Although she’d never describe herself this way, one thing about Charli XCX is undeniable: she’s a revhead. The British-born pop star loves writing songs about whips both glamorous and pedestrian – Porsches and Priuses, yellow taxis and white Mercs, lavender Lamborghinis and dreamer Beamers. She is Ben Quilty in a white bikini, painting automobiles as objects of desire and catastrophic violence. Across seven spectacular and often fringe-leaning pop albums she can be found fantasising about cars, speeding through tears, crying in the back seat and driving them off the road.
It’s a lyrical motif that’s lasted longer in her music than any style or sound or collaborator. So, it made sense to foreground the theme when she named her latest record – the final album due under a major-label contract she signed at age 16 – while acknowledging that this was the moment, the grand finale in a chapter of her life filled with graceful swerves and white-knuckled hairpin turns. It’s an album about what happens after spending a decade in the fast lane. Released last month, its cover features a photo of Charli on a car’s bonnet, hands pressed on the cracked windshield, blood dripping from her head. It’s called CRASH.
In its bracing title, bloodied cover and exhilarating musicianship, CRASH is Charli to a tee: kinda violent and kinda sexy, alluring and alienating, brazen and darkly witty. “I feel like [the title] CRASH can be deemed in either like a negative or kind of a positive way – positive being that it’s explosive and wild and exciting, negative being that it’s, like, volatile, dangerous, scary, bloody,” Charli tells me, calling from her home in Los Angeles a week before the album’s release. On the album opener and title track, she makes a deathly collision sound like the greatest party on earth: “I’m high-voltage, self-destructive, end it all, so legendary.”
“Lyrically, I think [“CRASH”] really sets up the story of the album – this idea of me being at my most volatile, at my most poignant point in my career, where I’m coming to the end of a deal that I’ve been in since I was 16,” she explains in her arch, instantly recognisable received pronunciation. “At the same time, I’m coming to the end of the relationship that I’ve been in [for] seven years. There’s a lot of vulnerability and volatility that’s happening for me in my actual life right now.”
Charli was born Charlotte Aitchison in 1992, to a Scottish father and an Indian mother. Growing up in Essex in the ’90s, she gravitated to high-gloss pop music, falling in love with bratty, wildly catchy hits by megastars such as the Spice Girls and Britney Spears as well as era-specific relics such as Whigfield. She loved the morning rides to school where she was allowed to choose what played in the car. “I always remember feeling so good in that moment, and free, and wanting the music up really loud,” she recalls. “Whenever my mum would want to talk in the car, I’d be, like, ‘No, no, no, like, we can’t talk, this is the time where we listen to music loud, like, this is what this is for.’ ”
At 14, Charli recorded her first album – a ridiculous, electroclash-y set influenced by Kate Nash and Crystal Castles – and two years later began posting its songs on Myspace. She quickly caught the attention of rave promoters in London and, chaperoned by her parents, began to play dingy illegal club nights and warehouse parties as Charli XCX, her MSN Messenger name.
By 16 she was signed to Atlantic Records, a subsidiary of Warner, and was flying to Los Angeles to meet with producers, writers and label reps. Charli quickly took to pop songwriting. Before she had even released her debut album, 2013’s True Romance, she had written an international hit: “I Love It”, a maximalist 2012 smash recorded by the duo Icona Pop that reached the top 10 in the United States, Britain and Australia.
Thriving as a songwriter – she also wrote and sang the hook of Iggy Azalea’s chart-topping “Fancy”, and recently co-wrote Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s smash “Señorita” – she was able to take her solo career in increasingly avant-garde directions, first in the form of 2014’s industry-dissing, new wave-y Sucker, and then with Vroom Vroom, a 2016 EP produced by the late Scottish electronic visionary SOPHIE. This was Charli’s first collaboration with the then-controversial avant-garde pop troupe PC Music – standing for Personal Computer Music, led by the producer A. G. Cook – and it was a change of pace that polarised critics, alienated fans and profoundly altered the course of Charli’s career: a record of harsh electronics and rubbery, inhuman textures that was completely at odds with the decidedly conventional music she had previously made.
Vroom Vroom turned Charli into an underground star, and she followed the EP with two equally outré mixtapes, 2017’s Number 1 Angel and Pop 2. The latter was a critical breakthrough, hailed as a perfect encapsulation of both Charli and PC Music’s goal to imbue pop music with avant-garde ideas and vice versa. By the release of 2019’s Charli, Charli was becoming known as a doyenne of the emergent hyperpop scene – a term used to describe the kind of abrasive, internet-influenced music she, SOPHIE and PC Music helped popularise – a characterisation that grew with the release of 2020’s How I’m Feeling Now, a romantic, introspective and similarly sharp-edged album made and released over the course of five weeks in the early stages of the pandemic.
For CRASH, Charli needed to reset. She took cues from ’80s icons such as New Order, Eurythmics and Vanity 6. She still works closely with Cook, producer of her past three records, but on CRASH their sound is decidedly more traditionalist.
Janet Jackson was a key inspiration, sometimes sonically – “Crash” features a hyperpopified new jack swing beat inspired by Jackson’s groundbreaking work with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis – but mostly spiritually. While making the record, Charli became obsessed with the story around Control: how Jackson overhauled her team and sound, cutting ties with anyone who didn’t fit into her vision.
One story of Control’s genesis particularly inspired Charli: “When the album was done and it was time for her to play it to the label, she decided to play it to her A&R while she was driving around in a red convertible,” Charli says. “That really spoke to me, with my obsession with vehicles and this, like, fast life, speed-in-control thing. I feel like she holds so much power on that album.”
Taking her cues from Jackson, Charli decided to use CRASH as an expression of her agency within a sometimes dehumanising ecosystem. Frequently dogged by the perception that she’s been cowed by the whims of a conservative major label, Charli decided to build this record’s visuals around the idea that she had finally sold her soul to be a committed player in the pop machine. “I had this jumper that said ‘Sell Your Soul’ written on it, and then it had like a dotted line, and it said ‘Sign here’, and I’d wear it all the time. And I just really felt that there was, like, a concept in there, or, like, something that I could really relate to,” she says.
CRASH has Charli working in a bigger-budget pop realm for the first time in her career, performing on Saturday Night Live, shooting elaborate music videos, taking songs pitched by other writers. “I had always known I wanted to do this really poptastic popstar campaign, and I felt that I hadn’t done it because I’ve been so in my own bubble, not really utilising the positive sides of what a major label can offer.”
Throughout the release of CRASH, much of Charli’s fanbase has been vocal about their belief that pure pop songs such as “Baby” and the Rina Sawayama collaboration “Beg for You” are lowbrow, conspiratorially suggesting that Charli is being pushed into more mainstream territory. From Charli’s side, though, CRASH has largely been smooth sailing.
“[Major labels] are [stifling] if you’re trying to do something that they don’t understand, but they’re not if you’re trying to do what they are literally made for,” she explains. “With this album, this is a major label record in that they understand how to market songs that sound like ‘Beg for You’, they understand how to feel when they watch a video directed by Hannah Lux Davis, they understand a mix by Serban [Ghenea] or a production by someone from Max Martin’s camp. Those names and that world is something that they can feed into.”
Charli says she still struggles with whether she should be striving for commercial success. But she has no qualms about making more accessible music than Vroom Vroom or Pop 2. “I love my fanbase – don’t get me wrong, they’re the fucking best. But do I want more fans? Always! Every artist wants their music to reach more people,” she says. “And, like, putting out a song like ‘Beg for You’ allows me to introduce a palatable sound that I do to people who are less familiar with, like, ‘Click’, or fucking ‘Track 10’, or ‘Vroom Vroom’, or whatever. But once they, like, begin to understand the world and reference points, maybe they will be able to eventually digest that kind of stuff.
“Sometimes I’m, like, ‘Fuck it.’ But you know, I always think about Lady Gaga, when she came out with ‘Just Dance’ – which, by the way, I love that song, and I really love that video – but, like, I feel like she took steps to get to ‘Bad Romance’. But you know that that’s always been in her, that’s always been, like, her fucking soul. She’s always been Mother Monster, or whatever, you know?”
A mere decade into her career, Charli seems more at peace with her major label than ever before. She’s rarely one to mince words about her relationship with Atlantic – her song “Gone” once included the lyric “I feel so unstable / Fucking hate my label” – but stresses that, this time around, she has “no bad things to say”. “Working with Atlantic on this record has actually been really, really special,” she says. “And we’ve really bonded for ... I’m not going to say the first time ever, but it feels like they actually are beginning to get me, which is interesting to say when I’ve been signed to them since I was 16.”
More vexing to Charli than her major label contract is the idea that she is a “hyperpop artist” – a tag she never ascribed to herself and which she finds creatively constricting. “I feel like experimental and pop – pop, classic pop – have all kind of like… It’s all the same. It’s caught up with each other. And so, for me, I need to just take a step back and understand what I want to do next that’s, like, completely dictated by my own instinct and not by trend,” she says. “I think I feel boxed in by the kind of ‘genrefication’ of hyperpop, I feel boxed in by the fact that people can summarise my catalogue using a three-syllable word, whereas before, it was so much harder to do that.
“I just think it’s a really interesting time in music where the underground is so interlinked with what is commercially successful, that’s kind of interesting. I suppose in a way, it’s, like, what people like SOPHIE and myself and A. G. kind of set out to do, in that we were never trying to alienate people with the music that we made,” she says. “We were actually just trying to showcase what could be, what the possibilities of pop music could be and how much the boundaries could be pushed, while still creating pop music that the entire universe could enjoy.
“It’s interesting now that we’re kind of at that point, because I kind of want to just go back to the drawing board and see what truly inspires me.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 9, 2022 as "Crash test".
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