A Rational Conversation: Is Charli XCX A Pop Star?
"A Rational Conversation" is a column by writer Eric Ducker in which he gets on iChat or Gchat or the phone with a special guest to examine a music-related subject that's entered the pop culture consciousness.
Though British singer Charli XCX was discovered at raves when she was in her mid-teens singing outlandish songs about dinosaurs having sex, most music followers first learned about her around 2011 or 2012 when she was older but still not in her 20s. Not just a tangle of big black hair and Tumblr-ready, '90s-indebted style, she already had a tender voice and a mature pop songwriting sensibility. She may have been an emissary of the U.K.'s electronic underground, but mainstream fame seemed like a definite possibility. As more of her own material dripped out, she also benefitted from the slow-growth massiveness of Icona Pop's "I Love It," a song she wrote and is featured on. In 2013 she released her debut album True Romance, a strong but underrated project that didn't quite gain her the audience some had hoped or expected for her.
Thankfully, Charli XCX's opportunities have not shriveled up. She sings the chorus on "Fancy" by Iggy Azaela, which is showing signs of being 2014's song of the summer. Her own cut "Boom Clap" is a single from the soundtrack to this year's big teen romance weeper The Fault in Our Stars and even got a video treatment featuring clips from the movie and Charli vamping around Amsterdam.
Still, it's unclear how interested Charli XCX is in mega-stardom and what compromises she's willing to make to get there. To discuss Charli's journey so far and her place in the pop landscape, Ducker spoke with Claire Lobenfeld, a former staff member of Stereogum and Complex, who now writes for outlets including SPIN, Billboard and Rolling Stone, and also handles a weekly Nicki Minaj column for Myspace called The Minajerie.
When did you first become aware of Charli XCX?
Maybe the end of 2011? I saw a song of hers, I can't remember which, on a blog. I like pop music, so I was interested in her because she was kind of perverting it, but I wasn't that blown away. Then she put out "Nuclear Seasons" and I was totally blown away by it. I still think it's her best song.
What do you mean by "perverting it"?
"Perverting it" probably isn't what I mean, but taking it somewhere a little bit darker, like Siouxsie Sioux and Katy Perry have a baby vibes.
What's interesting is that Charli XCX — at least in the version of her starting around 2011 — seems to always have had an interest in pop music, even if at first we weren't seeing her in the usual pop contexts.
I totally agree with you. What she is doing is in line with this pervasive trend in "indie" (for lack of a better distinction) where a genre outside the realm of rock becomes reformatted and "made weird" until the weirdness becomes acceptable. It happened with R&B, it's happened with pop music via Charli and Grimes and Sky Ferreira. I think all of them are admittedly invested in pop music, but their instincts skew a little bit left of the center.
How exactly is Charli making pop weird? And what's the evidence that her form of "weirdness" is now acceptable?
There has been a slow march toward weirdness across the board in pop over the past few years, particularly in terms of costuming. But even when Lady Gaga was wearing a meat dress, her music was hardly boundary-pushing, at least sonically speaking. Charli's aesthetics lean more toward both goth and rave club cultures. Her hair and moon boots are the perfect look for old NYC establishment Limelight — which is, sadly, now a mall — and their goth night Batcave. "Nuclear Seasons" is like if Dr. Luke was writing for Dead Can Dance. Her rave credentials are all over her bio — and the boots belong there, too — but there aren't many pop stars going so far as to sample people like Gold Panda. She is genuinely alternative, but what makes that acceptable in 2014 is easy access to alternative culture. You don't have to hunt anymore. Everything is laid out on Tumblr for you and anywhere else you might look for influence is mining from Tumblr, too.
Pop ambition or appreciation isn't new in "indie" artists (though Charli signed to Atlantic in the U.K. in her mid-teens, and her first U.S. label IAMSOUND licensed her tracks from them), still, it's surprising when the pop artists who lean to the weirder side actually find mainstream acceptance.
I don't want to pretend to be an expert on how the music scene in the UK works, but I know she was performing at raves when she was very young and I think her way of writing is more acceptable there and is considerably more mainstream than it is here. The ways she's become more mainstream are interesting, though. And it's not necessarily a meteoric rise. She wrote a huge song, she is on the hook of a different huge song and she has a song on a soundtrack that favors indie artists.
That's kind of my question: How big is she in the mainstream, really? To people who have been following her career, it's kind of surprising that she's on this year's potential song of the summer and that she has a single on The Fault of Our Stars soundtrack, but how much name recognition does she actually have in mass culture?
I am curious about that, too. I would imagine she's still in the "Who The Hell Is Charli XCX?" club a la Arcade Fire and "Bonnie Bear." I haven't seen The Fault in Our Stars because I try to stay away from things that want to emotionally manipulate me, but depending on the placement "Boom Clap" has in the movie, that's what I think could send her over the edge. I wonder how faceless she is or is not because of "Fancy."
On a street level, do you hear about or from teenagers who are obsessed with Charli XCX, or at least are into her? Have you gone to any recent performances of hers?
The last time I saw her perform was at an industry event, so I don't think that counts. And I don't spend that much time around teenagers. I do know that there is an army of teen girls on Twitter who are obsessed with Charli, Sky [Ferreira] and Kitty all together, but I can't tell if that's an indie thing or not. Kitty makes me lean toward indie, Sky makes me lean towards not.
Let's go macro and talk about why it looks like Charli XCX could make it super big. As we've said, there are plenty of young artists who are interested in pop but have not-so-mainstream sensibilities. Why has Charli broken through to the extent that she already has?
Well, "Fancy" is constructed perfectly — Iggy's lyrics are easy, it sounds like a DJ Mustard song, the hook makes people feel good when they sing it and because there is so much push behind Iggy right now, it gets Charli placement on things like the Billboard Awards. Having written "I Love It" also gives her "street" cred.
Were you surprised True Romance didn't bring her more mainstream success?
Why do you think it didn't connect on the level that it could have?
I guess it just wasn't the right time. She was sandwiched in between a massive Taylor Swift album, the reinvention of Miley Cyrus (though both Charli and Miley have this "Tumblr" aesthetic [please forgive me for saying that], Hannah Montana fans were definitely ready to grow up with her), as well as a new Katy Perry album. All the while, the songs that were getting the most burn over that summer had a totally different sound. Like Jon Caramanica said, it was "the Summer of Smooth," so it's hard to be an esoteric pop star and breakout when women with huge fan bases are bringing something new and everyone wants to hear Marvin Gaye-cribbed tunes that are wedding-primed.
Now it takes a lot longer for new artists to solidify a hit, and we have the summer to see what happens with "Boom Clap." It could potentially re-write the success of True Romance.
It's an interesting situation where "Boom Clap" wouldn't have gotten the positioning it has if True Romance weren't so good and she might not have given it to the soundtrack had True Romance been more of a success.
I agree. And if True Romance had completely crossed her over, she might not have been asked to be on that soundtrack, period; although, we wouldn't be having this conversation if that was the case. Movie soundtracks are not the events that they used to be, so that one is littered with pop artists who have some mainstream notoriety, but still haven't achieved a higher level of success, save Ed Sheeran, I suppose.
You talked about how crowded last summer was, but Lorde still broke through. Similar hair, too. What's different about her storyline/trajectory/relationship to her fans?
One day we'll learn that the vocal melody on "Royals" was actually an Illuminati-constructed earworm that brainwashed even rap radio into playing it, despite how incongruous it is to certain rap aspiration tropes. Jokes aside, the alternative that Charli offers is production-based, whereas Lorde rebukes pop as a whole. She sings about not wanting to be told to put her hands in the air on "Team," but Charli is still ready to be a part of the party. It's not just Lorde's songwriting that is catchy, it also appeals to people who have animosity toward pop materialism, be it for things or for partying.
Have you noticed that the two big songs that Charli XCX is featured on, and is probably best known for, are her pushing this "young, wild and free" idea, while all of her own songs are usually really romantic and lovesick?
Maybe it's just sonically, but even when Charli is lovesick, she bleeds youth and freedom to me. Even when she's singing romantic overtures, she seems so cool while she's doing it. You don't look to Charli for that heartbreak empowerment right after you're dumped. She helps you once you've gotten your bearings. And with "Fancy," I think she's, at least somewhat, graduated to being able to flex like that.
I imagine that the perception of Charli XCX to those who first heard of her through Iggy Azalea is akin to hearing Ke$ha for the first time on Flo Rida's "Right Round" before "Tik Tok" was released a half year later. I'm not familiar with Ke$ha's musical background, aside from her having a songwriting deal. I don't know what would have happened if Ke$ha's first single had been pine-y, but we all know the "young, wild and free" schtick worked for her. Charli gets to keep doing things her way post-"Fancy" because even her lovesick anthems are free-spirited.
So you don't think the romanticism is what's holding her back, when the biggest songs by Katy Perry, Rihanna, Miley Cyrus and Kesha are about living in the moment and kind of obliterating yourself in the pursuit of fun?
The bigger song on Bangerz is a huge romance bummer.
This is true.
Maybe you need one party song to gain everyone's trust. She might be exempt with "Boom Clap" because of the heavy-handed emotions in the movie. She might be able to crossover with a love song because of the associations people will have with it.
I never thought about how all those women broke out with a party song. It's interesting because boy bands always break out with a love song, but they're so softball because they're aimed at an audience who are just developing a sense that one day someone might love them/hurt them. I guess since they can't put themselves in that place, it doesn't work with female pop stars.
I am speaking from a totally heteronormative perspective here, but I think that for people who are very young, pop music acts as a lens into adulthood. Female pop singers have to make that first connection or gain the trust of the listener by presenting the possibility of having your own agency. It supports the perception that one day you'll be cool, you'll get to stay up late, etc. Those songs also present the idea that you will be desired, so it rounds out this idea of adulthood.
Do you think True Romance should have been all new songs? Is that why FKA Twigs' debut album will be all newly written?
There may have been a little bit more muscle from listeners who were already familiar with her to talk about True Romance more [if it was all new songs]. Word of mouth from the dedicated for something that is mostly a compilation is hard to attain, I would imagine. As far as FKA Twigs goes, that speaks to her own work ethic. She is a producer, she creative directs her videos, she steers a lot of that ship and I think that's a matter of her wanting what she wants. It will be interesting to see what the response is to her, though, as well as the new Grimes music. Pop singers have been reviled for years for being vessels for other people's writing and musicianship. If [those artists] can all crossover, that won't be true anymore.
I feel a little weird about talking about Charli's personal aesthetics, but how do you feel about the "softening" of her look over the years? I don't know if it's a natural part of her getting older and maturing, or if it's the result of people deciding for her what a pop star looks like.
I think it's probably a combination of both. But I also think there's something about even a little bit of fame that cleans anyone up, especially women. I hate that I said, "cleans up," but I think you know what I mean.
This is another thing I wonder about: Her performance style is really abrasive. The person I would compare her stage presence to is Fred Durst.
Whoa. I haven't seen her play live, so please explain that.
Durst had a lot of these really aggressive rap arm gestures when he performed, but because he was screaming so much, he would also bend to the ground like a football player at the beginning of a play. He did a lot of these knee bends while he was performing and would gesticulate wildly. The first time I saw her, which was back in summer 2012, she was doing the same thing. And when I saw her last December, she was still doing it. There was more enthusiastic pop star jumping that time, but she was still very aggressive. She was opening for Superchunk and Danny Brown. Then she came out to perform with Danny and I found her to be a lot softer when she's in a supporting role.
For her, is it confrontational towards the crowd?
No, and I am certain the way her music sounds vs. the way Limp Bizkit sounds is what makes the difference. But in the same vein, it's a little bit shocking because it's so far from how you expect a pop star to present him or herself on stage.
Do you think she wants to be a pop star?
You know, I'm not sure. I remember reading an interview with her where the reporter asked if she regretted giving Icona Pop "I Love It" and she gave a resounding no. This is, perhaps, gross to say, but I think there's a purity about her and I think she just wants to make the music or be a part of the music that she likes and that's that. I would imagine the stuff she was performing when she was a scene kid in U.K. raves sounds like this [current] stuff does. She's been in the system long enough that she could have done it if she wanted to, I think. Although, Sky Ferreira would tell me I'm wrong.
I do get the sense with her that she wants to make the music she wants to, but is willing to make some compromises or concessions to get there. Though I don't know if that tactic always works.
What kind of compromises?
Singing hooks for Iggy Azaela (I read an article from last year where she said she had turned down a bunch of features following "I Love It"), toning down some aspects of her look (I liked the huge hair), making videos where she sexy pouts around foreign countries.
I liked the huge hair, too. I would love to know the circumstances in which she got on that Iggy song. Danny Brown is just down, we all know that, the other "pop" hook on his album is by Purity Ring! Do you think they put Charli on "Fancy" to win over the blogs? I feel like they must have come to her with a great offer.
Honestly, I doubt it was that calculated. I'm sure they had a list of artists who would do a good job, but wouldn't overshadow Iggy, yet still had some name recognition. Plus Charli sounds awesome on the hook. She's the best part of the song.
She sounds smushed onto it to me.
In that they probably recorded guiding vocals with a non-name singer and basically had a finished song and just looked around until they could find the right person to redo it?
She sings long, if that makes sense, and I feel like she's singing too fast for what I am used to.
So you're not a fan of her performance on that song?
I don't hate it, but I don't really care for much of anything about that song.
How do you feel about the video?
Clueless is a sacred thing. I maybe would have liked to have seen Iggy do something of her own before going there. "Pu$$y" is too far removed at this point to count. Also, it's so rude to cast Charli as Tai.
Do you think that's a comment on Charli's personality, or just a reality of skin color? I mean, would the featured singer be Dionne if she was African-American?
Good point. Yeah, it works out perfectly that she is shorter, brunette, etc.
It's tough to tell with a bunch of stuff related to that song if it's intentional or happenstance, like people point out that Iggy never mentions or shouts out Charli in it.
That goes back to your previous point that it took awhile to get someone, but she could have thrown in an ad-lib. I haven't listened to enough Iggy Azalea to know if that's just how she rolls or not.
So what do you think is next for Charli? Is she going to make more pop-friendly concessions and take her career in that direction, or will she use this pop capital she's amassed to force through something weirder?
I think "Boom Clap" hints that she might be shedding some of her weird skin, but it's definitely contingent on how her summer goes. I'd love to see her grab a ton of attention and still sample stuff like Gold Panda. My prescription for her would be to collaborate with Nicki Minaj. I think it would give her an even bigger platform and the cache to stay weird.
Devil's advocate question: Why is it important for her to stay weird?
She makes such interesting, intricate pop music. It would be a shame to lose it.
In recent memory, how many artists who start weird and are absorbed into the pop world end up losing that weirdness? It may mean them losing commercial success in the long run, but I feel like that weirdness always wins out.
I can't think of anyone. Gaga certainly got weirder with fashion and personality, but her music is extremely standard issue.
Who was the last genuinely weird huge pop star?
Cyndi Lauper? No.
She's so unusual! Alanis Morissette?
Close. Not sure where Lana Del Rey fits in here, but she is on the level.