Charli XCX Reinvents Her Pop With A Whole New Set At SXSW

The last time I saw Charli XCX was in October 2014 in New York. Sucker had recently been delayed from that month to December of the same year, and what may have originally been something of an album release party instead served as a preview of what was to come, and an introduction to the new Charli XCX. She performed in a black-and-white cheerleader outfit with “Sucker” written across the chest, in front of a live band — three women on bass, guitar, and drums, also wearing cheerleader outfits. They turned everything into fiery punk-pop, replacing the True Romance material’s new wave sheen with the harder aesthetic of Sucker. They even made “Fancy” make sense in that context, with Charli rapping Iggy Azalea’s parts, taking the song entirely as her own. At the time, this scanned as Charli burning down her old self. This was forced and radical metamorphosis in the wake of a few years of everything seeming like Charli should have already become a major pop star, and it never quite happening. And as she had taken this left-turn into the grit-glam swagger of Sucker, she actually had finally achieved significant pop clout, on the power of “Boom Clap” and her role in “Fancy.” At the time, I wrote that the show made it feel as if the coronation was finally on its way.

Last night, I saw Charli XCX again. She headlined a SXSW showcase at Hype Hotel with PC Music associate SOPHIE. This time, I’m not sure what I saw. I’m not sure where Charli XCX is going, or what sort of legible pop star narrative you can even attempt to apply to her anymore. This year at SXSW has felt half-dead — still frenetic, but without the sort of fervor and buzz rippling around, making you think you just have to be at this or that showcase. Charli’s set was the first thing that felt like a Moment where it was worth being here, in this room, to catch this one specific experience. Because last night, I watched upheaval in motion.

CREDIT: Jesse DeFlorio/Hype Machine's Hype Hotel

Here’s the thing: since Sucker and having her own pop hit with “Boom Clap” (vs. guest and co-writing credits on “Fancy” and “I Love It”), Charli XCX is still not the major pop star she seemed destined to become. She’s a big name, for sure, and someone we’re all paying attention to, because she does seem like she could be a visionary. But she’s still getting those afternoon festival sets when it at least appeared that she’d soon be the main headliner playing to a field of tens of thousands of people. In the wake of Sucker, she cancelled a tour to work on new music. And so far, that’s marked another left turn. She announced her new “experimental pop” label, Vroom Vroom Recordings, and debuted new material that drew heavily on (and featured) PC Music figures/associates like Hannah Diamond and the aforementioned SOPHIE, culminating in her new Vroom Vroom EP. Last month, she announced she was finishing her new album, too, saying that it “could change the sound of pop music. It’s the album I’ve been trying to make forever. And now I’ve done it.” The Sucker era at one point felt as if it would be the long-awaited triumph for Charli. But clearly she is just as restless and searching as she’s ever been.

That makes for a uniquely dynamic presence in the pop landscape. It also makes for bizarre experiences like the show with SOPHIE last night. Perhaps naively, I’d looked at that billing and figured, well, yeah, they’ll play all the stuff off Vroom Vroom, but it’s still a Charli XCX set. There would still be all the songs we already know and love. Well: over the course of the fifty minute set, Charli played two old songs, a severely rearranged “Doing It,” and “Boom Clap.” The set did have all four tracks from Vroom Vroom, a handful of SOPHIE tracks, and a bunch of songs that are presumably new, previously unheard Charli XCX songs.

A set full of new music is not in itself radical, but the shift is again so severe that it comes off as Charli once more basically burying the past. “Doing It” was chopped up and stitched back together in a way that made it sound of a piece with the work she’s doing with SOPHIE. “Boom Clap” was essentially a conciliatory addition to the setlist. Decked out in a black leather outfit similar to the one she’s wearing in press shots for Vroom Vroom, Charli is no less a captivating performer than ever. She’s one of those people who walks onstage and immediately controls a room. She has that ineffable power. She also wields that power, mercilessly working the stage and the crowd. But there’s something inherently strange about seeing that gift filtered towards maneuvering SOPHIE’s schizophrenic production. Charli XCX is the kind of artist for whom unforgettable hooks seem to simply flow through her bloodstream; even minor tracks on her records sound like they could be someone else’s signature hit, even if little of Charli’s music has actually become as out-of-control popular as it should have.

The Vroom Vroom material and the other songs she and SOPHIE played last night are songs that sound like they’re built from deconstruction. They sound like collages built from shattered ideas left over from a half dozen other tracks, slammed together into two or three minutes. And when you see Charli XCX devote a whole set to this aesthetic, it inevitably feels like a manifesto. Taken in hand with what she’s said about her new music, and PC Music, and her label, it feels like another intentional (perhaps impatient) reinvention. At this point, she might still be working in the pop milieu, and she might be interested in making pop more groundbreaking, but it was hard to walk away from last night’s show without thinking that I’d just witnessed Charli XCX eschew something entirely. Just as the Vroom Vroom tracks sound like Charli dismantling pop and remaking it in her own image, every development in her career in the last few months suggests a dismantling of whatever pop icon status she had or could have secured. Whatever she replaces that with is still not entirely clear. But last night crystallized a gut feeling I’d had as “Vroom Vroom” and “Trophy” and “Paradise” came out: Perhaps sick of waiting on the pop-star music-industry machinery, Charli XCX was taking a hammer to her own little corner of it.

Last night’s crowd (which included PC Music associates Danny L Harle and QT) was, as ever, enthralled by Charli’s charisma, but many didn’t seem to know what to make of the whole thing. And I’m not sure I know, either. That’s the kind of reaction you could expect when someone’s coming out of left field and making shocking, truly groundbreaking music. But there’s a very real possibility that the whole PC Music thing is going to be a flash in the pan, something we’ll look back on this more or less cloying mid-’10s moment. Is something really groundbreaking just because a song shifts moods and structure in a not-entirely-intelligible manner? Is it really experimental just because it has Hannah Diamond’s chipmunk vocals on the hook? Charli XCX was already making groundbreaking pop music, and certainly seemed as if she had the capacity to shape the pop landscape in a very major way. I have an uneasy feeling about the latest revolution she’s putting herself through. Like she’s getting caught up in a fad that isn’t worthy of her talent. I hope she proves me wrong. I hope her new album winds up being just as vital and brilliant as her last two. But last night, I felt like I was watching Charli XCX swing that hammer, gleefully and destructively, and I’m not sure whatever comes out of the wreckage will be worth it.

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Setlist:
01 “Trophy”
02 “Doing It”
03 “Give Me Your Love” (Sylvia Striplin Cover)
04 “ROUND + ROUND”
05 “SECRET”
06 “Vroom Vroom”
07 “Boom Clap”
08 “Paradise”