Charli XCX has had a complicated relationship with stardom across her 14 years navigating pop’s treacherous straits. To her fans of her, she is a goddess, walking on water. As the singer kicks off the latest leg of her post-lockdown tour in a Dublin sweatbox, the sense is less of an artist connecting with their audience than of a deity descending from on high.
It really is quite a calumny. Every throwaway utterance, costume change and robotic dance movie – she is accompanied by a duo of voguishly scrawny backing hoofers – elicits screams, swoons and camera flashes (and that’s just the guy in front of me, hyperventilating before the end of the first song) . And when she gets to favorites such as Matrix-referencing body-slammer “1999” and puzzle-box banger “Unlock It”, the room is not so much dancing as one as vibrating in ecstasy. It is a molecular maelstrom-pop as an out-of-body experience.
Yet beyond the four walls of tonight’s temple of Charli, the musician (born Charlotte Emma Aitchison) is not known hugely by a wider audience. The 29 year-old’s solitary number one single, a “feature” appearance on Icona Pop’s “I Love It”, came nearly a decade ago and has not lingered in the public consciousness (to the extent it ever intruded in the first place). And her latest three releases from her all landed outside the top 20 (her from her most recent releases from her, “Used To Know Me”, stiffing at 70).
True, the Essex-raised, LA-based songwriter’s new album, Crash, zoomed straight to the top of the charts. But it only stayed there for a week. Commercially, this places her in the same space as indie bands such as the The Snuts and Mogwai who similarly went to number one on the back of a fan groundswell, rather than through a true commercial breakthrough.
Her cult status is easily explained. Charli’s output from her is essentially experimental, subtly undermining pop tropes rather than honoring them. “Unlock It”, for instance, cranks through tempo shifts like a monster truck on a switchback Alpine motorway. That track was co-produced by AG Cook of PC Music, the London label and art collective associated with the opinion-splitting genre of “Hyperpop”.
The deal with the singer’s genre of music, Hyperpop, is that it dials up everything we love about chart tunes – the tunefulness, the intensity, the heightened emotions – to the point where it is not entirely clear if it is a celebration, a deconstruction or a parody. It is potentially all three at eleven and that hint of overkill is one of the qualities that makes Charli’s oeuvre adored while seemingly slamming the door on her achieving true stardom.
She’s not bothered about that, she has said in interviews. Crashin particular, she has stated, is a grand performance piece – a glossy, seductive record and, at the same time, a “commentary on what a pop star is”.
However meta that reads on paper, on stage it adds up to a glorious carnival of maximalism, as she bounds from the cyberpunk stomp of “Lightning” to the lockdown yearning of “Party 4 U” (from How I’m Feeling Now, the 2020 LP made during the Covid dystopia, with Aitchison incorporating real-time Instagram feedback from fans). These songs inhabit a place beyond pop. They’re catchy as anything yet also weird and baroque, with a bruised wonkiness, that gets under the skin in a way slicker, more dead-eyed music seldom does.
And so if Charli XCX’s fame is in essence a collective act of wish fulfillment on the part of her fanbase, it is nonetheless impossible not to be seduced. It may not be stardom in the old-fashioned, arena-filling way (the closest she has come to playing stadiums was when supporting Taylor Swift on her Reputation tours). But the argument a Charli XCX concert makes is that this shared fantasy between artist and audience is potentially even better than the real thing.
Touring through May 23
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.