When you grow up consuming the products of the pop machine, you quickly come to realize there’s a formula to it all. Be malleable and effervescent, churn out safe hits, or be ready to be spat out and forgotten. But those were the rules from another time, a time before Charli XCX showed up and took a hammer to the system, breaking it down to build it back up into something beautiful.
The perennially left-of-mainstream artist from the London suburbs has made a business of being unapologetically herself. Her fuck-shit-up attitude has been the core of her songwriting from her early days of penning “I Love It” to her recent Pop 2 — a brilliant, A.G. Cook-produced mixtape with frenetic production and earworm hooks that’s redefining everything pop music can be. To write about the genre without a mention of Charli XCX is to completely miss the point. With the middle-fingers-up attitude of rockstars past, she’s letting those who still doubt know that her version of pop — adventurous, experimental, and dizzyingly good — is the future. Get on board or get out of her way.
When Charli announced in late February that she was doing two special nights dedicated to Pop 2, the question on everyone’s mind (beside whether or not they would be able to snag a ticket) was who would be joining her onstage. And with the spectacle of featured artists from the Pop 2 Los Angeles show still fresh — Carly Rae Jepsen, Caroline Polachek, ABRA, and more guested — the question was even more pressing on NYC’s take of the event at Elsewhere in Brooklyn.
“If SOPHIE shows up, I’ll cut my dick off and throw it onstage,” said one guy in the audience to his mildly horrified boyfriend, referencing the producer who collaborated with Charli on her dark pop 2016 EP Vroom Vroom. Close by, another group discussed how they woke up that morning knowing CupcakKe, the diabolically sexual rapper who also worked with Charli on her previous mixtape Number 1 Angel, would be one of the surprise guests. The anticipation was tangible. Violet lights bathed the crowd — a sea of holographic designs, slick fabrics, PVC-heavy accessories — giving everyone an extraterrestrial glow that felt fitting for a night of music that feels like it was beamed in from a future era.
No one has more fun than Charli XCX. Her energy is rare, white-hot from the moment she steps on stage, the kind that lingers with you on the journey back home. She effortlessly hits the sweet spot between the curated and spontaneous — her brief exchanges with the audience could easily be what she says at every performance, but Charli’s realness could make you care less; she makes you feel like she’s saying it all for the first time. Plus, in an “XCX” world, time doesn’t mean shit.
“If you hook up with someone tonight — which I hope you do — this one’s for you,” she said before the sugary opening notes of her single “Boys” flitted through the speakers. Charli made the most of the guest-heavy evening, making each song as visceral and distinct as the next. For ”Boys” she called an army of bubblegum pink-hued backup dancers to the stage while the quaking and brash “I Got It” tore the house down with both CupcakKe and Brooke Candy in attendance. CupcakKe and Charli continued to wow with the Number 1 Angel standout, the cheekily X-rated “Lipgloss,” while Caroline Polachek took the inherent ache on “Tears” and exploded it open.
Pop 2 is music best listened to loudly and with friends, its choruses so anthemic it’s difficult to keep your composure during a solo listen on the subway. Watching Charli while her collaborators took the stage was a special highlight of seeing the bulk of Pop 2 performed live. While CupcakKe dominated the stage with a salvo of raunchy bars on “Duck Duck Goose,” Charli scurried behind A.G. Cook’s amorphous lime green alien of a DJ deck, arms up and dancing wildly, fully generous and supportive. It felt special to see her watch her collaborators — her friends — shine on stage, all while partying harder than anyone else. It felt obvious that no one loves Pop 2 and everyone involved in it more than Charli. She’s said she would pick “Track 10″ as one of her five songs to listen to if she was doomed to die in a desert, and it was a singular experience watching that love lived out in person.
On the day of her Pop 2 show in Los Angeles, Charli posted a photo next to a sign for the office supply store Staples with “Pop 2 at staples tonight. Ultimate success. (Obviously kidding – don’t go to the wrong venue)” written as its caption. It’s very sassy and thus very Charli, but also brings up a valid point. Why isn’t a boundary-shattering artist like her headlining the Staples Center? How is it possible that she’s still playing at small, taste-making venues like Elsewhere? It’s OK though, because as with most visionaries, it takes time before the masses catch on. At one point whilst on stage, fluttering around in a fantastic, layered, lavender chiffon two-piece set, Charli set the record straight: “Pop 2 is the fucking future. And every fucking person on this stage is the fucking future. And you guys are the future, too.”