B beats. This juxtaposes almost instantly to one of her breakthrough tracks ‘Boys’, sickly sweet with bubblegum beats and ‘level up’ Gameboy noises. Closing her set with ‘I Love It’ (which Charli wrote and featured on with Icona Pop back in 2013) before ending on 2018’s nostalgic pop throwback ‘1999’ featuring Troye Sivan, the room fills with the colours of the LGBT flag, as the party ends with a never ending thank you.
For some, Charli delivered exactly what they wanted: a pop party with fun, ballsy tracks, club beats to confidently own and quiet moments to cry to. To others, a gloss over Charli’s stronger calibre in exchange for big beats and trigger happy hits. Whatever side of the coin it falls, Charli is the one flipping it, protective of her once leaked work and of her own narrative in the news, further protective of her fans who may be the reason she has never quite sat at the top of the pop pedestal.