The track, Official, is available via:
The album, Charli, is available here:
13th September, 2019
Asylum Records UK. A Warner Music Group Company
THIS is a bit of a first…
where I am reviewing an artist in the context of the modern Pop scene/standard, rather than on its own merit. What I mean is, Pop has shifted over the years and I often dismiss the scene as being vastly inferior. Of course, one does not have to like music because it is popular or trending but I think, in the case of Charli XCX, I have re-evaluated my thoughts and opinions on Pop. Whilst it might not be as fun and catchy as once it was, there is a lot to be said for modern Pop and the effect it has; the way it has evolved through the years. I have selected a track from the album, Charli, to review but, before I get there, I wanted to nod to a few different things. I want to discuss the modern crop and how Charli XCX is distinct from the rest; the state of modern Pop and whether its changes will last and whether we will see a return to the more open and organic sound of years back; whether music and Pop has become more introspective and sadder; collaborations on an album and how, if judged right, they can be highly effective – I will end by asking whether Charli XCX is the future of British Pop and what she has in store. As I said earlier, I might not necessarily have chosen Charli XCX to review in the past but, as she is a big star and is part of the modern Pop scene, it is important I investigate her music and how the Pop scene in general has changed. Before I move on to other subjects, it is worth looking at whether a lot in the mainstream have lost a bit of boldness and provocativeness. I do think there are some boundary-pushing and brasher artists right now. Maybe ‘brash’ is the wrong word: ‘relatable’ and ‘real’ might be a better assessment. I do think Pop music has got cleaner and lost a bit of its edge.
Away from the mainstream, there are more real and down-to-earth artists but, more and more, it I think artists are getting harder to relate to. I think Charli XCX is a lot more grounded and real than a lot of her peers. There are many different sides to her. Look at her promotional photos and some of her videos and it is clear she is fearless. I think Pop was criticised years ago because it was too sexual and setting a bad example but, rather than reach a compromise, a lot of modern Pop is very sterile and clean; many artists holding back. Whilst Charli XCX is not as provocative as, say, Christina Aguilera was back in the day, it is good to see an artist who has that confidence and is unafraid to embrace her sexuality. I do think Pop artists get judged if they show too much skin but, as we know, there is a line. I think a lot of artists have, in the past, pushed boundaries to stir controversy and it has been unclear what they are trying to achieve. Charli XCX is someone who peaks to young women and is acting as a role model. There are some who might say her album cover and videos are explicit but, in fact, it is art. I do think Pop has become a little safe and repressed over the past few years and, whilst there are leaders like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande, I do think there is something missing. Charli XCX has a definite spark and she speaks her mind. She is someone who has suffered from doubts and fears and, one feels, is trying to find answers and truth through her music. In essence, Charli XCX seems like a normal woman that we can relate to and understand; so much of today’s Pop is defined by these huge artists who are weighed by celebrity and marketing. Charli XCX has to play the game to an extent but there is something refreshing about her that resonates. One can imagine Charli XCX taking you down the pub or letting her hair down at the weekend. I think one of the reasons Pop has been criticised is because it has turned a little similar and there are few artists who stand out. I think there is something very modern about Charli XCX but she also reminds me of artists of the past such as Aguilera and Britney Spears. Whilst the sound is very different, Charli XCX has a pleasing edge and that balance of accessibility and stardom.
I am going to review Charli XCX very soon but, as I sort of hinted at earlier, maybe we often compare music of today with the past and assume that, because it does not make us feel the same way and does not have the same impact, then it should be written off. It is tempting to say modern Pop lacks any hooks and longevity but I do think the scene has changed and we need to listen closely. Sure, there are artists who copy one another and it can be samey; there are others who have their own style and are doing something different. I was reading this article from earlier in the year that addressed modern Pop and whether it stands up against the quality of the past:
“But looking back to all those years ago, none of it seems nearly as bad as what is out today. Pop and rap too are genres which can be full of passion and life, and even back in the early 2000s it was true for many artistes, for even those who wrote about the typical sex, party themes had a flair for adding a lot of life in their work. But today, while rock and metal too are guilty of becoming parodies of themselves in the mainstream, this statement holds particularly for pop and hip hop as they have ended up becoming the most canned and lifeless genres of music.
Music today is no longer an art form, it is a business where every artiste’s work has been labelled, processed, commoditized and then put up for sale. While music and business have always interacted, treating them as inseparable entities has resulted in a massive drop in the quality of our taste as people no longer have the patience to listen to a song which is not more than three minutes and does not follow the verse-chorus-verse-chorus formula. It can be safely concluded that today’s popular music has really led to numbing of brain cells”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Logan White
There is a case to make that there is a lot of marketing and packing when it comes to Pop. Studies have shown that Pop has gotten sadder, but is calling it ‘worse’ a subjective measure? I think artists like Charli XCX are adapting to the changing face of music. I do think, in general, music has become a little more introspective and personal; there is a move towards something a little sadder and, sure, it is very different to the music of the past. It would be unfair to say Pop is the only genre that is becoming a little more familiar and restricted. On the surface, one might think Pop is in danger of becoming too processed and generic but I think there are artists out there who are pulling it forward. I think Charli XCX is a really interesting artist and, whilst she might not please everyone, there is evidence to suggest she might ensure for years to come. Pop is so varied now that we have experimental artists like Billie Eilish who can sit alongside commercial acts like Taylor Swift and someone like Charli XCX – who, in my view, sits in her own category. I think one of the dangers when it comes to Pop is that the Americans are dominating. Charli XCX was born in Cambridge and she is based in London now. Maybe that has always been the way but it is a shame to see British Pop artists getting the same acclaim as the Americans. In terms of the artists who will be cracking the charts, it is very much American-led and it is nice to see someone like Charli XCX mixing it with the best. Not only is it good to see a British artist getting such acclaim but Charli XCX has always impressed. I am a little cold when it comes to the likes of Taylor Swift because I think the music is very much aimed at a tight demographic; a style of Pop that takes few risks and sort becomes too familiar. I know Swift is very popular but one would like to see more personality and punch.
On 2013’s True Romance and 2014’s Sucker, Charli XCX gained some positive reviews because people noted how she put in personality and quirk. There is this Pop-Punk attitude and a lot at work; some goofiness and humour together with rebelliousness and odd touches. Her debut album is very catchy and she showed, even then, a strong eye for female characters and individual lyrics. There might have been this temptation to become more commercial and ‘American’ on her sophomore album but, instead, Charli XCX kept true to herself. I have already mentioned how Charli XCX is very real; she comes across as very natural and engaging in interviews. This seeps into her music and you get a much more rounded and nuanced brand of Pop. One can find some Pop-Punk and sneer alongside accessible Pop and a bit of swagger. For those who dismiss modern Pop as being too sad, processed and slow need to give Charli XCX a bit more time and consideration. She co-writes her tracks so they are not being led by committee and she is able to make the songs personal. Maybe some of the lyrics are hard to relate to if you are not part of Charli XCX’s target audience; there are some tracks that boast about her wealth and fame but, at all times, tongue is very firmly in the cheek. Here is an artist who breaks from the routine and familiar and injects her songs with plenty of memorable lines. Charli has picked up some great reviews and, if anything, this is her finest work. Charli is an album that bulks against Pop convention; she is not bound by strict structure and, when you listen to the album, there is plenty of passion, dazzle and emotional openness. Many might be reserved and hesitant but I would say one cannot label Charli XCX and think she sounds the same as the more commercial and anodyne Pop artists out there. One of the reasons why Charli is getting such good press is the artists she has collaborated with. Charli XCX has used collaborators before but, on Charli, I think the selections are spot-on. HAIM, Christine and the Queens and Lizzo make an appearance and its helps give Charli new dimensions and layers.
There are a couple of articles I want to bring in that talk about the collaborations and how Charli XCX brings the best out of those on the album. The Guardian talked about this in a feature from a couple of days back:
“While XCX paints herself as intimacy-phobic, the way she brings out the best in her collaborators tells a different story. Her chemistry with Troye Sivan makes the asinine throwback 1999 irresistible (although the Michael Jackson reference is unfortunate), and she gives fellow embattled pop star Sky Ferreira a taste of freedom on the gothic, lurching Cross You Out. But it’s on the metallic battering ram of Gone that XCX finds her match in Christine and the Queens: the fantastic vocal interplay between XCX’s cynicism and Chris’s roguishness forging not only a protective allegiance against an indifferent industry, but the ingenuity that will reshape it in her image”.
Some criticise artists who bring too many others into their albums because it sort of clutters the sound and can seem like they are piggy-backing on their popularity and doing it to seem cool or popular. It is true that a lot of songs are packed with bodies and a lot of collaborations seem pointless and forgettable. When it comes to someone like Charli XCX, she carefully chooses who she works with and she knows those artists will help give the songs the touch and wonder only they can bring – which is what the point of a collaboration is. Rather than bring in a lot of the more commercial and plastic Pop artists, we have artists who are a lot cooler, varied and appealing; Charli is an album that definitely benefits from a heroine who knows her music and is trying to create the best music possible…rather than get the Spotify streams up or make things are radio-friendly as she can. Glamour wrote about Charli XCX’s collaborations and why she chooses the artists she does:
“One thing she might be striving for is collaboration. After all, what's a party without friends, and Charli has plenty of them. Her last two projects, the 2017 mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, contain more featured tracks than solo ones. Who she works with runs the gamut (the new album alone includes songs with Lizzo, Haim, and pop newcomer Kim Petras, among others).
IN THIS PHOTO: Charli XCX with HAIM
Her choice in collaborators is purely instinctual: She picks artists she likes. "I don't listen to a lot of other music aside from people that I work with or my own, which probably sounds really narcissistic and crazy. But I work with people because I think they're the best," she says. "I love being a curator. I just think it's fun because I know I'm smart enough to do it."
There is one commonality in her collaborators: Almost all of them either have devoted queer fans or identify as LGBTQ+. Since she's an artist who makes bombastic dance-pop, it's no surprise that Charli herself has a large gay following. But like everything else she does, her decision to team up with queer artists is organic. "Everyone has better taste in the queer community, anyway," Charli says, laughing. "It's not conscious. I'm not, like, 'Where are the queer artists? I want to work with them!' But I think I do naturally gravitate toward the queer community”.
I will end this section by bringing in articles that argue whether Charli XCX is the future of Pop. A lot of people are keen to deride all Pop and do not consider the fact there are artists like Charli XCX who are a lot more wide-ranging and appealing than you’d imagine. I do not think she has a narrow fanbase and anyone can enjoy her music. She might not be able to reach the giddy heights of the best from the 1980s and 1990s but she is someone who can write memorable tracks and she is progressive. Pop is changing right now and I do think we will see the more machine-like and commercial artists make way for the new breed: those who are much more daring, exciting and deep.
In this first feature, the writer is rather sharp and short when it comes to her music; whether her being talked about as futuristic is a good thing or alludes to something robotic and lacking in warmth:
“When people talk about Charli as futuristic, though, they’re not talking about her workaday writing. They’re talking about her brand in relation to the marketplace: like Madonna if she’d never left CGBG, or like someone playing Pitchfork Fest but also Good Morning America. They’re also talking about her production choices. Her new album, Charli, builds on the style of her 2017 mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, which took all the buzz about her as a visionary and converted it into an explicitly “futuristic” aesthetic—chipperly artificial, digital, distorted. The related visuals have her plastic-wrapped, or gel-coated. Often it sounds like she’s trapped in glitching Bluetooth frequency, or that she thinks the next great single will be in the form of an iPhone notification sound”.
I do think Charli XCX is one of those artists who steps away from getting lost in the machine and having the same production sound as everyone else. Her music has a lot more heart and freedom to roam; she is an artist who mixes in other genres and cannot be easily compared. I want to bring in one final feature, where Charli XCX discussed her collaborations on Charli. It is also clear that, whilst Charli XCX is a big star, she is someone who blends into the crowd and is lacks the sort of hoopla and circus that follows the biggest mainstream artists around:
“Looking at the feature-stuffed Charli tracklist, you might wonder how personal she actually gets, but the singer has always used collaborations to expand her own creativity and reveal more of herself. That precedent did not, however, prevent her from receiving significant pushback from her label when announcing her plan to work with so many other artists on the album—comments she ultimately brushed off. “All of the collaborators that I work with are opening me up to so many different sounds and styles,” she says with a hint of defensiveness, implying a difference between her thoughtful, highly curated pairings and the mix-and-match, label-mandated features flooding the airwaves at any given moment. “A concoction of all that makes a more unique sound.”
Walking out of the spa, scores of pedestrians pass us, but not one of them gives Charli a second look. How is no one rushing up to her requesting a selfie? Why isn’t some 19-year-old stretching out of the passenger seat of a car singing “Vroom Vroom” at her? Well, we’re still in Midtown Manhattan, a neighborhood whose identity is defined by overpriced salads and men whose biggest problems involve locating shirts designed to be worn untucked.
As we stand in this cultural wasteland, sharing a moment of awkward silence before deciding to part ways, I’m reminded of something Charli admitted during lunch. “Sometimes I don’t understand why I’m not bigger than I am,” she said, breaking eye contact and looking at the empty space to my right. But like most of Charli’s downs, it was quickly followed by an up. “I feel very comfortable in my section of pop,” she continued. “I’m beginning to feel like the people who know, know. And the people who don’t? They wouldn’t get it anyway”.
I wanted to choose a song for review that has not been released as a single because it is fresh and other people have not poured over it extensively. Official is a song that does not rely on loads of layers and rampant, hollow energy to get it into the mind. Instead, there is a consistent sound – I am not sure whether it is a piano or a similar instrument – that gives the track an interesting hook. I am not sure why that particular sound was chosen but it works really well and gives the song a jittery energy and quirk. Charli XCX’s lyrics have always been highlighted, and I think she has reached new heights on her third album. Official talks about a lover who is a bit O.C.D. and they could be bad for her; Charli XCX gets fearful and hard on herself but her sweetheart knows the face she makes before the tears roll down – they seem to know what to say or how to make her feel better. Whilst her lover might is hard to read and they might have their downsides, they know the things that make her smile. There is a charm in Official that any can relate to. Too many songs talk about relationships as being either too idealised or fatalistic: Charli XCX, here, knows that everything is not rosy but that is to be expected. It is the thoughtful touches and the fact this person knows her better than anyone else that makes the relationship official. Maybe others have come and not respected her. Perhaps they have taken her for granted and used her but, in this case, there is genuine compassion and understanding. This sort of patience and commitment is represented with a vocal that has plenty of heart and grace. There is a little touch of machinery that treats the vocal but I think this is more for effect rather than a suggestion Charli XCX’s voice needs it.
The electronic touch gives the song an emotion that might have been lacking if the vocal was untreated or left alone. There is a nice lift and glisten in the chorus that strikes the eye and I like the fact that Charli XCX talks about the first date as lacking romance and big gestures – no flowers or chocolates. Rather than these social lubricants and, perhaps, cliché gestures, it was the feeling and passion that was put into the goodnight kiss that made her aware that this was real. That is a nice angle on romance and love. Other songwriters might get hung up on the lack of gifts and romance but, even though her lover is not perfect, the emotions and feelings are real. The pace shifts and Charli XCX punctuates the second verse; making sure every word is heard and makes their mark. The verse concerns the positions their bodies make at 4 .a.m. and there is a question as to whether it is purely sexual or there is something deeper. The line “The things that we break when we’re switchin' positions” might suggest lovers being caught in the heat of the moment but I think it is more about connection and synchronicity than it is pure lust and sex. The heroine says things that her lover does not hear; they say things when she makes bad decisions and it seems like there is compromise and respect from both sides. Sure, there are bad days and things are not picture-perfect but it is the little things that make the relationship stand tall and strong. The song is just over three minutes in length and it means it does not overstay its welcome and actually makes you come back for more. The lyrics are deeply personal but everyone will be able to relate to them. Official is one of the strongest tracks from Charli and a song that has the potential to pull in people who are a bit dismissive of modern Pop.
Charli XCX is headed to America and there are some big dates for her there. It is good to see that a British artist is turning heads in the U.S. and has a fanbase there. I do think a lot of the so-called ‘best’ Pop albums from this year are not as fine as Charli. I think a lot of critics get caught in this feeling that, because the artist is huge and popular, they need to hand out these hugely positive reviews – even if the music does not stand up to the test of time and is pretty ordinary. I shall not name names but there are some big artists out there being applauded for producing music that does not stay in the mind and lacks anything to keep you coming back. It must be frustrating for Charli XCX knowing many of her peers are getting more acclaim and attention, given the fact she is a lot more grounded and talented. Maybe it is the fact she is British and she might get more exposure if she was based in the U.S. Touring and big gigs help raise her profile and the positivity Charli has received will push her name through the ranks. I do think there is a mixed blessing to becoming well-known and popular. She does not need or want the sort of fame that can cause a lot of stress and see your private life invaded. I think Charli XCX is talking more about credibility and getting the same sort of love the likes of Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift do. I have used those two artists of an example of Pop music that, to me, sounds too formulaic and over-hyped. Maybe it is the fact Charli XCX is more credible and real means she will struggle to get the same appreciation as the biggest artists – this should not worry her. I am not completely sold on the notion that all Pop music is bad but, at the same time, I think we are a long way from the glorious sound that we enjoyed as recently as ten-fifteen years ago. I shall end things here but, if you have not dived into Charli XCX’s music before, I would recommend you…
GIVE it a spin.
Follow Charli XCX
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Getty Images/Charli XCX