it's a big club and you're in it: the long road to Charli XCX's 'Brat'

it's a big club and you're in it: the long road to Charli XCX's 'Brat'

I try to avoid feeling too parasocial about my pop stars but I have to say it: I'm proud of Charli XCX. She must be feeling incredible right now in the wake of the release of Brat. A spiky Roman phalanx of fans flooding their social media timelines with memes tinted by the album's zesty lime green, Pitchfork Best New Music and a review from Meaghan Garvey that had all the music writers out there remembering what a good music review can look like, even Anthony "The Needledrop" Fantano giving the album a perfect 10, sending paroxyms of shock throughout the judging-music-with-numerical-scores community...

...Charlotte Emma Aitchison appears to finally be reaping the rewards of her decade-plus-long grind, a quixotic stab at an almost impossible task in pop: creating an "underground" sound that everyone, even the dweebs, will love.

We try our best to wield our own forces against the world, but more often than not, that pesky world wields its forces right back on us. Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug, and sometimes you're both, looking super cute and freaky in a bikini atop a busted car on the cover of your 2022 album, an album that you could not decide whether or not to deliver with your whole chest. Beep beep!

The stakes feel high with Brat because the last album cycle was a bit of a bummer. You could see it in Charli's eyes when the Zane Lowes of the world asked her about Crash and she tried to shore up some semi-ironic excitement for doing interpolations, doing choreography, working with hit factory songwriters—mustering enthusiasm for Playing The Game is all well and good until you find yourself at the lowly pickleball court instead of the sexy tennis stadium. (Can we all agree that the Challengers soundtrack got us all hot to go for Brat? Or just moi?)

Experiencing positive audience feedback at the transition of one of the most fruitful moments in pop music history to one of the most dismal moments might have warped Charli a little bit. That's my take on it, anyway—how do you write "I Love It," the 2012 pure pop smash that starts mosh pits at expensive weddings to this day, and then "Fancy," a duet with a white Australian lady rapping in the blaccent that launched a thousand thinkpieces, and then "Boom Clap," a synth pop power ballad that can't help but evoke the filmic image of two cancer-stricken teenagers, and have any reasonable perspective on how your career is supposed to go from there? Three top ten hits as the pure pop boom (clap) went bust—Charli was like a pop star Charon, ferrying our souls to an underworld that had only Marshmello and Shawn Mendes and songs written about the National Suicide Prevention Hotline to offer.

Her post-2014 career is a bit of a wayward wander, a volley between the grimy club kid vibe that clearly animates her, and the shiny promise of another Big Fucking Hit. For every edgy, deliciously deconstructed "Vroom Vroom," there was a pandering moonshot like "1999"—my least favorite Charli tune!! I cannot stand its hey-you-guys-like-THIS-shit-riiiight? nostalgia, and it of course violates one of my strongest artistic beliefs, which is that you probably should avoid referencing someone else's song (in this case, Britney Spears' "...Baby One More Time") if it's just going to make me wish I were listening to that instead of whatever you're doing. And you could look at the lengthy list of features on 2019's Charli—Haim, Lizzo, Big Freedia, Clairo, Kim Petras, etc.—and wonder if that extremely collaborative approach was an all-hands-on-deck attempt to recreate the old chartbusting Iggy Azalea magic. As that Louboutin-wearing Aussie said herself, I'm not hating...I'm just telling you.

Charli's sauce returned, funnily enough, when no one was allowed to go to the club. how i'm feeling now managed to be the perfect soundtrack to getting fucked up on Zoom and fantasizing about all the trouble we'd get into once we could touch each other's body parts again. The release felt charmingly lo-fi /DIY—she solicited songwriting input on social media, collected clips from fans for a homespun music video, and of course posed for her cover art holding that glowing beacon of self-taught content creation, the almighty digital camcorder.

She seemed to thrive outside of the major label music promo industrial complex, too, which is why it was such a shame that Crash, her apparent major label finale (she ended up re-signing with Atlantic after fulfilling her initial contract), dutifully locked her right back into the usual indignities of the grind. Playing on the Coachella broad daylight. Performing her song "Good Ones" a "Live From The Upside Down" 1980s-themed virtual concert, a partnership between Netflix's Stranger Things and Doritos, the latter taking the opportunity to release a new flavor of chip for the occasion: Doritos 3D Crunch Three Cheese (it "[brought] together cheddar, Monterey Jack and parmesan cheese with a three-dimensional crunch that's bursting with flavor.") Take me to the Boiler Room, and step on it.

We try our best to wield our own forces against the world, and the world wields right back, but sometimes the stars align and effort matches energy. That's been the Brat rollout—Charli understood that, at least for some people, the feral post-vax nightlife energy hadn't died, and people were still keen to work themselves into a lather at a slippery-walled warehouse (or failing that, their local bisexual watering hole). No more retreads of "Show Me Love" by Robin S., no more dance routines, just a wee bit of cocaine and a healthy turn on the dance floor and maybe a mind-clearing drive to the airport.

And what a wonderful tactic to couch this hedonism within anxiety about all the shit that hits the fan when you turn 30. In 2024, even the 16-year-olds are worrying about turning 30, which is why they're all dousing their faces in chemical exfoliants. We're all in this together, and boy does our skin burn.

There are parts of the new album where you can really hear the past 10+ years of relentless music industry beatdown in the music. Sometimes it's literal, like when Charli wonders " 'bout whether I think I deserve commercial success" on "Rewind," and sometimes it's more like an essence, the warbling whimper of an Auto-Tuned vocal petering out into nothing.

And of course the various embarrassments of the commercial game turn up on this album cycle, like the hefty amount of time a Google Pixel phone and its salient features received in Charli's clout bomb of a video for "360." And of course there are the relevant concerns about chart performance, and about ticket sales at those cavernous arenas, and all the other flotsam and jetsam of being a pop star on the edge of a glory she's already possessed a few times. They don't build statues of critics, and you can't pay your bills with press. But then the bass turns up and frays like a fried audio cable, and the techno really starts techno-ing, and does it really matter how hard a pop star has to visibly strive to get what she wants? Aren't we all doing the same thing, on various scales? Close your eyes, put your hands in the air, and keep bumpin' that.

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