An analysis of the British popstar's public persona, with assistance from writer/DJ/publicist Jacqueline Codiga.
On Monday, British culture magazine The Face published a profile of Charli XCX, the 31-year-old musician who, over the course of 12+ years of bonafide hits and wildly experimental fare alike, has become one of the most critically acclaimed artists in pop music. Her path has been winding and adventurous, each ensuing album a more distinctive new "era" than the subtle vibe shifts that today's number one pop juggernaut is fond of touting as sea changes. Charli started with very online goth-pop, guested and/or wrote a few down-the-middle pop smashes, made her "punk" album, linked up with the PC Music collective and helped popularize hyperpop, and in the past five years has restlessly bounced between the arty and mainstream poles of pop, perhaps in an effort to collapse them.
Taking such risks heightens the chance for inconsistency, and in the most-shared pull quote from the Face profile, Charli herself acknowledges that she may have dropped a dud last time around. Here's the passage regarding her 2022 album, Crash:
With Crash, Charli set out to make a commercially viable record. Now, she’s sick of the “vanilla palatable flatness” in the pop landscape. “There were songs on Crash that I would never listen to,” she admits, picking out smooth disco track "Yuck" as an example. “I needed to switch after Crash–I wasn’t born to do radio liners,” she says of the call-outs that appear between songs on stations. “That’s not who I am at all.”
Crash somewhat succeeded in Charli's stated mission for chart viability. In her native UK, as well as Australia and Ireland, it was her first #1 album. In the US, it peaked at #7, the highest she's ever gotten stateside. The singles didn't fare as well, failing to reach the heights of her early 2010s hits like "I Love It," "Fancy," and "Boom Clap," but the album's success around the globe is nothing sneeze at. On paper, she didn't even have to sacrifice artistic quality to achieve this, as Crash currently sits at a respectable 79/100 on Metacritic, just three points lower than 2020's more insular How I'm Feeling Now.
Artists bashing their previous work is nothing new, ditto for fans parsing these statements to determine whether they are marketing ploys or legitimate beliefs. For Charli though, throwing "Yuck" under the bus is merely the latest in a long line of (what appear to be) calculated moves designed to position her as a hyper-aware "disrupter" dismantling the pop machine from inside the machine. These are tempered by what feel more like ad-libbed moments of honesty. In the case of Crash specifically, you can point to Charli's now-deleted March 2022 tweets replying to fans criticizing album single "Baby," writing, among other things, "if you don’t think baby is a bop then… idk that’s just v suspicious to me…" and eventually, “Bitch BYE. I will NEVER understand what possesses people to be such C*NTS online.” Maybe "Baby" isn't one of the songs on Crash that Charli says she "would never listen to," but moments like this make the press quotes feel more manicured.
At the end of January, the rollout shenanigans for Charli's yet-to-be-formally-announced-but-clearly-forthcoming new album began in earnest. She first shared the screenshot of what she called "some cute marketing ideas i was sent last week," each one so patently ridiculous that they sound like It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia episode titles: "Charli announces she's running for office," "Charli leaks a sex tape," "Charli gets her nipples pierced at Claire's." She then posted a TikTok of a few of her friends reading these proposed viral marketing tactics aloud at a party.
In response to this, a Twitter mutual of mine, the writer/podcaster/DJ/founder of Arroyo Seco Music PR, Jacqueline Codiga, tweeted something that resonated with me:
Like me, Jacqueline considers herself a longtime fan of Charli XCX's music, and that, coupled with her experience in PR, made me want to get her thoughts on Charli's recent rollout strategies. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I think Charli's very public rollouts began with How I'm Feeling Now. That one felt more like, 'It's the pandemic, I'm just like you, help me finish this album,' but with Crash and this new one it's gotten a bit more insufferable.
Jacqueline Codiga: It's really fascinating because, you're totally right, How I'm Feeling Now was much more sincere and straightforward. And then Crash was rolled out with this whole strategy where it's trying to do the thing, and a self-aware comment on the thing at the same time. That's what Charli has become obsessed with: her music existing as arch commentary in addition to being pop music. In the '90s, people were more concerned with selling out, and now no one really cares, and it feels like Charli's trying to lean into that and have this whole ad campaign that was like, 'I'm trying to be this exploited pop star,' like, intentionally.
Making a bad song and then being like, 'That was commentary,' is not the same as actually working that into the artwork. Like, you're doing the quotes in the press to create a narrative that's not necessarily there in the art.
Right. And it contradicts the whole thing where she lashed out at people on Twitter because they didn't like one of the Crash singles.
That's the thing that fucking drives me crazy—like, pick a lane. It's common Twitter behavior: people want to be edgelords, and then when people get mad at them, they're like, 'What are you doing? You're coming for me, you're so obsessed with me.' If you're going to be an edgelord, you have to imagine that some people are going to be offended by it. That's the point of being an edgelord. But people want to be an edgelord that everyone adores. They want to have it both ways, and that's what the Charli stuff has felt like to me. Like, 'I am adored in this particular way but I'm also above it and commenting on it, and you're smart for understanding that.' It doesn't make for particularly compelling fodder when extrapolated over a several-months-long pop album rollout.
One of the things that I've enjoyed about Charli—early on it wasn't there but I think it started around the Vroom Vroom era—is that her music is not necessarily a meta-commentary on pop music but—
It's winking a little bit.
Yeah. Artistically, I always liked that about her, but once it started becoming her persona, I don't know—
Part of the problem is that we're inundated with it. I kept thinking about Ryan Reynolds when I was thinking about this, which is a very harsh comparison—I think she's a much better musician than Ryan Reynolds is an actor—but it's the same sort of thing where it's like, Wink wink, I'm in on the joke. And we're just so inundated with self-aware stuff in general, particularly the way it has infiltrated advertising and mainstream movies. There's too much of it in our culture right now and there's not enough stuff that is sincerely presenting itself as the thing it is.
I do agree that it is a part of Charli's whole thing, but How I'm Feeling Now strikes a real nice balance, where you get honest expression but you also get "Pink Diamond," which is the very performative, 'It's Charli, baby' side of Charli. I think on the newer material it feels more muddled and confused. She was saying the whole concept of the last album, musically, was to be a major-label pop album. I was like, is it supposed to be arch? She just kind of did it. She wasn't doing it and exaggerating it for effect. It's not [Lady Gaga's] ARTPOP, it's not garish. It's just a major label pop album. You just made a Dua Lipa album.
You just made Deadpool. Two other things from this Face article that I wanted to talk about. One is this quote from Robyn: “[Charli]’s conjured this storm over the past few years, reading the culture and her fans, and knowing what fans react to. But it’s done in this way that’s not strategic." Why do you think Robyn thinks that this is not strategic?
I think the idea that anyone is not being strategic in this day and age is a total [falsehood]. Even Mitski is being strategic, because you fucking have to. This is the stuff that drives me insane as a publicist: there are a lot of people who will posture that they're not doing this or not doing that, and that they're breaking the mold. And it's like, you have a manager and a publicist like everyone else! You think that's cliché and you want to be authentic, but you're also clearly this person that's obsessed with artifice and performance. And you're also straightforwardly trying to be successful. It's okay to be a contradiction, right? But those things should be contradictions that exist in the work itself. I actually think it's kind of cool that she said she didn't like that one song so straightforwardly, but it makes me wonder what her intentions were going into that record. Was she really cynically like, 'I'm just gonna make some slop that I think Charli XCX fans want?'
You what else I just thought of that's a funny parallel to this? Have you followed the Dakota Johnson Madame Web press tour? She's actively being like 'Yeah, this movie sucks.' But like... You're in the movie!
That's a great comparison. I was listening to someone talk about the Dakota Johnson thing, and they were like, 'Is she completely in on the joke and leaning into it, or is she truly this clueless?' and the correct response is: it's both. I think that's emblematic of a lot of culture now, people selling out but not wanting to say it with their chest.
Any last thoughts?
I think what happened to Charli is—she's not quite the same as Carly Rae Jepsen, but she had this similar weird status of being the "thinking person's popstar." But there exists a certain tension at a point, because popstars aren't meant for that, popstars are meant for mass appeal. So at a certain point you have to decide is you're for mass appeal, if you're trying to create this niche product, or if you're trying to do both. And most people these days try to do both. That's where all of these misshapen things come from.
Follow Jacqueline on Twitter. She's always insightful and frequently hilarious.
BOI (Best Of Inbox) #19
Adekunle Gold - "The Life I Chose"
Genre: Afrobeats // RIYL: Burna Boy, Wizkid
Just an infectious, life-affirming track here. Gold is joined by Afrobeats producer extraordinaire (and fellow Nigerian) Kel-P, whose nimble percussion and simple-but-effective melodies yet again prove why he's a go-to talent in this scene. Switching between English and Nigerian, Gold adeptly navigates the beat like the seasoned pro he is. I especially love when he sings "Everybody act like they love me" and then ad-libs "FAKE LOVE" behind it.
Heavenly Blue - "Static Voice Speaks To Static Me"
Genre: screamo // RIYL: Frail Body, early Touché Amoré
Heavenly Blue are a Detroit-based septet (!!) with an intriguingly lo-fi, swirling sound. "Static Voice Speaks To Static Me," the lead single from their upcoming debut album gets its thrilling point across in less than two minutes of surging riffs, back-and-forth vocals, and dextrous rhythmic shifts. We Have The Answer is out 4/12.
Kareen Lomax - "Remedy"
Genre: Afrobeats-inflected R&B // RIYL: DVSN, Ty Dolla $ign, Kehlani
Kareen Lomax is a singer-songwriter who's written for everyone from Syd to Maroon 5, but she doesn't have a ton of material to her name as a solo artist. "Remedy" instantly shows her knack for crafting memorable hooks and verses that manage to be inventive while never straying from the song's melodic framework.
Ken Pomeroy - "Cicadas"
Genre: country-tinged folk // RIYL: Waxahatchee, Jess Williamson
Upon Googling Oklahoma singer-songwriter Ken Pomeroy, I learned she shares a name with a prominent college basketball statistician, which is interesting. "Cicadas" is a gorgeous, gentle coming-of-age song that, like Black Belt Eagle Scout's "Salmon Stinta," had people clamoring to find it online after it was featured in an episode of Reservation Dogs before its actual release. I have yet to watch the most recent season, but I'm happy to see the show continuing its excellent music curation.
Make Sure - "Comedown"
Genre: emo-tinged heartland rock // RIYL: Wild Pink, Oso Oso
Last week, I listened to a great episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Endless Scroll, that centered on Christian Rock, a genre I know close to nothing about. Guesting was music writer/Camp Trash member Keegan Bradford, who grew up immersed in that world. In it, he made a compelling case for the Seattle-based label Tooth & Nail, which became a big-ticket operation in the 2000s but put out some unique, atypical "Christian rock" albums in the mid-to-late '90s (including those by shoegaze act Starflyer 59, one of the few I'd previously heard and actually enjoyed). I'm telling you this because after selecting this song based purely on its merits, I realized that Make Sure is signed to Tooth & Nail. "Comedown" instantly clicked with me—it's clearly informed by fourth-wave emo, but it's got a down-home sensibility that grounds its earnestness. June, ironically, is out 4/12.
Nourished By Time - "Hand On Me"
Genre: wistful electropop // RIYL: Hot Chip, Westerman, Arthur Russell
Nourished By Time's Erotic Probiotic 2 was one of my favorite albums of last year, so of course I'm thrilled to learn that he's signed to XL and has a new EP on the way. Lead single "Hand On Me" continues the moody, sensual bounce of NBT's previous work, but it gets maybe a bit more playful in its second half. Catching Chickens is out 3/22.
Omar Souleyman - "Rahat Al Chant Ymme"
Genre: techno-meets-Dabke // RIYL: Mad Decent circa 2010, Arabic vocal acrobatics
I hadn't thought about this dude in years! Souleyman is a Syrian singer who performs a modernized version of Dabke, a type of traditional music from the countries that border the Mediterranean's eastern edge. In the early 2010s, his music caught on with American and European indie music blogs, and the ensuing hypestorm brought Souleyman to festival stages around the world and led to a 2013 album produced by Four Tet. "Rahat Al Chant Ymme" is indicative of his high energy sound, showing why he had a flourishing career as a wedding singer before his international fame. Erbil is out 3/29.
Pure Hex - "She Comes Up"
Genre: shoegaze // RIYL: Asoobi Seksu, Adventures
You thought I'd be able to get through one week without posting a shoegaze track? Ha! You Fool! Pure Hex are a Bay Area quintet who put together a graceful, dynamic track with "She Comes Up." The playful double-time fakeout in the middle and the quiet-loud dynamic in the back half keep things from getting monotonous, which is a problem for many other modern shoegaze bands.
Thief - "Paramnesia"
Genre: darkwave/IDM // RIYL: that Vein.fm remix album, goth dance clubs
Thief is an LA project fronted by D. Neal, who used to play hammered dulcimer in the black metal band Botanist. They describe their music as "night music for haunted ballrooms and electric churches," which is far better than anything I could muster. "Paramnesia" slaps. Bleed, Memory is out 4/19.
Track of the Week
Devon Welsh - "That's What We Needed"
Genre: apocalyptic electropop // RIYL: "Born Slippy .NUXX," Lost Under Heaven
If you read music blogs as obsessively as I did in the early 2010s, the name "Majical Cloudz" probably gives you flashbacks of a shaved-head dude staring pointedly back at you through your screen. Well, that dude is Devon Welsh, and since MC's breakup in 2016, he's been releasing solo music that has mostly flown under the radar. His upcoming album, the threateningly titled Come With Me If You Want To Live, is built around some post-apocalyptic narrative that involves a very jacked Welsh running around like Snake in Escape From New York. I never really got Majical Cloudz, and from this new album's backstory and hilarious artwork, I thought Welsh's solo work would similarly push me away, but surprise, surprise: I'm actually into it. The whole I'm yoked and these are desperate times vibes works, especially when sick breakbeats are involved. Come With Me If You Want To Live is out 3/15.