In addition to being one of today’s most exciting and deeply weird pop stars, Charli XCX is the songwriter behind two of the biggest international hit songs of the past decade: Iggy Azaela’s Fancy, and Icona Pop’s I Don’t Care. She appears on both songs, which had sold a combined nine million copies by 2015, the same year Charli turned 23. In I Don’t Care, she shouts the chorus: “I don’t care! I love it!” This song was Charli’s first huge international hit, and it’s also her mission statement. Truly, she does not care, and, I can’t stress this enough, she loves it.
Just this summer, for instance, a freak storm prevented her from landing in Chicago for a scheduled performance at Pitchfork Festival. Her plane was diverted to St. Louis, Missouri, almost 300 miles and a five-hour drive away. Surely, a less committed artist would have just cancelled. Not Charli.
“We had to wake up really early,” the self-described workaholic told BBC Music. “We had to rent a car and drive to Chicago, and we were driving through a storm the entire time. Then we stopped at KFC and we got a load of chicken buckets, and then we just felt so disgusting and shameful … it was a wild ride.” That ride culminated in a fantastic, frenetic performance that made it impossible to know that she’d spent most of her waking hours crammed in a car and eating fast food.
Now comes her first full album for five years, Charli. Its songs – which include guest spots from Lizzo, Christine and the Queens, Troye Sivan, Sky Ferreira, and her longtime producer, the underground London beatmaker AG Cook – have already racked up more than 150 million listens on Spotify.
In her music videos, in her lyrics, in her choice of collaborators, and especially on social media, Charli has a frantic energy and a deep reverence for having as much fun as possible as a pop star. One moment, she’s wearing a skin-tight catsuit in the music video for Boom Clap, and the next she’s dressed up like Steve Jobs in a black turtleneck and an incredible wig, one of her major looks in the video for 1999. In that video, she also recreates old commercials for Sunny Delight and Sketchers, and dresses up like all five Spice Girls from the Say You’ll Be There video.
“I care about pop music so much and the idea of being a pop star is really fun, but I also like to think it’s funny,” she says. “I think it’s so stupid and funny and I like subverting that. Like, I don’t care, I don’t care.”
Clearly, Charli does cares a huge amount. She seems to basically be having an out-of-body experience every day, completely in disbelief that she isn’t just a fan of pop songs and pop culture, but someone actually making pop songs and pop culture. You can see her enjoying the frivolous gravity of this in every choice she makes.
Charli credits her special connection with Cook, the album’s producer and her former personal Creative Director, as encouraging this side of her. Cook wasn’t necessarily an obvious choice of producer for an internationally-minded burgeoning commercial superstar. He exploded from nowhere in 2015 with the semi-fake pop collective PC Music, whose songs were credited to artists of varying degrees of reality (Hannah Diamond is basically real, QT is basically not) but which were in reality written and produced by Cook. They all showed a kind of core-level understanding of the then mostly ignored circa-2000s nostalgia that’s since become the base of a huge section of pop culture. His music and visual aesthetic – PS1, Britney Spears, S Club 7, and the Backstreet Boys thrown into a blender – are on full display in the 1999 video, a song he produced. In addition to Charli, Cook now regularly collaborates with artists including Carly Rae Jepsen and David Guetta.
I care about pop music so much and the idea of being a pop star is really fun, but I also like to think it’s funny. I think it’s so stupid and funny and I like subverting that.
“We understand when we love something, like genuinely, truthfully, love it, think it’s amazing,” says Charli, punching each word to make them sound much more meaningful than they look written down. “And then we also are both really troll-y people too… I don’t think we really care about what people expect from us, or what is the right thing to do versus the wrong thing. The wrong pop thing, it doesn’t matter. We just make what we feel, you know?”
You can see this on the album, an ‘80s and ‘90s world of mildly mournful and suspicious dance pop over 15 tracks. The first track, Next Level Charli, with its echo-y 8-bit synths and creative, deconstructive use of a vocoder make relatively silly lyrics like “boom boom, in the rave go forever and ever” sound like wistful things Charli is muttering from the back of a video game motorcycle. Highlights include Blame it On Your Love, with a guest verse from Lizzo, 1999, and Gone, another entry in Charli’s series of compellingly angular pansexual love songs, featuring genderqueer French artist Chris of Christine and the Queens. Charli particularly enjoyed their collaboration.
“It’s funny, I think that Chris said, I like Charli XCX’s music because she makes sober sex pop”, Charli says, laughing. “And I was like, oh my god, cool … I feel like I’ll work with Chris for a long time. I mean I joked, I was like, we should do a double album. I don’t know. Like a full collaborative album. I don’t know if we’ll ever get there, but I’ve definitely … it’s in writing somewhere”.
Charli is hoping this is the record that solidifies her reputation not just as a hitmaker, but an artist. Then again, maybe people will hate it. She’s not exactly losing sleep over it.
“The people who want to take it seriously and get annoyed by it. The people who are kinda on my wavelength, who are jumping on board the ride – that’s really fun.”
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