This essay is running as part of the 2019 Uproxx Music Critics Poll. Explore the results here.
I went to one of Charli XCX’s New York tour stops back in October, about a month after the pop star released her latest album, Charli. It was raining and I arrived about 30 minutes before doors, my short black wig looking more frazzled librarian than Charli XCX. The line wrapped around the block twice. Fabulous young people stood in chunky boots and mesh tops, outfits that looked like they came straight out of Charli’s closet.
I pledged not to move from the spot I secured by the front of the stage, alongside teens discussing homework and young adults screaming about poppers. Everybody, including me, appeared to consider themselves day-one Angels, deserving of a front-row experience. There was an aggressive energy under the enthusiasm, a stiffness among people dancing carefully enough to maintain the square foot of space they claimed. “I’ve been here since 11 a.m.,” a girl screamed into an unmoving mass. “I just had to go to the bathroom!” No response.
When I saw Charli perform in 2018, after she released her excellent mixtape Pop 2, the vibe was notably different. Less territorial. But she didn’t need a line around the block to know she was on the verge of something big. She felt it, her enduring fanbase felt it, and this year, everyone else did too.
As a longtime fan, Charli sounds like the satisfying culmination of her efforts and experimentation. Charli found her sweet spot — in vulnerability, chaos, and collaboration — and surpassed it. For newcomers, it’s a welcome take on pop music, futuristic and fresh. The album is as layered and complicated as the woman behind it and the listeners consuming it. Her singular vision filters through delicate love songs, anxious confessions, and dancefloor freakouts. Glowing synths give way to grinding industrial noise, fizz, and squeaks.
Charli XCX scored her first record contract in 2010, but Charlotte Aitchison has been crafting her pop star persona for over a decade. She started out sharing tracks on MySpace and released her debut album True Romance in 2013. But she owes her earliest taste of mainstream notoriety to her show-stealing features on Icona Pop’s 2012 hit “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” in 2014. Her second album, Sucker, had standout tracks like “Boom Clap,” which made Billboard’s top 10, and “Famous,” but Charli was still finding her voice. At the time, it seemed as if she was trying to meet the mainstream halfway, tempering her style to fit the mid-2010s pop landscape. Her music was catchy and different, but not too different.
In 2015, Charli started working with SOPHIE and PC Music mastermind A. G. Cook, with whom she would spend the next few years preparing her pop takeover and developing her career-defining sound with mixtapes, EPs, and one-off singles. That girly, alien electro-pop invigorated her cult following without breaking through to the mainstream. Still, she refused to conform. She believed in what she was making, the blueprint for the future of pop.
Charli’s ambiguous, shifting position in pop music is a common talking point among critics and the artist herself. “I feel like I am one of the few artists who has a foothold on both mainstream Top 40 world and the more left-of-center underground world… I feel like the reason I’m there is that I can’t decide sometimes,” she told Pitchfork in an interview earlier this year. “Sometimes I don’t understand why I’m not bigger than I am… I feel very comfortable in my section of pop. I’m beginning to feel like the people who know, know. And the people who don’t? They wouldn’t get it anyway.”
Charli’s tweets reflect this hot-and-cold relationship with mainstream affirmation. She often posts in hyperbole, fluctuating between extraordinary confidence (“omg my new music is so good. I can’t even”) and self-doubt (“what’s the point?”). At this year’s Pitchfork Festival, she called herself “one of the top 15 pop stars in the world.” This is the rough median of her self-proclamations, and probably the closest to how she truly feels. But even from the outskirts of the mainstream, her influence carries. There’s a crop of Charli soundalikes rising in the periphery. Charli is an underdog-turned-role model, and she’s only getting started.
Charli establishes Charli as a trusted pop luminary. For the album, she recruited a diverse roster of features from all corners of the genre — big names like Lizzo and rising stars like Yaeji and Clairo, the beloved Haim sisters, dark indie darling Sky Ferreira, and the French synth-pop virtuoso Christine And The Queens, to name a few. Still, the album is unmistakably Charli’s. It’s an XCX world and we’re just living in it. The production credits make room for the artists who’ve helped shape her sound, like Cook and EasyFun, as well as her pop descendents, like Umru and 100 Gecs’ Dylan Brady. Now, Cook is spreading their style through the PC Music and XCX extended family, like the Jack Antonoff of left-of-center pop.
In addition to Charli, Charli helped write one of 2019’s biggest songs, “Señorita’ by Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes. It’s a tame song, but proof of her growing pop presence. The end of the decade seems like the perfect time for her pop reign to begin. Limp, emotionless pop has become the norm, and we’re ready for something new. Something weird. We’re ready to dance and feel again. There’s a reason a minute-and-fifty-three-second song about a horse dominated the charts for 19 weeks this year.
Charli foresees a new era for the pop star and for pop music as a whole. She’s cultivating an authentic community of fans and fellow artists. From the opening track’s heavenly ode to the fast life, through the feature-packed twerk anthem “Shake It” and the lovelorn ballad “White Mercedes,” Charli XCX is making pop music for the people.