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Pity Party

Charli XCX's Recent One-Off Singles Ooze Innovative Pop Pleasure

On three new summer loosies, Charli engages with the pop mainstream while giving us the bangers we know and love her for.

by Lauren O'Neill
01 August 2018, 8:35am

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This is a column called Pity Party and it is brought to you by Lauren O'Neill from Noisey UK. It's about music (obviously) and feelings and #feelings. Please cry along, thanks.

I am on stage in front of a large, screaming audience who adore me, and I am wearing something made of pink latex – what exactly I am not sure, but this is an unimportant detail. More significant is that, quite clearly, I am a fantastic pop star, who is also somehow the world’s most phenomenal dancer. As I lipsync along to my words, I spin, dip and twist – my limbs hitting the beat precisely, my head flicking around to look over my shoulder in time with a particularly provocative lyric – with a level of power and grace that someone wearing this many fluffy pom poms in their hair should not be able to achieve. In this regard, I defy all sense. I am amazing, incandescent, a gorgeous pop legend beloved by all. People in the front row are literally crying.

No matter where I am or what I am doing, that scenario is pretty much what plays on a loop in my brain whenever I listen to any combination of “No Angel,” “Focus,” and “Girls Night Out” – the three new tracks released by Charli XCX over the last few weeks. The songs, pure pop in sensibility, park Charli’s delightful proclivities for oddity for a moment, and see her giving herself over to absolute pop pleasure. This, in turn, allows me to wrap myself in the satin sheets of my loftiest fantasies whenever I hear them.

Pop music should always take you somewhere else, and the best sort regularly does. Which pop fans haven’t laid back on the cloud of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling,” soaring higher with each chorus, or sat at work imagining the film scene where they recite “New Rules” to a friend with a fuckboy problem, dancers diving out of closets to perform choreography they somehow found the time to rehearse before this intervention? Pop pulls us out of the everyday all the time, offering a way to make our worlds more exciting at the tips of our fingers. Charli XCX in particular is an expert in this art.

All three of her new loosies are infectious, high energy pop bops that pay homage to the genre’s mainstream both past and present. “Focus” feels like it should be on the Radio 1 A-list right now. “No Angel” could’ve been a Britney song in her heyday. “Girls Night Out,” with its hen-party sentiment (“RIP to the club!!!”), is already on rotation at every gay bar within a 20-mile radius of where you’re standing right now. These glorious songs glitter as though under disco balls, and demonstrate yet again Charli XCX’s uncanny ability to produce pop hit after pop hit, in the time it takes many other British artists of her generation to rustle up a mediocre collaboration.

Despite their straightforwardness, however, these three songs are also wryly knowing in a way that makes them quintessential Charli XCX tracks. “Focus” is cute and punning in its delivery (“Make it pop, Coca-Cola / Keep it hot, Barcelona”); “No Angel” feels like a tongue-in-cheek throwback with its lyrics about being a “problem child,” and “Girls Night Out”’s “ooh ooh” and “no boys, no boys” chants feel like living, breathing examples of 90s pop kitsch (if you did not “ooh ooh” at a Steps concert at the Birmingham NIA, can you ever truly know the rapture of British pop?). In this way, Charli pastiches pop and makes something even better from its raw materials. In borrowing from the self-consciously “sassy” tone of the past and spitting out her lines deliberately, almost brattily, in a southern UK accent that feels equal parts Veruca Salt and Britney Spears on “Scream and Shout,” she crafts three tracks that feel like critical engagements with and tributes to pop, as well as bangers in and of themselves.

Of course, her fans – the Angels – knew these tracks were coming: high quality versions have floated around online for months, as many Charli XCX songs do. I’ve written before about how Charli, in many ways, conducts her business more like a rapper than a major label pop act. She favours mixtapes over studio albums, preferring to share her prolific craft with the world as it evolves, rather than at a label-specified date every few years. Tracks leak online frequently and with ease, helped along by Charli’s insistence on playing unreleased songs live, much to her fans’ delight. It’s such an exciting way to be a major label star in 2018: mimicking independent artists who release at their own, often quick, pace, via sites like Soundcloud, and who are highly popular with younger, internet-literate listeners as a result, rather than falling in with deadlines mandated strictly for business rather than pleasure.

As a major label signee, Charli’s pretty singular in her embrace of this way of working, but her devoted cult following – as well as her critical success – suggests that her more innovative approach is one that works for musicians of her level. She's by no means a constant chart-topper, having scored her most recent position on the UK Top 40 in 2017, for "Dirty Sexy Money" alongside David Guetta, Afrojack and French Montana, while her last appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 was in 2015. And admittedly that's curious, considering her sometimes very close adherence to pop tropes, shared by other alt-pop acts like Rina Sawayama. But she remains very much in demand.

It’s for this reason, then, that these three summer loosies feel emblematic of the sort of release pattern Charli XCX will continue to work to in future: that is, without the pressure of charts to climb (she's showing more and more that she's simply not that kind of artist), there probably won’t be much of a pattern. She’s so intuitive when it comes to pop – the bubblegum swell of genre and its history and traditions positively pulsating through her – that to slap her with schedules would be restrictive, and would probably see her best material slipping through the cracks. Instead, if songs come as they’re ready, on a sort of pink, fur-lined conveyor belt, we get Charli’s finest work – that of the genre-genius, the comedian, and the pop princess when she chooses it. And that’s for the best: after all, some of us have festival headliner fantasies to feed.

You can find Lauren on Twitter.