sxsw 2016

All My Life I've Been Waiting for a Good Time: Charli XCX, SOPHIE, and the Pop Music of Pure Joy

SOPHIE and Charli XCX's live performance together at SXSW was what a pop concert should feel like: pure, ravelike ecstasy.

by Kyle Kramer
21 March 2016, 10:00am


Photos by Brittany Sowacke

The singer, wearing a long sleeve turtleneck black leather crop top with a zipper up the front and a matching black leather skirt, is the coolest person I have ever seen. The DJ, whose own black jacket looks like it's made out of patent leather and giant PVC bubbles, is the other coolest person I have ever seen. The lights, metallic and bright white, flashing against the fog rolling over the black stage, make this the coolest setting. Watching this concert is like watching a movie scene of people having the best night of their lives, the kind where everyone is smiling and pumping their fists in the air and there's not one shred of subtext behind the shot beyond: This shit rules, and negativity is impossible. This is Charli XCX and SOPHIE's second live show together, and it's pure, ravelike ecstasy. It's what a pop concert should feel like.

Charli XCX—whose songs have the playful but meaningful energy of hanging out with a best friend, whether they're about lovelorn relationships or crazy partying—and SOPHIE—whose music has always aimed for hard-hitting, deliberate blows to pleasure centers—are obvious peers. Now, with the recent joint EP Vroom Vroom and a live performance, on display last night at Stubb's in Austin, they're collaborators, playing around with sound and asking what exactly a pop song should be doing. That's gotten to be a more confusing question in recent years as pop music as a whole has become increasingly intertwined with the celebrity narrative surrounding it. Songs arrive as the latest statements in a pop star's public dialogue, items to be mined for gossip or dissected for their ideological messages: Consider the way that Kanye West's The Life of Pablo has undergone a rollout that's as much about the tweets accompanying it and even commenting on it as it happens. The music itself, especially when it's just trying to offer something that feels beautiful and pure, can become beside the point.

Vroom Vroom comes across almost as a reaction to those ideas. The EP music isn't part of any conversation other than the jubilant one you have with your friends in the car during a big night out or the one you have in your head as you're dancing with abandon on a bench in the club. Part of the chorus to the EP's title track is “all my life, I've been waiting for a good time.” Other lyrics include catchphrases like “bitches on the beaches, looking super cute and freaky” that perfectly capture the sensation of yelling and Instagram captioning about how sweet life is on a good night or a sunny day. Naturally, Charli had SOPHIE run the verse with that beaches line back last night: It was a moment to savor. Pop music, these artists are eager to remind us, is there to give you the time of your life, should it be needed. At the same time, it can do so with sounds that are fresh and disorienting in the genre, abrasive shards of noise and vocals that veer between the shouted patter of rap and sugary sweet choruses. The duo's nastily low bass and frenetic squeaks create the feeling that you imagine electronic music giving you based on the way it's portrayed in, like, beer commercials.

Charli XCX is a magnetic performer. She strutted the stage last night like she was the most powerful person alive—while also maintaining the impression that she was just as amped to be there as anyone in the audience, energetically pumping her fist to hard-knocking blasts of drums. She didn't say much beyond yelling about how great it was because, honestly, what could possibly be a more fitting thing to say? “You got me freaking out!” she exclaimed, bouncing up and down, hitting crisp dance moves, and it was true: The crowd was there for every part of it. Toward the end, PC Music star QT came out for an ecstatic rendition of “Hey QT” alongside Charli, who stirred everyone into losing their collective shit. If Charli XCX's music has been coasting along with the buzz of it being fun and her as an accessible pop gatecrasher over the past few years, this current incarnation feels like one that's been carefully honed and fine-tuned as slickly as the sportscar that covers Vroom Vroom to produce excitement. As much as this collaboration might feel like an artistic exercise, it could also be a breakthrough moment. Last night's show was like watching Chris Martin's most amped dreams about Coldplay shows, pure stadium spectacle without any of the cheese. Pop and electronic music have often had a struggle to organically achieve broad strokes euphoria while maintaining the kind of grit and danger that attracts so many actual dance music fans when they come together. This show effortlessly achieved both and made the artists involved look like rock stars.

It wasn't the only show to do so: A little bit earlier, just a couple blocks away, LA electronic duo DJ Dodger Stadium, whose productions were recently tapped for Kanye West's TLOP, hit a similar note. Their music is all about redemptive joy—one standout song offers the looping encouragement “you don't have to be alone”—likewise drawing on dance music's tradition of transcendent rhythmic bliss to make something pop without any necessary context beyond imparting happiness. Right before them, the California rapper Antwon closed out his set with a group dance to Alice DeeJay's “Better Off Alone,” its own form of sugary rave celebration. Each of these moments was tapping into the same idea: That music, amid all the narrative and posturing about what's cool and jumping from viral idea to the next, can still, above all, be about elation.

Brittany Sowacke is a photographer based in Chicago. Follow her on Instagram.

Kyle Kramer is an editor for Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.