If the coming vibe shift brings us into a period where indie sleaze rules supreme, Charli XCX stands to take the throne at the top of the pops, finally. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect from someone who cites their formative influences as Britney Spears and the Ed Banger Records, with a special nod to French singer/rapper/D.J. Uffie. Her penchant for classic ’00s pop star costumes and living life in the club was never the aesthetic with which Millennials, with their sober curious lives and plant parent memes, could get down. It seems like she was made for the days when bands’ fans discovered their new favorite artist on Makeoutclub, and parties only got started at 2 a.m.
Charli has long invited people into her world when they click, choosing left-of-center personalities and women the pop industrial complex doesn’t seem to know what to do with. There’s one constant in Charli’s career, however: collaborations. Specifically with women, many of whom could be classified as difficult, unlikable, or simply subversive of the male gaze.
Those collaborations started from a place of “girl power” inspired feminism. Her first major hit came courtesy of a feature on Icona Pop’s 2012 interpretation of her song, “I Love It.” It was a hit on the internet, which meant something totally different then, that got a lift in 2013 when Girls featured the song in a debaucherous club scene. Charli would later say she didn’t even know what she meant by the lyrics to the song, which, everyone knows, is the hallmark of a great Euro-pop dance hit. And that she didn’t feel as if it were hers because she was excluded from the promotion and touring around the single when it took off.
Her profile only grew when “Fancy,” a co-write in which she wrote and sang the hook alongside Iggy Azalea, became 2014’s song of the summer. The track was criticized as another feminist anthem and a homage to materialism and white women’s bougieness. This doubleheader set her up to reach pop stardom, but she opted to venture down a path of subversiveness that kept her authentically grounded in producing the kind of music she wanted to make. Now, on the precipice of releasing her final album with Atlantic Records, Charli faces criticism for singles that her fans deem too mainstream. One of which, “Beg for You,” is a collaboration with Rina Sawayma. Charli told EW the song is an “interpolation” of the kind of song a pop star would make with a major label — specifically a song recorded by Swedish pop singer September (whose real name is Petra Maryland) from 2007. Besides being a fascinating piece of Swedish pop production from a bygone pop era, the song was a meme on Twitter in 2018 — bringing it back into the internet and perhaps to Charli’s attention.
But circa 2014, Charli was going through something of an identity crisis. Her 2013 album, True Romance, was critically lauded but commercially under-performed. On 2014’s Sucker, Charli seemed to reach for mainstream pop stardom, landing only one charting song: the sappy but enjoyable “Boom Clap.” “The music I’ve been writing recently, it’s definitely some of the most pop stuff I’ve ever written,” Charli told the LA Times in a 2014 interview. “But it’s not coming from a totally innocent, naive mind. It’s coming from someone who’s very aware.” The awareness she references is to her place in the music industry.
From the 2016 Vroom Vroom EP on, Charli began associating with producers from the PC Music Collective and building up a stable of women she collaborated with. There is a clear trend among the singers: pop’s eccentrics, many of whom also eschewed making obvious hits to explore their creative paths. 2017’s Pop 2 opens with a track featuring Carly Rae Jepsen, whose 2012 phenomenon “Call Me Maybe” and pivot away from pop princess stardom echoes Charli’s search for musical authenticity. There are songs with Caroline Polachek, the former Chairlift singer who shed her indie-pop roots to explore a PC Music pop-art path of her own. Sky Ferreira, another artist who was pushed towards a traditional approach and opted to make her own kind of music, shows up. Charli’s admiration for all things Scandinavian comes through in collaborations with Tove Lo, ALMA, and MØ. Christine And The Queens (aka Héloïse Adélaïde Letissier) appears more than a few times; an artist who has a huge European audience but is too complicated for the top of the pops. Rita Ora, Brooke Candy, Kim Petras, and CupcakKe are also repeat collaborators and artists classified as difficult women; they’re frequently the targets of internet hate, misconceptions, and all the insults usually hurled at ambitious women. And that’s only to name a few.
Under the auspices of her label, Vroom Vroom Records, the first artist Charli signed was CuckooLander, the project of her touring bassist. In 2019, she signed Nasty Cherry, an all-girl band she put together and created a Netflix series around. “My vision is that they become the biggest band in the world, a band I would have wanted to listen to and have been inspired by when I was 15,” Charli told Rolling Stone.
That’s not even to mention two of Charli’s most prolific partnerships. One was with SOPHIE, the PC Music producer whose influence loomed large on Charli’s work until she died in 2021. “There are very few artists who make me feel something up my core and make me wanna cry,” Charli told Vogue in 2019. “Justice and Uffie made me feel something when I was 14, and I didn’t really have that feeling again until I met SOPHIE. I felt this rush of: F*ck, this is the coolest sh*t I have ever heard.” The other is with Noonie Boo, a Swedish songwriter and producer who has co-written numerous songs with Charli, among multiple other left-of-center (and a few front and center) pop acts. “There are a lot of songwriters out there who, even though they’re extremely talented, they are sometimes very keen on pushing their own agenda,” Charli said in a 2020 interview with Red Bull. “[…] I’ve definitely been in rooms where I experimented with new songwriters, and I can’t get a word in edgewise. You know how much I talk, and that’s really hard for me […] Noonie is somebody who is so supportive of the artist’s vision.”
Their collaboration brings us to the Crash era, Charli’s latest — Boa co-wrote the single “New Shapes,” which features Christine And The Queens and Caroline Polachek. Like many songs Charli has teased from the album, it is about sex — inspired by her long-term relationship — and steps away from the futuristic, challenging pop of her past in favor of embracing something more easily digestible.
Charli’s ultimate pop era seems to maximize everything: her exploration of art, her profile, and the profiles of the women around her, which was probably her endgame all along.
Crash is out 3/18 via Atlantic. Pre-order it here.
Charli XCX is a Warner Music artist. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.