I'm About to Crash: a Charli XCX Symposium

Owen Bonk is my friend who is unfortunately in the famous country of Germany, allegedly “studying abroad,” but currently locked in his Wohnheim with COVID-19. However, no coronavirus can stop the power of Charli XCX, whose fifth studio album "Crash" was released this past Friday. In this symposium, Owen and I analyze the sounds, themes and context of Charli’s newest album in the context of her wider work.

PRIA: So, can you tell our readers why do we have international Charli XCX expert, international pop culture expert, and public intellectual Owen on the phone with me?

OWEN: Well, something really important happened about two days ago. And that was the release of Charli XCX’s fifth studio album, "Crash."

PRIA: Do you want to give us a little bit of background on Charli XCX as an artist, a musician and a phenomenon?

OWEN: Sure. She rose to international prominence with the song that she wrote and featured on called “I Love It” — that was her first major hit, with Icona Pop. Then, she released a gothic, 80s-inspired album called “True Romance” and that was her debut — but she didn’t really achieve mainstream success until “Sucker” which is when she had her big singles, “Boom Clap” and “Break the Rules,” and then she sort of took a left turn into the world of art-pop and electro-pop. She’s commonly referred to as the progenitor of the hyperpop genre that we are seeing grow more common through the 2020s.

PRIA: The predecessor to this album was "How I’m Feeling Now," which was... 2019?

OWEN: 2020.

PRIA: Yes, 2020 — but that one — is she even an album?

OWEN: I don’t know how I feel about it.

PRIA: I don’t know how I feel about it. I don’t know how I’m feeling now about "How I’m Feeling Now."

OWEN: Well, what’s funny about it is that it’s actually longer than the current album that she just released, and yet it feels like much less of an album because it’s so DIY.

PRIA: “How I’m Feeling Now” was this very DIY, quarantine, garageband, getting-all-my-girls-together-on-Zoom sort of vibe, while on the other hand when I listened to “Crash” I was like — you know when you watch a movie normal style and then you watch it on Blu-ray? I was like, this is the Blu-ray of music.

OWEN: It feels like it’s in HD, for sure. The thing about it that stuck out most to me on first listen was the vocals, because they’re so pushed to the forefront of each track. On “How I’m Feeling Now” she was kind of hidden behind this cloak of autotune, and now she’s like… a vocal diva.

PRIA: Vocal diva, yeah. I think the big thing for all of Charli’s fans, what we’ve been wondering, is “What is the era that she’s in?”

OWEN: I think some might argue that it’s a bit incoherent, but some might argue that there’s a plan behind it - personally I think everything she’s doing is deliberate, even cussing out her fans on twitter.

PRIA: Did you see the tweet that was the photo of her wearing the shirt that says “They don’t build statues of critics” and then the politics reviewer for the LA Review of Books responded with “this is a photo of a statue of a famous literary critic”? I feel like that epitomizes the cross-section of high culture and pop culture that Charli exists within. Would you say “Crash” is even pop-ier than her early work? Is it a different kind of pop?

OWEN: I think that what she did was that she lassoed all the people who like hyperpop and then with this album she tried to convert them to normal pop.

PRIA: Wow. So in a lot of ways Charli XCX is performing conversion therapy on her fanbase.

OWEN: Yes. You heard it here first folks. But I don’t think “Crash” can exist just as a bid for mainstream success — I don’t think that that’s what she’s doing, and I don’t think that that’s what she’s really interested in. She’s talked a lot about how she feels that when she did achieve mainstream success with “Boom Clap” she felt really lost in it, and she didn’t know what to do with it, so I think that it’s not her ambition — I actually think that “Crash” is more of a homage to underground pop from the 2010s.

PRIA: That’s interesting. I almost feel like, since she’s doing the Janet Jackson thing, she’s doing the 80s thing, she’s doing the 90s thing, I almost feel like because she’s drawing on so many references at once, and then being so over-the-top about them, and pushing the vocals to the forefront - it’s subversive. I don’t know how. Despite being so much more slickly produced and the vocals being so much more conventional than anything she was doing before, it still feels subversive - almost because everything she’s doing has a wink and a nod? She’s trying to push all these tropes she’s embodying to the furthest extreme that she can, to like, become both a pop diva and continue to be this notably avant-garde pop cultural phenomenon.

OWEN: Yeah. I totally agree. I’m thinking particularly about the song “Twice”, which is the last song on the album, it has a lot of elements of very easy listening, chart-toppers - it’s a song for people who love chill music or love chilling out to music. That’s not usually Charli’s niche — she’s more of an “engaging with the listener” type of girl. What’s interesting about this song is that the “wink” here is that she’s talking about mortality. It's a really dark subject matter for a song. When she’s saying “don’t think twice about it” what she’s saying is “don’t think twice about life or you’ll go down the rabbit hole and you’ll just start having all these morbid and terrible thoughts.”

There’s this other thing that I saw on the Pitchfork of this album, which is that “Yuck” sounds like “Kiss Me More” but dark — and I thought that was so true. It’s really latching onto that groovy sound that Doja has really pioneered.

PRIA: We’ve talked a lot about how this album relates sonically to her prior album, but I’m also interested in how this album relates thematically to her prior albums, cause I definitely think that by using the tropes that we’ve come to love and rely on — this very soft, groovy style of pop music — but then making it dark, twisting it, pushing it too far, she’s both a pop artist and a pop musician and an incessant commentary on what it means to be a pop musician. No matter how earnestly she pushes herself or no matter how much she tries to quote-unquote “sell out” she’s always gonna be doing commentary.

OWEN: That’s why she is the total apex of the “Craftsman” archetype rather than being solely an artist — she always has an industry angle on things. I think she said, actually, in interviews that this album contains a lot of themes about how women are treated in the music industry and the ruthlessness of it. I think that’s really funny cause she’s like, making music about how music gets made, it all seems so self-referential.

One thing about Charli that people need to put into context is that she’s always been really good at distilling things. She’s not Taylor Swift for a reason. Taylor is verbose, and stretches things out, but Charli likes to pack them into little metal boxes.

PRIA: What do we think is next for Charli, after this album? What’s next for us is we obviously have to go see her live in every single country and cry our eyes out, but what do you think Miss Girl is going to do next?

OWEN: I think that she has reached the zenith of this pop era. I think she’s gonna go back to experimental stuff next. But maybe it won’t be hyperpop, necessarily… but it will definitely be some sort of pop.

PRIA: Maybe she’ll learn Mongolian throat singing.

OWEN: Yeah. I mean. Honestly what I love about her is that you never know what to expect exactly, and she keeps talking about how boring it would be if she leaned into the hyperpop shtick, which I agree with. I think if she had made another album of “Beep Boop” we would all be like. Oh god.