Charli XCX Makes a Bid for the Mainstream with Crash

Crash album cover: Charli XCX in a bikini on the bonnet of a car, peering through a windshield she has just cracked with her head

Crash was without a doubt my most anticipated album of 2022, however that does come with an asterisk. There’s different kinds of anticipation and rather than pure excitement, I’ve spent the last six months anticipating Crash with mounting hesitancy. Charli XCX has earned herself pride of place among my favourite artists, with a distinctive and groundbreaking style of pop that distilled and distorted the genre markers into a sound that abjured mass appeal in favor of intense and rebellious emotional expression. A half a decade’s sonic experimentation eventually led to the release of Charli, in my opinion the crowning achievement not only of her career, but of pop music in the 2010s. In 2020, her ambitious lockdown album How I’m Feeling Now—the creation of which was documented in the Alone Togetherdocumentary—though it bore the artifacts of its rushed, DIY development, showed she could continue to rework her otherworldly anarcho-pop in new and exciting ways for as long as she wanted. And then, in September 2021, she dropped her new song “Good Ones”.

Taken on its own merits, there isn’t very much wrong with the lead single for Crash: a supercharged ’80s power pop anthem with a solid structure and incredibly slick production by Max Martin disciple Oscar Holter, performed with a sheen of commercial professionalism. Charli has long embraced a “one for them, one for me” approach to her output, and some of her more commercial singles like “Superlove”, “I Love It” and “Boom Clap” rank among her best songs. But those songs exploded with quirky, bombastic personality nonetheless. “Good Ones” could’ve been sung by any one of the radio pop stars Charli has been quietly writing hits for for years. Probably not so well, but it wasn’t what many of Charli’s established fans wanted to hear from her.

These were fans she’d earned through her fearless, boundary pushing postmodern approach to pop music, through music that was tense, subversive, ethereal, visceral, euphoric, dystopian and eerily beautiful. If pop punk took counterculture aesthetics and diluted them for mass appeal, Charli and those around her took pop music and distilled it for niche, counterculture appeal, something the phenomenon of camp has long done, and rarely so artfully. Seeing her lean in a more anonymous, obedient direction and embrace modern trends was an unpleasant spectacle.

But that was just one song, we should expect the lead single to be the song with the most hit potential, Charli was introduced to the world via the very uncharacteristic and radio friendly nostalgia bomb “1999” (a song which slaps nonetheless though). We shouldn’t jump to conclusions now should we? But as it was soon followed by further singles “New Shapes”, “Beg for You” and “Baby”, Charli’s commitment to bucking commercial trends seemed disappointingly absent. These songs could’ve been brilliant, “New Shapes” saw her reunite with Christine and the Queens, with whom she made arguably her best song ever, and with Caroline Polachek with whom she made the phenomenal ballad “Tears”, and “Beg for You” gave us the long awaited team up with rising star Rina Sawayama.

But somehow, something was holding back each of these songs. Charli’s overly processed chorus on “New Shapes” didn’t live up to the verses and the uninspired structure left little room for chemistry between the three vocalists, while “Beg for You” leaned so generously upon it’s September interpolation that very little of either of its singers’ own personalities shone through. Nor did the production have the exciting flair and ambition of her usual efforts, with their respective remixes often giving us a glimpse of what might have been. However, perhaps more frustrating than how unadventurous her recent output has been, has been the narrative Charli has been publicly pursuing, you see…it’s all a put on.

It’s not a narrative she’s stuck to unwaveringly, but many times throughout the run up to the release of Crash, Charli has made statements testifying to the perspective that Crash is actually a parody of the soul destroying pop industry, joking that she was “sell[ing her] soul for money and fame”, stating on Twitter:

imagine if this entire album campaign was just a commentary on navigating the major label system and the sadistic nature of pop music as a whole?


People be mad that I’m testing the major label system [via] an art piece whilst still making bops…and honestly I love it

She’s clearly aware of the mixed reception to these songs and hasn’t been shy about performatively engaging with criticism. It’s all very well to claim to have found a way to have your cake and eat it, that these songs are knowing parodies of mainstream pop music and that you’re giving your paymasters a big “f*** you” while still giving them what they want (and it’s not impossible to do that, look at The Matrix Resurrections!), but none of this subversive messaging is evident from the music itself. Between the market-tested singles and the decision to play at a crypto-funded event (which thankfully she pulled out of after well deserved backlash) it takes a devoted Stan indeed to buy into this uncharacteristically ungenerous narrative. She’s also stated that:

if beg for u continues to grow & get massive it will give rina & i a platform to bring more avant garde music to the mainstream & then the charts & everyone’s minds will be filled w bops like xs & vroom vroom..which is kinda the ultimate goal

This is a more convincing argument, but kind of gives the game away doesn’t it? She knows this isn’t her best work and she knows she’s selling out her and Rina’s creativity for exposure, so she can’t really blame her fans for calling her out on it. I know it’s a reality of the business that sometimes you’ve got to throw the label a bone and play nice, “one for them, one for me” and all that, and one can’t help but feel bad for Charli, spending a year of her life promoting and performing a record her heart clearly isn’t really in and taking all the blame for letting down her fans by bending to the demands of the industry. But artists’ power comes from their listeners, more than most, Charli has maintained an admirably close relationship with her fans, and we do have power. She pulled out of that loathsome NFT festival because her fans expressed their disdain for it. If Asylum Records doesn’t understand who they have on their hands and want to mold her into something generic, then she’s better off without them. Her niche audience became devoted enough to support and follow her because of her individuality and if you strip her of that, then that devotion goes with it.

Four singles in and Crash‘s hopes not to disappoint now rested solely on the deep cuts. But then, hope, a week before the album was due to drop, she released a fifth and final single. “Every Rule” isn’t an avant-garde hyperpop banger or a vicious satirical takedown of commercial pop, it’s a simple tear-stained ballad backed with a weepy, watery synth melody. And it’s good. Lovely, in fact, with the lyrics painting a tragic portrait of falling in love through an infidelity, having your joy eaten away by the unshakable knowledge that your happiness is coming at the expense of a stranger who’s heart you’re going to break. With production by former collaborator A.G. Cook and Daniel Lopatin, it’s not only the first song that sounds like it could have easily slipped into the tracklist of Charli or How I’m Feeling Now, but the first single that sounds unambigiously like it was designed to capture a feeling and express an emotion, rather than simply get airplay. It’s a song no one else could have written or performed. It’s uniquely Charli and it’s no surprise that its scenario is rooted in her firsthand experiences of such a situation.

So, I had renewed interest in Crash. It already had more songs I wasn’t really feeling than her last two albums combined, but her singles have grown on me in the context of the album before, and the deep cuts would have less pressure on them to perform commercially than the singles, so maybe we’d get more of the old Charli there. Sadly that isn’t the case, although Crash is a very all over the place album and not necessarily in a bad way. Charli really seemed to be getting the hang of sequencing her albums with Charli and How I’m Feeling Now being two of the most flawlessly arranged records I’ve ever heard. However, I’m not sure how one could’ve found an order for the songs on Crash that made much sense.

The album’s title may have come from the Cronenberg film—vehicular fetishism having never been far from Charli’s aesthetic—but perhaps a more credible comparison would be The Human League’s album Crash. The record was their attempt to go mainstream and embrace the sound of the changing pop landscape as it shifted in an increasingly funk and R&B inspired direction, pairing up with Janet Jackson‘s producer team Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. From one British pop act at one end of Janet Jackson’s influence to another at the other, Jackson was cited as a key influence going into Charli XCX’s own Crash. While The Human League’s album was a predictable flop, Charli fares considerably better.

The opening title track is the most overtly Janet Jackson-y song on the record, with production from A.G. Cook, sadly his only other credit on the record. Its multi-tracked a-capella chorus intro transitions into some heavy new jack swing drums and synths, a bizarre genre crossover that kind of works, as she sings about pulling a Jules et Jim and taking her lover with her in a blaze of glory. Then we get “New Shapes”, a song which was going to have a hill to climb given the ambitious crossover, these were the two singers who gave us “Gone”, plus Caroline Polachek who’s own solo debut was one of the best art-pop records in recent memory. Although not quite the fireworks one might have prayed for, the performances of all three are stellar, conjuring undeniable heat, with a different singer stealing the show each time I replay the song. I just wish the chorus had gone back to the drawing board, it compartmentalises each performer too much, and it’s just too bombastic for such beautiful and subtle verses. The track’s so nearly there, and that’s kind of the story with Crash.

The other big crossover is of course “Beg For You” with Rina Sawayama, about which, I again have mixed feelings. The “take you to the airport, make out under bathroom lights” line is such a perfectly Charli lyric, and the perky arpeggio from Milk Inc’s “Don’t Cry” is a nice touch, but it’s too coy and doesn’t have the heat the song requires and the chorus interpolation of “Cry For You” is maybe a step too generous. Perhaps if both these samples hadn’t been used on the same track it could’ve worked, but it sounds like a mashup and not an original song. 2000s dance pop worship is well within the wheelhouse of both these artists, but again, the song just doesn’t have the ambition or left-of-the-dial edge that marks out their usual material. Queer icons they may both be, but it doesn’t sound in the least like they’re singing about each other here and I’m putting the blame on that virginal “Don’t Cry” sample.

“Good Ones” is the big hitter single and it’s clear why. The bass line is stellar, and her “I let the good ones go-o-o-o-o-o-o” chorus is a hell of an earworm. I’m just not the biggest fan of the pre-chorus where Charli’s breathy vocals sound especially stretched thin. At just two minutes and sixteen seconds, it could’ve used more development too…a bridge, a breakdown, a third verse, something to give it some resolution. I guess commercially, it’s a proven tactic: leave them wanting more so the track’s as repeatable as possible, and it’s certainly that. You can spin this one right round.

“Constant Repeat” is in fact the next song’s title, though here it’s an allusion to the fallout from a romantic missed connection, as she replays events over in her mind and imagines the one that got away doing the same. The strident synths certainly capture that sense of yearning, of a need for affirmation and closure, but it might’ve been a mistake to have them play throughout the entire track cause they do get old. Charli originally wrote “Move Me” for Halsey, and not to be too harsh to her, it sounds like it. It’s the most forgettable song on the album, sounding too anonymous to be emotionally potent and too slow to be any fun. The tracklist picks up though with “Baby”, perhaps the most unapologetically shallow song Charli’s ever written, that gets by on camp appeal, a sultry, glamorous nocturnal groove and sheer sexual bluntness. It’s performed with well earned playful confidence, full of funny little moments that make me smile.

Even more fun though is “Yuck”, possibly the high point of the whole album, with an impeccable mid-tempo dance groove, an absolutely killer chorus and hilarious lyrics playfully rejecting cringe expressions of romantic vulnerability: “all these butterflies make me sick […] goin’ all lovey-dovey on me”. My only possible complaint with this one is it’s a heartbreakingly short two minutes twenty seconds. I need more!

“Lightning” proves Charli still knows how to use vocal processing well, with a robotic pre-chorus and  glitchy bridge breakdown that are among the album’s best moments, even if the song under the hood isn’t anything to hit the brakes over. “Used to Know Me” was the very last teaser, released mere hours ahead of the album and it’s a fun breakup track celebrating flying solo that samples the Robyn S dance track “Show Me Love”. I’ll admit, I got all excited when I though it was going to be Robyn’s pop track “Show Me Love”, one of my favourite songs of the ’90s, but this is a sultry bass line and Charli’s performance and the surprisingly orthodox production by Dylan Brady are addictive in the extreme.

The closing track “Twice” is great too, with a bubbly steel drum melody and perhaps the most stereotypically Charli writing on the whole album, envisioning her with her friends awaiting the end of the world, just vibing and enjoying the Earth’s last moments. It’s a sweet evocation of the dystopian ending of Charli, with “2099”, and an uplifting bittersweet collision of optimism and it’s apocalyptic scenario. Reportedly she was inspired by the ending to Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and I kind of hear that, it’s a very “blue sky” song, and an elegant conclusion to a record that’s been all over the place.

Perhaps disappointment set me up to be too hard on the singles, from anyone else, I’d celebrate them, it’s just sad to see an artist move on from the sound with which they made your favourite album. Maybe Charli is turning her back on what made her unique, but the best pop artist of her generation isn’t just going to turn in garbage because her producers changed, and Crash is at least testament to that. There isn’t a bad song here, they’re all stellar examples of disposable, nostalgic power pop, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Hell, I still struggle to say there’s been a better album than Future Nostalgia since it came out. The paratext certainly makes Crash out to be a bolder, more subversive and challenging record than it is, and this chaotic promotion is the album’s biggest fault. As cool as much of it is, it doesn’t suit the record. It looks like it’s going to be her heaviest, angriest work yet, and it’s not that by half.

What it does have going for it, are some fantastic highlights, and the lows are more disappointing than deficient on their own terms. For all the self destructive talk on and around Crash, Charli is checking her mirrors and observing all safety regulations. Cruising down the slow lane with caution stowed safely in the glove box, very much un-thrown to the wind. For a hyper-pop pioneer, it might be an admission that her creative and artistic peak is behind her. There’s any number of reasons she might have left the subgenre she very much helped to create. Perhaps she’s willing to let her hyperpop era lie with the artist with whom she began it. SOPHIE’s passing left a hole in the landscape of hyperpop and maybe Charli felt uncomfortable with filling it. Maybe she feels like she’s done all she can with the sound—although I very much disagree—and wants to let others take the reigns. Hyperpop is after all a fundamentally queer space, and maybe she didn’t want to be the straight girl stealing the spotlight anymore.

Perhaps it’s not that complicated and she really does want to just make that radio smash her label wants, and is feeling more drawn to pop’s past than it’s future. Whatever the reason, her talent still shines through on Crash. Some might say it’s her best work yet, if they’ve found her work with PC Music too harsh and left of the dial. But I’ve a right to be at least a little bitter. Basic bitches have plenty of music of their own to listen to, Charli was destined for greater things!

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

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