The Forward-Thinking Brilliance of Charli XCX
On her new mixtape, the musical auteur creates a pop utopia
KEVIN SPACEY, SUPERVILLAIN
To longtime fans, this wasn’t a surprise: Until that point, she’d shown nothing but unwavering tenacity. Through sheer determination, she, born Charlotte Aitchison, started her musical career at age 14, worked her ass off on the warehouse rave circuit until she got signed to Asylum Records in 2010, and still managed to retain what made her unique even as musical and cultural trends changed.
When 2014 turned out to be her breakthrough year (remember the one-two punch of “Boom Clap” and “Fancy”?), Aitchison could have easily continued moving in the direction she appeared to be hurtling toward: that of a “cool” pop star akin to 1990s Gwen Stefani or Fever-era Kylie Minogue. The album she released that year, Sucker, was striking: It was an equally accessible and outré opus that sounded like the work of an artiste who considered the construction of a potential chart-topper to be an academic endeavor. In a market saturated by Max Martin-produced missives, that felt refreshing.
But instead of going with the obvious and revamping the Sucker formula, Aitchison continued doing what she’d done in the years previously, she forged her own path. In 2015, she enlisted the help of the esoteric producer Sophie and released the pointedly anomalous Vroom Vroom EP. She did a song with Blondie in 2016. And then she put out two PC Music-affiliated “mixtapes,” Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, in 2017. (And who can forget about the one-off single “Boys,” which came with a winkingly subversive music video?)
Sonically, the music Aitchison has released post-Sucker has been markedly different (and unevenly successful) compared to anything she has ever done. With Pop 2, though, she settles on a more cohesive musical identity which suits her well: pop visionary.
Released at the tail end of last year, Pop 2 is a conceptually stunning mixtape that at once celebrates and satirizes the genre it’s enlivening. So much of what’s most frequently heard in mainstream pop music can be found here: predominantly computerized instrumentals; repetitive, sometimes seemingly inane lyrics (“Backseat,” “I Got It”); and apparently mindless paeans to debauchery (“Unlock It,” “Porsche”).
But in Aitchison’s world of pop (the “2” at the end of the mixtape’s title previews its deviation from the norm), these aforementioned characteristics are looked at through something of a scientific, personalized lens, reinvented to her liking.
Everything here is aurally futuristic and often monochromatic. But Aitchison’s almost comical usage of autotune and radio crackles serve as stylistic reminders that there’s a beating heart at the center of all the robotic madness; it’s a loving parody of the genre’s artifice. A lot of the lyrics are calculatedly unambitious, as if Aitchison is trying to prove that you can make a smart and innovative pop song with minimal verbal variance. And all the hedonistic flavors are so dramatically handled that we’re almost certain Aitchison wants us to think about the reasons why we’re partying more than she wants us to wallow in the highs that come with substance-assisted festivities.
From a distance, the mixtape sounds as syrupy as any conventional pop album. But look closely and you’ll notice that Aitchison has rather painstakingly constructed this world of mindful pop. Rarely has a product of the genre been as concurrently mindless and cerebral.
Certainly, Pop 2 is not something you can listen to interminably. Sugar-sweet and almost cartoonishly energetic, it’s the mixtape equivalent of a David LaChapelle exhibit or a hectic outing at Studio 54. The colors and textures are nice and all, but take everything in too quickly and you might end up hurling Fun Dip. (But maybe that’s Aitchison’s point. To make pop so hallucinogenically fun and fast that we’re supposed to see that it is too much.)
Approach the mixtape carefully, though, and you’ll find yourself in the presence of something of a minor masterpiece. Because it is so conscientious of the characteristics that make modern pop music so enjoyable to begin with, it feels euphoric and celebratory.
This sense of pleasure can predominantly be attributed to how collaborative Pop 2 is. Though Aitchison’s name sits atop the project, it is very much a spirited collaborative effort that mimics the sense of togetherness and belonging that comes with a particularly joyous pop song. Nearly every track features one to three diverse guest stars, and this inclusive atmosphere encapsulates why the genre has endured throughout the decades. Even when it’s at its most dumbed down, pop music is still capable of bringing people together.
Aitchison clearly relishes that idea herself, and with Pop 2, she becomes a semi-auteur. She’s so in control of her artistic vision, she practically recreates the genre which drives her. Predicting her next career move is impossible. But if her output has proven anything thus far, it’s that Aitchison is fascinating no matter which direction she gravitates toward. For now, we can forget about the uneven Vroom Vroom and Number 1 Angel: Pop 2 is her most impressive accomplishment to date.
- JANUARY 10, 2018
This piece also appeared in The Daily.
ven when Charli XCX became a mainstream commodity a few years ago, it was clear from the get-go that she wouldn’t fall victim to that deadly disease known as selling out. Whereas fellow alt-poppers like, say, Marina Diamandis or Lily Allen, had proven themselves to not be so averse to trading their singularity for simplistic crowd-pleasing, the songstress remained intransigently herself even at her most commercial.