Charli XCX has made good on her word. Ever since climbing on top of a mustard-yellow school bus in a 2014 music video and screaming “I just want to break the rules” over a blaze of synths, the Cambridge-born boundary-breaker has done exactly that, remoulding the pop landscape one act of defiance at a time.
Pop stars who flounder on their first album, as Charli did with her critically-applauded but commercially-ignored 2012 debut True Romance, are meant to be dumped on the scrapheap. Female pop stars are expected to be presentable singers and dancers, not auteur-like creative polymaths who exercise control over every part of their output. Musicians who play with grinding synths, digital white noise and pounding rave rhythms borrowed from underground electronic music aren’t meant to be stars at all, according to pop’s unwritten rulebook. Charli has broken all of these unspoken laws of chart music on her rocket-ship ride to pop’s top table, replacing them with what seems to be a single commandment: do whatever the hell you want, just crank the BPM up as you do so, please.
how i’m feeling now is Charli XCX’s sixth album in seven years – an era-defining album that “Crackles, smoulders, and short-circuits [with] desire for human connection,” as the New Yorker magazine put it. It underlines what we already knew about the 27-year-old (real name Charlotte Aitchison): that there might be bigger-selling stars, but there are few as influential or ready to move the needle on how modern pop looks and sounds. Charli has changed how pop feels. Here’s how.
Check out 'A Conversation With Charli XCX' in the player below.
A Conversation with Charli XCX
She brought the underground overground
Before Charli, finding the connecting tissue between pop queen Taylor Swift and fringe experimental duo 100 gecs might have been tricky. Aitchison, though, has increasingly found ways to unite the two worlds. In 2018, she supported Swift on tour, performing tracks littered with contributions from collaborators who are more suited to dingy basement parties in London or New York.
Since 2016’s Vroom Vroom EP, Charli has worked closely with alumni from London’s PC Music collective (namely producer A.G. Cook), pushing her sound into cacophonous territory that glitches and twitches with digital chaos. how i’m feeling now opener Pink Diamond is the perfect, punishing example of this. PC Music’s SOPHIE is now a Grammy-nominated collaborator to Lady Gaga and Madonna, as well as an acclaimed artist in her own right. Caroline Polachek’s Pang – one of 2019’s most celebrated alt-pop albums – was co-produced by another of Charli long-term partners-in-crime, Danny L Harle.
Aitchison’s love for restless, happy hardcore-indebted audio destruction, borrowed from these stars of the musical underground, has rippled through the wider pop world at large, turning daytime radio into a place where avant-garde ideas and aesthetics simmer under the surface of massive pop tunes.
She’s made it easier for young pop artists to experiment
“Charli has been able to bridge the gap between leftfield, avant-garde electronic music and indulgent, satisfying, clean pop, and it’s just the coolest s*** in the world,” says hotly-tipped electro-pop producer/songwriter Izzy Camina – one of countless rising artists benefitting from the way Charli has changed the pop landscape. “Her last few projects have really embodied that spirit of 'f*** it, let’s make cool music, let’s do what we want', and it’s just rebellious.”
Charli’s success, Camina explains, has given industry figures who might previously have baulked at the idea of a lead single full of strange trance keys and dark bass echoes a “north star” – someone to point at as proof that there is a mainstream audience for pop music laced with this experimentalism.
“She’s set a standard that the market will try to monetise elsewhere,” says Camina, who’s found industry figures becoming more open to leftfield sounds in her own music than when she first started out. “It really is insane, the difference. I do think people like Charli are to thank for that.”
She’s shown pop stars can be in total control
Milly Toomey, better known as UK artist GIRLI, has also noticed industry shifts that might be (partly, at least) attributed to Charli. “She was one of the first women in pop who I encountered as a fan who was ripping up the rulebook a little bit. She wasn’t the first woman in pop music to do that, but for me as a 14-year-old, there weren’t many around. Now there are a lot more female artists questioning the norms and pressing buttons,” says the 22-year-old, who has a DIY mentality that she says was influenced by Charli.
how i’m feeling now was written, co-produced and creative-directed by Aitchison, who has near-total control over every element of her work. In an industry in which female pop stars have historically been dismissed as merely 'singers', she makes a point of highlighting on social media how she’s responsible for everything, from writing lyrics to directing music videos and shaping release strategies. And Toomey, who co-produces her own music, creates her own visuals and makes zines that she sells directly to fans on Patreon, strives for a similar level of autonomy.
Artists like Charli are showing that they’re in control and killing it
“I’m proud of my last album, but there are definitely things I look back on like ‘hmm, I wanted that video to be more punk but the label wanted it to be more polished’. The number of times I was coerced into polishing myself up to be this nicer-presenting woman is crazy,” says Toomey.
“A lot of people in the music industry don’t want women to be loud, to be outspoken and to be in control. Artists like Charli are showing that they’re in control and killing it, so younger artists can follow their lead.”
Albums like how i’m feeling now send a message to young artists that it’s possible to have a vision and see it through without compromising, agrees Camina. “Seeing someone like her, someone I look up to, do it all herself, I’ve realised I can do this myself – I don’t need an outside party to do this s***; I should take control of it myself.”
She’s shaken up the way albums can be released
Aitchison has also lifted the lid on a new way of dropping projects . how i’m feeling now is her second album in nine months and she has another two albums planned for release before the end of the year, according to the Guardian newspaper. This current album of hers was conceived and created in the time it's taken for Lady Gaga to schedule and then delay her album Chromatica, exposing the difference between the pop industry’s old model of painstakingly strategised albums drops and a new fluid model suited to prolific artists like Charli.
Charli's albums and projects come thick and fast – influenced, perhaps, by streaming culture, which incentivises frequent releases, and the approach taken by hip-hop artists like Drake. “I feel like artists were always made to feel that you can’t just release music – there has to be a huge amount of strategy and it has to be presented in a certain way and so on,” says Toomey. “But she’s much more like: ‘here we go, boom!’”
She has made pop a more interesting space
Of course, this approach relies on the music being frequently brilliant, not quantity over quality. Charli has had no problem in this department. how i’m feeling now continues her trend for lyrics that balance booze-in-the-jacuzzi-then-onto-the-club hedonism with sweet, raw lines about love and sexuality, laid over beats full of skittering delirium and mad, sugar-pumped K-pop melodies. The variety in her music, bounding between genres, tones and emotions, as well as the success she’s had with this boundary-pushing approach has blazed a trail for others.
Part of this genre-hopping is down to the collaborators she choose to work with. Last year’s Charli album featured 13 guests, spanning from Haim and Christine And The Queens to house music innovator Yaeji. The project before that, 2017’s Pop 2, packed another 13 guest appearances into just 10 tracks. Often these guests, like New Orleans' bounce music hero Big Freedia, are from scenes or communities under represented in mainstream pop.
“She’s using her position as a pop artist responsibly and positively,” says Camina. “Pop is definitely a better and different world because of her.”
Charli’s time in pop has been relatively brief. It’s been just over a decade since the then-unknown songwriter began posting bedroom recordings to social networking site MySpace. But already we’re seeing the Aitchison effect take hold.
New artists inspired by Charli XCX have begun to emerge and build followings of their own – and some of them have been directly mentored by her, too. Last year, Netflix released a series about Nasty Cherry, an alt-pop band signed to Charli’s Vroom Vroom label. And one of 2020’s best, slept-on pop albums to date has come from a member of Charli’s own touring band: Australian artist Banoffee, whose Look At Us Now Dad album won positive reviews for its “melodic bubblegum pop sound with industrial undertones,” as Pitchfork put it.
Where pop will go over the next decade, no one can say – but it seems likely that Charli XCX will have a hand in steering it's direction.