Charli XCX

Charli XCX Is the Year’s Best Girl-Gang Leader on ‘Sucker’

Charles Aaron

By Charles Aaron

on 12.16.14 in Features

No disrespect to quippy teens or cancer movies — both of which terrify me equally — but y’all can’t have Charli XCX‘s “Boom Clap.” Well, at least The Fault in Our Stars, this year’s weepy cancer movie about quippy teens, which prominently featured “Boom Clap” in a Eurotrip profession-of-love montage, can’t. Why? Because we, and by “we” I mean “I,” plus any other pop wastrel trapped in a constant sadscape of unrequited narcissism, desperately need it. Those of us who can’t love ourselves or anybody else without feeling phony or lost. Those of us who believe the following is the truest romantic statement ever: “The heart wants what the heart is stupid.” After wiping away our ugly-mug tears every daybreak and aiming our fists like antennae at the heavens every night, we ache for a song that gets us.

With its deep-tissue ooh and heart-flutter ahh, “Boom Clap” gets us. The first solo hit for 22-year-old London suburbanite Charli, and the first single from her second solo album Sucker, it was conceived with longtime Swedish writing partner Patrik Berger (co-writer of Robyn’s ecstatically lonesome “Dancing on My Own”), and was rejected by Hillary Freaking Duff back in 2012 after it didn’t make it onto Charli’s first album True Romance. It’s difficult to imagine Duff slinking through the song’s unforced undertow and then busting into its post-dubstep bubbleyum sway. But Charli’s wound-tight, fidgety-kid energy is all over it, capturing not just the rush and push of a first kiss but the full-on crush, the weight that anchors you while you swoon and grasp, tethered by the fear that YOU CAN’T REALLY DO THIS. There’s more open space in “Boom Clap” than most 2014 hits, sonically and otherwise; and when Charli sings, “The beat goes on and on and on and on and on and” it’s a perfectly placed pop ellipsis. There’s always glitter in the darkness, whenever you’re ready to look for it.

Though “Boom Clap” is the album’s standout, it’s also an outlier, one of the few times on Sucker where Charli asks a lover (or anyone else) to “tell me what to do.” What’s remarkable about the album is how it deploys “Boom Clap” to draw you in and then boldly unleashes its real statement — a we-got-the-beat feminist party-plan with a conspiratorial wink and no-jerks-allowed hauteur. The boingy bumrush title track sardonically deads any misconceptions: “You said you wanna bang/ Well, fuck you, sucker.” Then dispenses with a certain ubiquitous hitmaker: “‘Luke loves your stuff’/ Oh, dear God, do you get me now?/ Do you get me now?/ Oh, you do?/ Wow, you’re awesome.” The Luke in question is pop arbiter Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottswald, whose productions have helped launch the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus and Ke$ha (who is currently suing Luke over allegations of sexual, physical and emotional abuse).

Sucker deploys “Boom Clap” to draw you in and then boldly unleashes its real statement — a we-got-the-beat feminist party-plan with a conspiratorial wink and no-jerks-allowed hauteur.’

With Charli’s brash punk-rave individualism and gift for hooky chants, the album practically celebrates the absence of a 5-o’clock-shadowy “Dr.” behind the scenes. “London Queen” (written with Sky Ferreira collaborator Justin Raisen), wiggles its nose like Josie and the Pussycats clowning the Sex Pistols in a Topshop dressing room; Charli tells her mum she won’t be back until she “can fill this shack up with all gold plaques” and then poses “like JFK, ya know,” living the American dream, hooting “oi oi oi” (more handclaps). “Gold Coins” is an even kookier victory lap, as she struts and luxuriates over a processed funk thud, loose garage-rock riff, giddy synths and more handclaps, conspicuously consuming the spoils of success with no regrets, building “a pretty green castle” where she smokes in bed, drowning her “platinum troubles” in pink champagne.

Having tilted at pop stardom since age 14 — when her dad paid for the then-Charlotte Aitchison’s first studio time — Charli has certainly seen her fair share of suckers, both men and women. Her 2012 debut album was a wonderful ’80s-’90s mash-up of goth, alt-rock and synth-pop, but it made little noise. And her first two chart hits — Icona Pop‘s “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” featuring indelible choruses which she wrote and sang — succeeded against great odds: 1) Nobody knew or cared who Icona Pop was before, during or after “I Love It”; and 2) Iggy Azalea. But Charli emerged with her pop credentials verified and reputation relatively unscathed; now she’s dreaming and devising her own identity.

At Sucker‘s best, Charli plays a girl-gang leader who seems to have just wandered out of the crowd — and happens to be inspired by Bow Wow Wow’s teen-demon Annabella Lwin, the Waitresses’ gum-poppin’ raconteur Patty Donahue and Diane Lane’s brooding Corinne Burns from Ladies Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. Instead of a superstar-in-waiting, she’s a scrapper, like the shortstop-captain of a pop A League of Their Own, barking encouragement to her squad and taunting the opposition. On “Break the Rules,” with its growling alt-guitar and pop-punk pep-rally surge, you can imagine Charli and Lorde bounding through the streets and dropping Diplo dickpic gibes: “Nah nah na nah nah nah…” Then hopping on a banquette at the club to bliss out on the Madonna-esque disco-pop of “Doing It”: “Friends like a team in a circle,” pledges Capt. Charli. “We’re together, we’re so alive/ Yeah, together, we’re so alive/ Joy like a jewel, let it sparkle/ Know that I’ve got your back for life/ Yeah, I got your back for life.”

Back in 2012, the magazine I worked for did one of those “36 Hours With” features on 19-year-old “goth-pop hurricane” Charli XCX, who was playing her first New York show after finishing a European tour opening for Sleigh Bells. It was the type of story where you get a few hours over a couple of days and then futz with the photos to make it look like you were constantly posted up in the artist’s hip-pocket from dinner to dressing room to the after-party and the hotel lobby, etc. Except with Ms. Aitchison, the charade was sorta real. Kicking around in scuffed combat boots, carrying a heart-shaped black-leather purse, she ended up crashing on our photo editor’s couch, hanging out when she didn’t have to, wanting to know what was going on in other people’s lives and just seeming genuinely geeked.

Her show, at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory, left us all hoping Charli would become a star — but nobody was totally convinced. Her songs were more brilliant sketches than fully formed ideas. Would she remain a cool cult flash or get carried away and packaged into something she wasn’t or didn’t want to be? Or could she evolve and transcend all the nonsense? At that point, the music business was already in total freefall, but goddamn, it seemed like she could be anything she wanted.

‘Instead of a superstar-in-waiting, she’s a scrapper, like the shortstop-captain of a pop A League of Their Own, barking encouragement to her squad and taunting the opposition.’

In retrospect, Charli was like a young, still-forming version of what Wayne Koestenbaum described in his legendary essay, “Debbie Harry at the Supermarket”: “By singing the words ‘I’m not the kind of girl,’ Harry — or her persona — admits that there exist many varieties of girl, as many as there are shades of lipstick, or verses in the Bible, or varieties of rock on the path to Lourdes. There are many kinds of girl, and Debbie has the right to pick exactly which kind she is. But she is also fated to be a specific kind — and maybe this kind of girl falls prey to dejection and wants a listener’s sympathy.” At this point, Charli’s still sampling lipstick shades and gathering a girl-gang around her to stave off the dejection.

But who wouldn’t want to join her, considering she might be the best writer of wave-your-hands-in-the-air choruses on the planet? And she keeps ‘em coming — the let’s-steal-your-boyfriend’s-car party-crash sashay of “Famous”; the breakneck synth-pop kiss-off of “Body of My Own” (which cheekily tweaks self-destructive rock ‘n’ roll clichés) or the anthemic oh-whoa stomp and whoosh of “Die Tonight,” which builds to a swelling cathedral of BFF testifying: “Oh, I could die tonight/ ‘Cause I got the magic in my veins/ And I’m going hard with all my friends.”

Damn the suckers, kids, full speed ahead.