Charli XCX is the Future of Pop

Artwork by Kelly Chen

Artwork by Kelly Chen

by James Ammirato

When I was younger and first getting interested in music, I roundly rejected the pop genre. Something about the fact that it was widely accepted and typically had a distinct lack of guitars made my 12-year-old self-think that the whole genre was “bad.” Aside from the fact that I was looking at music in a horribly elitist way, I was also wrong. Over the years, I grew to accept that, although not my favorite genre or even the most groundbreaking or experimental, pop has a lot to offer the world. In the world of music, it serves as the great uniter, in that even if you don’t listen to a particular pop artist, chances are their name has become commonplace in everyday life. People like Beyoncé, Adele, and Drake are in fact so famous that people who have never heard of them, at least in their countries of origin, are looked at as pariahs; (“You’ve never heard of ___???”). On top of that, even though admittedly there are some pop artists who I consider to be bad, some are taking the genre of pop and adding their own fascinating twist, like my favorite pop artist of today, Charli XCX.

Born Charlotte Aitchison in England in 1992, Charli started her musical career in the late 2000’s to early 2010’s in the underground rave scene in east London by performing original songs she had written at around 14. She co-wrote and was featured on the classic Icona Pop one-hit wonder “I Love It,” and broke into the mainstream with her debut album, True Romance, in 2013. She was featured on Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” in 2014 and released Sucker later on that year. Up until this point, her music was mostly typical radio pop, with nice vocal melodies and not much experimentation or distinction from other artists in the same field.

However, in 2016, Charli began to really explore what she could make and produce. She released the Vroom Vroom EP in February of that year, which blends bubblegum pop with industrial and noise production. Entirely produced by Scottish house artist SOPHIE, a key member of PC Music, the EP was a flop among fans of her earlier work, but a gateway drug for those who outed her as simply the new trendy pop singer. Full of bright synths and harsh bass drums reminiscent of a real British rave, the EP is full of some of the danciest bangers one could ever imagine possible. Not only did this staunch shift in style mean that Charli was starting to appreciate changes that can be made to pop music, but she was also beginning to embrace and apply them to her own musical output. Perhaps most importantly, Vroom Vroom marked Charli’s transition from heartthrob pop star with a discography about teenage love to a full-on badass with an “I couldn’t care less” attitude. This would be an extremely important transition for Charli, not just with her music, but with her entire image.

2017 saw more of her experimentation in the pop genre, with mixtapes Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, my favorite of her releases. Number 1 Angel showed Charli expanding on the pop genre with elements of trap, R&B, and electropop. Songs like “Dreamer” and “3AM” exhibited components like heavy auto-tune, huge bass, and sparse trap drums hitting hard when in the mix. Huge synths and vocals soaring high over the rest of the mix, Number 1 Angel truly is a mixtape of anthems. Almost any of the tracks alone could be in the trailer for a current coming of age movie, in the best way possible.

My favorite release of Charli’s, however, is Pop 2. Perfectly titled, the 2017 mixtape serves as a “sequel” to modern pop music, and I believe perfectly exemplifies the message it’s trying to put across. Entirely produced by members of PC Music, and executive produced by the leader of PC Music, A.G. Cook, the mixtape is full of some of the most beautifully autotuned vocals and masterfully crafted synths and production from the last few years, at least. Some of my favorite tracks are “Backseat,” “Lucky,” “Delicious,” and “Porsche,” which I believe best show Charli’s intentions of making “post-pop,” or futuristic pop music. PC Music do what they do best on Pop 2, taking the boundaries of pop and electronic production and pushing them to the extreme to create a sound you would think came from a disco on another planet.

Not only is the sound of Pop 2 inherently futuristic, but the style and production exhibited were also very new and innovative. Featuring over 10 different artists of varying fame, the mixtape is one of collaboration. Recently, Charli spoke on the spirit of the mixtape, saying “I don’t think I could be the artist I am without collaboration; I don’t need to take center stage at all times.” This is increasingly obvious with each successive listen to the tape. On tracks like “Out of My Head” featuring Tove Lo, or “I Got It” featuring Brooke Candy, Pabllo Vittar, and CupcakKe, Charli doesn’t even come in until the second or third verse, then stays off the song for the remainder of the time. This style of recording and writing is so untapped by many but so advantageous for people pursuing it, like Charli XCX.

That doesn’t mean she can’t fly solo, though. In the days since Pop 2, Charli has released several singles that purely showcase her talents as a singer, and her ability to adapt to different production styles. In May 2018, she released “5 in the Morning,” followed by “Focus” and “No Angel” in June 2018. All of these singles feature purely her vocals and the signature deep bass synth style production she’s come to love so well. What some may think are simple pop songs actually have quite a bit of layering to them, such as “Focus,” where a brand new synth that sounds like fabricated plucked strings comes in for just the last 15 seconds. On top of that, these songs show us that, above all, Charli has a gift for crafting melodies that are interesting and fun without becoming boring or monotonous.

After releasing “Girls Night Out” in August, Charli released “1999,” her latest single, in October. Featuring the ever iconic Troye Sivan, the song is a fun and boppy track that somewhat ironically recalls the days of the late 90’s even though both artists can’t have been more than 7 years old in the title year. Accompanied by a fantastic video, the song portrays that at this point in her career, Charli really just wants to have fun, and who can deny someone that?

To me, Charli XCX’s career started off as her trying to be a successful bubblegum pop artist, but for a while, she was shunted to the side as a feature or just another collaborator. Her solo music wasn’t as interesting as it could’ve been, so she took initiative and found better and more people to collaborate with, and it was there she started to flourish. She even spoke on this saying, “I only want to work with artists that I think are unique… I think all of the artists I work with can't be replicated.” With the Vroom Vroom EP, Number 1 Angel, and Pop 2, Charli started to push the boundaries of pop music and began making material that is extremely interesting and fun to listen to, a feat that not many musicians have accomplished. Now that she’s shown the world what she’s capable of putting out, Charli can truly start to make whatever music she wants, and I can’t wait to hear it. And if it comes out and people don’t like it, it really doesn’t matter, her “I don’t care” personality is something she’ll never stop expressing.

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