Music video shoots are purgatory, particularly if it's a shoot taking place from sunset to sunrise, over two evenings, featuring an elite club of young zombies, due for release on the scariest day of the year. MTV's Making the Video eps sugar coated a hell you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. If you ever make it on set you'll be be subjected to loops and wiki-wiki reeeee-winds of a song over and over and over. It's like being at a party that never gets going. Imagine going to that same party the next night, detained until you don't know your brain from your feet and your eyes feel like two olives in a dirty Martini. A sign of a great tune is when you've survived this, and hearing the song a month later doesn't trigger PTSD.
On Sunday Charli XCX released the video for "After the Afterparty," featuring Lil Yachty. It's a stylised schlock zombie vid featuring a pink palette and Charli's squad of undead, and as you might imagine from the title, shit gets pretty messy. In case you're only au fait with the 24-year-old's most recent offerings—including the ratchet rave bangers on this year's Vroom Vroom EP— Charli's XCX (named so in the MySpace days) has been tearing it up since she was a teenager in 2008. She would drop mixtapes and her parents would drop her off and pick her up from her live guest appearances. Her first LP, True Romance, came out in 2013, but back then she was making more waves as a powerhouse songwriter, penning hits for Britney Spears and scoring her biggest smash with Icona Pop's "I Love It" that same year. Truly it was her second LP, 2014's Sucker, that cemented her rep, but with her forthcoming third album, due next year, Charlotte Aitchison, is gunning for proper pop stardom. Thing is, Charli doesn't want to be like any pre-existing pop star. She has more in common with Elon Musk than Rihanna or Katy Perry. Her music carries a sense of future-wielding responsibility. She wants to re-invent pop by putting herself in a super-charged time machine, making sure the beat not only goes on, but keeps us second-guessing it.
The new album (I've heard six tracks) sounds hyper synthetic. But the world it captures feels real and inclusive. "After the Afterparty" invites you to attend one of her own. If you ever go IRL, you'll notice her door is never closed. On one July weekend this past summer, what began as a casual afternoon barbecue evolved into scores of topless gay men raving to Rihanna and Whigfield in her garden at 4 AM. "Whose house is this?" they'd ask, clueless. Charli's gatherings are a punchbowl of eccentrics and extroverts. She's become an unlikely ringleader: Andy Warhol by way of Paris Hilton. Her living room is practically Studio 54.
After her afterparties she curates a unique songwriting environment, pocketing oddball collaborators and throwing them in her cocktail shaker. This time Charli didn't just invite Norwegian R&B wizards Stargate (Rihanna, Bey) to make an album with her, she nabbed London's non-conformist PC Music collective too. Charli offers PC Music their biggest push into a radio-friendly world. In turn, they provide bonkers ideas to fabricate something truly unique. It's a massive risk for both, but their collective balls leave you rooting for them. "After the Afterparty" is a Charli/Stargate/PC combined effort and its video's gore-y joy evokes a notion of working hard and playing harder, even though you know you'll feel dead by the end of it. Or maybe even during it.
My afterparty invite to 48 hours on set came by text: "Hey it's Diane Martel." You might not be familiar with her name but you know this director's work: Mariah Carey's "Heartbreaker," Justin Timberlake's "Like I Love You," and N*E*R*D's "Lapdance," are just a few videos from her back catalogue. More recently she was Miley Cyrus's Bangerz-era Creative Director, and she directed one of the most think-pieced vids in history, Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." While everyone else is making videos on a shoestring, the budget for champagne Charli's latest is extravagant—big enough to hire cinematographer Malik Sayeed (Beyoncé's "Lemonade"), employ a special FX makeup team and fly in a dozen Instagram famous models from all over the States to act as zombies. One of them is called Armani, another Seashell, and one, Thurston Day, has been shot by Saint Laurent's Hedi Slimane.
Diane and Charli first collaborated on the Sucker tour when the director built a huge lollipop for Charli's stage set up opening for Katy Perry. "She controlled those stadium audiences so well," explains Diane of Charli. "I thought the world of her writing, her intellect and wit."
NIGHT 1: FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 16.
Griffith Park—an outdoor expanse in LA—is abandoned after dark. Mercury is in retrograde, a full Harvest moon is shining. Crew joke that Diane—who moved the initial shoot date—is maverick enough to have rescheduled to coincide with this lunar action. A deer runs past. A man on a walkie-talkie is stressed. In the distance are floodlit tennis courts. "Stand by," says Mr Walkie Talkie. "I got Charli in the white Mercedes. Where should she land?" This is Thriller night, and here comes our Halloween Queen.
The crew and talent are rounded up. "There are coyotes out here, be careful," says a man with authority. Dressing rooms have sprung up under tarpaulin in the pitch black. Someone walks in carrying crutches still wrapped in packaging. No explanation offered.
Cigarette smoke wafts from an open trailer, a sign of a certain XCX. Charli, fresh off a plane from Ibiza, slouches in her makeup chair while sipping on a cup of Red Bull "and Goose." She explains what she understands of the video. "It's a zombie fuckfest: slutty zombies having a sexy party on a tennis court. Like zombie Wimbledon and I am Maria Sharapova." She breaks to have her lips glossed. "Diane's running the show. She FaceTimes me a lot, especially when I'm on a comedown in Ibiza. That's why I don't know what's happening. The key days when I was meant to be approving things, I was in Ibiza in the background of Paris Hilton's Snapchat."
Charli met Paris at an afterparty there, of course. It was what Charli describes as —a "lituation." The XCX way isn't to prep for your biggest shoot to date with a retreat, but to rave away the nerves. "This is the most scary, hectic and next level thing I've ever done," she shrugs. The zombie motif allows Charli to remain coy enough for young audiences, while winking at the party mayhem surrounding her. These days her favourite night is called Spotlight, a gay LA club. "It's full of beautiful sexy boys. I sit in the dark room with people having sex around me. Not partaking! It would be weird having a heterosexual party like that…" Charli's memory of her own house parties is hazy. "Hmm," she wonders. "Were you at the party when that guy passed out? He didn't move till 7 AM and me and Uffie had to carry him downstairs. A fun bonding moment." Uffie—a vocalist signed to French tastemaker label Ed Banger Records—is Charli's original inspiration. "That's in my highlights reel for 2016."
Prosthetics are laid out on a table and vials of fake blood are lined up beside an array of beer cans. Later, one of the cans will be crushed into a zombie's head. Wardrobe sets up rails with enough pink clothing to drown an aisle of Barbies. A pink plaid two-piece has been created for Yachty, designed by James Flemons, a friend of Charli's stylist and BFF Lisa Katnic. Lisa was watching a documentary about the colour pink earlier. "They test how pink makes you feel," offers Charli. "Initially it makes people happy, but then an hour later they're really angry."
Twenty minutes later people are really angry. A box arrives with pink XCX-branded champagne bottles ordered for the video. They've been spray-painted by professional car body specialists and are lacking lacquer. They look too sponge-y. It's completely unaXCXeptable.
Over on the tennis courts, severed limbs are dotted around. "Have you seen the legs with the knickers around the ankles?!" I have now.
Three bottles of non-XCX champagne arrive. Charli introduces me to AG Cook and SOPHIE (real name: Sam Long) "from the PC music gang thing." AG, her Creative Director, is a bespectacled gangly genius, so smart he could be running the marketing department of Hitachi. "Yeah! AG's on the payroll," laughs Charli, half-joking. "One of my favourite things to do is go out and watch AG dance. Last night even though we were super tired we went to a party at Big Fat Dick [a gay night in downtown LA]. He really goes for it. It's quite erotic actually."
Charli met Sam first. "SOPHIE!" she panics correcting herself. "He is one of the best pop writers I've ever worked with," she says, while "SOPHIE" leaves the trailer to be decapitated for his own cameo. "AG and SOPHIE understand that being a pop star isn't about being able to sing. It's about everything else." SOPHIE is celebrating a birthday at midnight. His age is secret but his vampiric looks suggest he's somewhere between 18 and 205. "He's beautiful like an alien," says Charli. "Like he was manufactured by Mugatu. You know, from Zoolander?"
With AG, Charli's relationship is far more cerebral. "After The Life of Pablo and ANTI came out, we started WhatsApping about those albums. They're my favourite albums of 2016—maybe the only good albums this year. He was speaking about them from a campaign perspective. I said, 'Gosh, you should do this for me.' I thought he would say no because he has a life, but he was down." AG has been living in Charli's basement. "There's rats down there," she says. "He's not Champagne Papi, he's Rat Papi right now."
Bored out my skull, I decide to become a zombie. Special FX affix a green and hot pink puss-filled gash to my cheek. It's cold and itchy. Wardrobe dress me in a pink tennis outfit that makes me look like a cross between Shirley Temple and a member of tATu. I'm really not into it.
Charli now dressed in a bikini top in freezing cold temperatures dips it low on the court. She sings the line "I think it's almost 4 AM…" enough times to take us to 4 AM. Diane tries to keep the zombies semi-comatose. "ACT LIKE ZOMBIES," she instructs. "GRRR!"
Charli returns to the trailer to open a bottle of Veuve. AG meanwhile has been lying on the court rolling in tennis net for 90 minutes while Diane perfects his cameo.
"CHARLI! YOU'RE UP!" come the instructions, as the star finally has her big shot of the night, leading zombies through the trees. Feeling mischievous, Charli's team egg me on to get my zombie-outiftted ass in the frame. Diane is confused. "You're too old," she says. I feel the onslaught of an XCX-istential crisis.
Charli calls an Uber for a breakfast debrief at a diner. "We've been aware this shoot was going to be like one long afterparty," says AG. Charli contemplates meeting Lil Yachty for the first time tomorrow over some chilli. Despite rapping on the track, the pair have only texted. "I find it problematic to say his name as a Brit," she says, with her Hertfordshire accent. "It's hard to sound cool and say Li-ttle Yach-ty, know what I mean?" Her t's are perfectly clipped. It was Charli's manager who met Yachty when he went to the studio to record his rap. It was after 1 AM and Charli was too tired to wait any longer. "I realised he was on hip-hop time and I had some champagne chilling at home."
The collab came about when Charli slid into Yachty's Twitter DMs. "I was like, 'Hey I like you, do you like me?'" she laughs. "And he went, 'Yeah I do.'" Apparently the 19-year-old Atlanta-born rapper is a Sucker fan. "Which is weird," says Charli. "Because I don't even like my last album." Conversation turns to Yachty's rider tomorrow: fifty pieces of breaded chicken, Hawaiian Punch, and 12 Magnum condoms. "That's a very specific number," says Charli. "Lil Yachty knows how much sex he can handle, which I respect in a person."
I wake up. The remains of the FX makeup make it look like someone has stood on my face—a reflection of how I feel all-round.
NIGHT 2: SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 17, 2016
In an enormous indoor sound stage in the San Fernando Valley, the crew has transported our set-up here for the night. While a leather couch gets splattered in pink goo, Diane apologises for rejecting my would-be cameo earlier. A bathtub interrupts us, rolling in on wheels too fast for me to tell Diane not to be ridiculous.
News just in: Lil Yachty is on a flight from Atlanta, landing at LAX at nine. In the green room, Charli's two managers wrack their brains for ways to pass the time. "Do you wanna watch Bridget Jones' Diary with us?"
The first shot is set up. Behind Diane's director's chair, a table of food is marked with: PROPS DO NOT EAT. Just in case you fancied having an uncooked waffle with a fake eyeball attached to it… "What's the next thing we're doing?" Diane asks. "Jello fingers." Nothing sounds weird any more.
Yachty arrives and while Charli and the rapper get to know one another, AG and I talk about the state of pop music, genre blurring, and collaborations. "Pop as a word doesn't mean anything," he offers. Before Charli asked him to come aboard in March, AG already had PC Music's 2016 mapped out. He didn't even sleep on it. "Fuck the year plan," he says. "I love her."
As Sunday morning rolls in, Diane wraps on Lil Yachty. "Are we breaking for lunch soon?" asks Charli. One parched zombie has had his head through a wall for more than an hour. Diane shouts, "Can we get a fucking beer for this zombie?" I ask Charli how Yachty was. "So nice! We talked about Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Panic at the Disco," she says, pouring another glass of champagne.
Sitting in the director's chair, Charli watches the zombies dance but they're low on energy. To wake them up Diane blasts "Paranoid" by Black Sabbath loud enough to echo through the Valley.
"One more shot and we're done!" says Diane. The stage is filled with bubbles as a finale zombie foam party is prepped. Charli has never been to a foam party. "I wanna go out after!" she says. My heart sinks.
Charli throws herself in a meringue of zombie limbs, foam, and red eyes. "Be zombies!" shouts Diane. "Try to eat her! GO! CRAZY! ZOMBIE! PARTY!" By 6:29 the magic words arrive. "Ladies and gentlemen, that's a wrap." Daylight rises. Charli opens a final bottle of champagne. In the same diner as yesterday, over some non-eyeball waffles, she and AG plan the afterparty after "After the Afterparty."
Stopping at a local market for more champagne, and a birthday cake for SOPHIE we take an Uber to SOPHIE's secret lair. It's 9 AM on a Sunday. I don't know who I am any more. I leave them by the pool around midday. Who knows how long they stayed. With Charli you're always welcome, but in 2017 you hope the mainstream will finally be ready to return the invite.