The Collegian
Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Music Mondays | Next level Charli: A pop artist’s turn to the experimental side

<p><em>Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian</em></p>

Graphic by YounHee Oh, The Collegian

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.  

When I tell people that one of my favorite artists is Charli XCX, I am often met with puzzled looks. It makes sense. I am a 21-year-old college student who looks like he’s on the way to the yacht club; why would I announce my love for some pop diva who peaked in 2014 (rather than Kanye or Eminem)? Charli likely occupies the same mental real estate in millennials as Ke$ha and Iggy Azalea do. Her songs would go crazy at the teen center dances when we were 13, but not many listeners give her much play now, aside from the occasional nostalgic binge.

I too was thoroughly supplanted in this belief, and the underground purist in me was a little sickened by Anthony Fantano’s placement of her 2019 record “Charli” as album of the year. Until a close friend and trusted indie source recommended her 2020 LP “How I’m Feeling Now.” The first notes — or rather screeches — of the record instantly dissolved the image of the pop bad girl from my adolescence before my eyes. If her chart-topping hit “I Love It” is an anthem of edgy, youthful rebellion, the record’s opener, “Pink Diamond,” is a pop Beelzebub’s ramblings while being trapped in a cyber-prison. Along with the track’s freakish atmosphere, the lyrics are unadulterated expressions of longing during early quarantine: “I just wanna go real hard/ I just wanna go real hard/pink diamond in the dark.” We’re a long way away from the organic pop of her “Boom Clap” days.

The rest of the album shares the opener’s elements of warping and corruption, sometimes applying them to sweet ballads or digital club barn burners. The track “C2.0” stands out for its heavy use of self-sampling soaked in so much distortion it sounds like it features a Demogorgon. Another favorite is “Claws,” a sugary flash of honeymoon-phase adoration addressed to the artist's longtime boyfriend. The record reaches an early emotional apex with “7 years,” in which sticky lyricism narrates her relationship’s rebirth when the pandemic forced the pair to come together. On top of the effortlessly catchy yet still experimental cuts, the album maintains a consistent theme: Charli yearns for connection and reconnection in a time of great separation.

It seemed impossible for the “I Love It” girl to be capable of such great art. All aspects of the music have upgraded; from the songwriting to the production, she is a completely different beast. Delving deeper into her catalog, it is clear this transformation did not come all at once. Charli dipped her toes into the innovation tub during 2014’s “Sucker,” with her English accent shouting over digitized pop-punk backdrops. She eliminates the archetypal relatable love stories and opts for an attitude you may find on a Ghostface Killah release, boasting her mountainous wealth in one sentence and spinning a yarn of fantastical amusement in the next. Still, “Sucker”  lands itself comfortably in the pop music genre, and would not sound too out of place in a lineup of Katy Perry and P!nk.

Charli would not plunge into the avant-garde deep end until 2017 with her mixtape “Pop 2.” With a title that already suggests reinvention, the project places Charli in a virtual world as an airy-voiced angel telling of sensorial highs and lows. The opening cut, “Backseat,” repeats the mantra, “I can’t escape all the voices and so I turn it up,” conveying her preference for sensory overload as a form of escapism. The most foreshadowing song in terms of the artist’s development must be “Unlock It,” a virtual reality joyride through the rain with a chorus that sounds like Siri whispering sweet nothings. This was it – the realization of her potential that keen ears had been waiting for.

From there, the floodgates were open. Charli would collaborate with artists on the cutting edge of internet music, such as 100 Gecs and BJ Burton, staking her claim as a pioneer of the genre. So where does this leave Charli’s latest release, “CRASH?” Well, sort of a regression when it comes to the whole genre-defining stuff. Sure, the record is still fantastic, but it lacks the next step Charli’s fans have come to expect. The track “Yuck” is… well it’s a Dua Lipa song. With the bouncy bass and bright-colored keys, the thought just permeates my brain every time I hear it. And I’m down with Dua Lipa, but it just seems a little out of character to borrow another artist’s style like this. I’ve also heard “Constant Repeat” in the Heilman Dining Center a few times. Not against it, but the stars were not aligning for her first radio-pop release since “Sucker.” Where are the Demogorgons? The only track that embraces the post-pop sound she was nearing with her last release is “Twice,” which has a  dizzying, repetitive chorus that wisps you off to a MySpace dream world. Despite all this, the record is a tightly written listen, with plenty of screamable choruses for any function.

Even when she’s playing it safe, Charli still excels. She is a student of the genre who has mastered her own sound over years of refining. Charli will undoubtedly trailblaze through the coming decade. As the world undergoes a digitalization overhaul, so has she. 

Contact columnist Cam MacKinnon at cameron.mackinnon@richmond.edu

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