“I might not be the biggest, but I’m definitely one of the best.”
Charli XCX, high priestess of alt-pop, is onstage addressing her celebrants. The celebrants are sweating beer and their painstakingly applied, drag-grade make-up into the already-too-hot atmosphere, but gaze up at her anyway. She wears an outfit that looks like a goldfish bowl if it were clothes, standing in front of decks that look like snot would if it were a DJ booth. She thanks the crowd for being “intelligent, open-minded”, and then brings out another pop trailblazer, Rina Sawayama, the first of several guests. The souls of at least seven people leave their bodies at that moment.
For fans used to more polished affairs, this highly physical half-rave, half-religious experience – which I witness on Tuesday night at east London’s Village Underground – is not really a regular pop show. But then, Charli XCX is not a regular pop star. She’s better. Last night felt like Charli firming up her status as a pop music pioneer by bringing the spirit of her last mixtape, Pop 2, to a live show. As she’s done in New York and Los Angeles previously (and will do in Paris when she performs there next), she animates her Nü Pop aesthetic with the principles that back it up: collaboration, distortion and outrageously good fun.
On 15 December 2017, she dropped her second mixtape of the year, the definitively titled Pop 2. Its arrival felt cleverly calculated, appearing just as the music press had finished furrowing a very serious brow over Best Of 2017 lists. The timing of its very release replicated the music's attempt to flip pop traditions at every level – songcraft, industry bureaucracy, media cycles – on their heads. In the months previous, Charli had bemoaned the constraints placed on her by her major label deal with Atlantic Records. Then in March of that year, she had shoved back against those barriers by releasing a mixtape, Number 1 Angel, a collection of sparkling, ecstatic pop songs given even more heft by featured artists like cult heroes Uffie and CupcakKe. Charli creates almost pathologically, and consistently finds herself sitting on too much genuinely envelope-pushing material to keep it hidden. Number 1 Angel
was further proof of that.
Even between Number 1 Angel and Pop 2 – bodies of work only months apart – there is a sense of propulsion. Pop 2 is more disruptive than its predecessor, but feels like it needed Number 1 Angel to exist before it could flourish into being. Seeing an artist’s evolution happening in real time like this is fascinating, but only because Charli herself moves at such speed (at her concert she played four new songs, all of which were received with as much fervour as well-known singles like “Boys”.) The mixtape release model, then, seems to be one that suits her well. Two weeks ago, she teased the arrival of "a lot of music this year, and a lot of videos" – these could all take the form of loosies. With no major projects that we know of due in 2018, it’s very possible that Charli XCX will never make a conventional album again. As an innovator who offers a tangible insight into the genre’s future (I wrote about how back in January), it might even be a bit of a disappointment if she did.
Over the course of the gig – the exposed brick, warehouse-type setting of Village Underground providing a fitting chamber for the mechanical, metallic beats – Charli brings out a number of the artists who’ve featured on her music and vice versa, including Tommy Cash, Hannah Diamond, and RAYE. At one point she even leaves the stage so that the former two can perform their own work. Like a circus ringleader (indeed, one who had a mid-set costume change into a dress that looked like a very glamorous cake), Charli holds the show together with her energetic presence and confidence. Nobody works a room like Charli XCX, and she knows it. At one point, after imploring onlookers to applaud her co-conspirators, she commands: “Make some fucking noise for me!”
The whole set is backed up by Pop 2’s executive producer AG Cook (giving Office Job But Make It Diamanté in a sparkly button-down), joined behind the decks by SOPHIE during “Vroom Vroom.” SOPHIE's arrival leads seamlessly into her Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides track “Whole New World,” and seeing these three artists, described by Charli as “the fucking trifecta,” perform the song together sends the sense of community surrounding Pop 2 reverberating around the walls of the venue.
Part of the appeal of pop music has always been the veneer that coats it, that makes it a slick, glossy mirror to our lives. But Charli XCX, after being boxed in by the industry, recognises that there’s appeal in stripping that away a little bit too. If you tore away at a cyborg’s skin and the machinery inside was exposed, the result might be confusing, but it would also be totally fascinating – and for Charli XCX, pop music is that cyborg. She’s keen to show us the processes behind it, putting her producers front and centre, and regularly performing unreleased tracks. She even ends her set with one, the raucous, anthemic “Girls’ Night Out” (a song so good that without a properly released version to stream at will I feel sure that I will wilt and die.) Rather than following the usual pop cycle of presenting us with a finished item every two years, Charli XCX is much more interested in making weird bangers that interrogate and embrace pop tropes in equal measure, rolling them out to fans at will. Because of that, she’s the most genuinely interesting pop star working right now. “Biggest?” Certainly not. “One of the best?” Absolutely undoubtedly.
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