On October 7th, Charli XCX played to a sold-out crowd at Webster Hall. With her sophomore effort Sucker due to drop in just a few months, I went into this show considering the fact that as a mainstream pop singer she’s entering a certain kind of make-or-break moment in her career. There’s something about Sucker that feels pivotal, and this tour was going to provide some major insight into the artist’s long-term viability.
At first glance, this framing may sound counterintuitive. Over the past six months, Charli has gotten more exposure to mainstream audiences than ever. After all, we’re only now just emerging from Summer 2014, which will forever be remembered as scored by “Fancy,” a track that remains as maddeningly infectious as it was faux-controversial. In addition to her feature role in that unlikely success, as a solo artist she rode The Fault in Our Stars (2014)’s train into the Billboard Top 10 with “Boom Clap,” by far her most popular song to date. And even before this past year, back in 2012, she became relatively well-known as the mysterious genius responsible for penning Icona Pop’s hugely successful single “I Don’t Care (I Love It).”
But these inroads notwithstanding, it still seems as though she lacks a concrete identity in mainstream pop life; too often, she’s an artist consistently defined only in relation to other, much more mediocre pop-culture items. She’s out there, but it’s unclear whether enough people get who she is, where she’s coming from as an artist, and the gift she has for making pop music.
What I learned at Webster Hall last week was that this is about to change.
I met my friend Julia (Syvology music contributor) in time to take in most of the show’s opening set by Femme. We were pleased to witness a surprisingly entertaining performer, considering we had never heard her material before and were still busy with our first drinks.
Shortly, Femme succeeded in drawing us away from the bar (if only for fifteen minutes) to get a better look. Flanked by two peppy dancers dubbed “Bullet Girls,” Femme’s look spoke of Madonna circa True Blue and the Who’s That Girl Tour, mixed with the playful wickedness of modern Miley Cyrus. Though her actual songs were not particularly electrifying, her performative vibe was positive, gracious, and exuberant, and she was a solid choice for the opening act.
If the crowd’s energy started a little low, it wasn’t to last like that for long. Next up was a supporting set by Swedish bass/electro-rap artist Elliphant. We wrote briefly about her in DOPE Digest back in April, in a post that, presciently enough, also included our take on Charli’s then brand-new single “Boom Clap.” But other than that one single, I wasn’t sure what to expect out of Elliphant.
Thirty seconds into her first song, Julia and I looked at each other in astonishment. This artist was a lot, a lot to take in. Immediately, the nature of her music and on-stage behavior was such that I wasn’t sure if it was amazing or intolerable; in a fascinating and seriously engaging way, she seemed to inhabit the razor-thin space at precisely that fickle boundary between The Best and The Worst.
But truth be told, it wasn’t long before I concluded she was the former. I was completely on board with her and everything she had to offer that night. Her thick, swaggering Swedish accent came through as something like a female Johnny Rotten if he had spend a formative part of his adolescence in Jamaica. She trounced around on stage with a certain vulgar and uninhibited grace, chugging from a bottle of Bud Lite and gyrating in a way I can only describe as bafflingly seductive.
Contextually, it’s been a busy two years for Elliphant. She has put out three EPs and a full-length since 2013. As a result, she already has a well-varied discography and shrewd versatility that indulges in all manner of sonic excess as it obscures, to great effect, some surprisingly interesting lyrics. At surface, it’s possible that Elliphant appears to be something of a Swedish M.I.A. shorn of all pretentiousness (or let’s face it, general awareness) and propped up by a lot of EDM boilerplate. But seeing her live, I’m convinced that such a view would be reductive. I think Elliphant is actually something pretty special.
At the show, she played most of her American debut EP Look Like You Love It, including the churning title track and the Skrillex-produced “Only Getting Younger,” to name some highlights. She was much better at crowd banter than one would expect from an artist as new as her, most memorably pointing out the momentousness of several coinciding events that night: a Charli XCX concert, a full moon, her period, and her birthday the following day.
But my favorite moment came at the conclusion of her performance, when she sang the lower-energy, positively narcotic title track and lead single off her new EP, One More. I’m completely impressed with the video for this song (above), which casts her and feature artist MØ in this remarkably creepy and attractive veil of coolness (mildly-NSFW).
On the whole, the entire performance left me essentially dumbstruck. It was a great, incredibly entertaining segment. If you get a chance to see her, in any context at all, I can’t suggest it highly enough.
By the time Elliphant wrapped up, I already felt like I had gotten my money’s-worth. That we still had Ms. XCX to look forward to created a joyful expectancy tempered only by a shot of whiskey and several beers in between sets. After chatting at the bar with some older dudes about my Molly Ringwald T-shirt, we pushed as deep as realistically possible into the teeming yet mostly polite crowd.
Soon, Charli XCX emerged, herself and her band members sporting cheerleading uniforms that read “SUCKER” across the front. They immediately broke into four songs off the new album, interrupted in the middle by a cover (though that doesn’t feel like the right word) of “I Don’t Care (I Love It).” Next, she played the woefully underrated one-off single “SuperLove,” which in 2013 represented kind of artistic transition between the True Romance and Sucker phases of her career.
After that, she played two of the lower-key True Romance pop-ballads, “Black Roses” and “Lock You Up,” and then two more new songs. For me, the musical highpoint of the show came next, when she played easily the two best songs off True Romance: “Stay Away” and “You (Ha Ha Ha).” I was next surprised, and mildly delighted, with her cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want),” which was fun and well-executed but felt like a bit of an interruption to my specific worship of Charli’s own music. But by then, it really didn’t matter. At this point in the show, I was having the time of my life.
The balance of her main set consisted of four more new songs, including her newest single “Break the Rules.” For the encore, she played to what many might consider her “strengths,” that is, her two most popular songs this year. While I can see the appeal of covering (or, again, whatever you’d call this) a song as popular and financially successful as “Fancy,” there was something that felt a bit unbecoming about her taking the entire song on herself as an encore. It was maybe a bit too stark a reminder that in the upper echelons of the music industry, she’s somehow still second-fiddle to artists like Iggy Azalea.
But spirited as I was, I enjoyed every second of it. The concluding song was of course “Boom Clap,” during which the audience bounced giant balloons around and got showered in a torrent of confetti. Honestly, it was a pretty goddamn beautiful moment.
Leaving the venue that night, I had two major impressions. First, this was one of the funnest shows of my life. Though not my understanding of her reputation before this show, it was clear to me that Charli XCX is growing into a fantastic performer. Her voice was pitch-perfect, and her on-stage energy was commensurate with or exceeded that of any performer I’ve seen in the last few years (including Drake, CHVRCHES, and over a dozen emo and pop-punk groups). When you add in how great the two opening artists were, this show will definitely remain at the top of my list for a while.
Secondly, I’m now completely confident that Sucker is going to be an incredible album. I had never heard almost half of the songs she played, since much of the concert was devoted to new material. But each of these songs had this instant appeal to them (and I say that as a person that, as a rule, really prefers to hear a studio version of a song before experiencing a live version). So get psyched for the new album, out in December.
To begin to conclude, this second point leads me back to the questions I posed at the beginning of this discussion. Namely, what did this show signal to me about the future of her career? Is she about to experience her true moment of popularity and commercial success, or will it be another few years of dashed expectations?
But maybe I’m just asking the wrong questions here. In an interview last year with Consequence of Sound, the conversation veered into this same territory. She and the interviewer began to discuss whether there is a certain discrepancy between what record labels expect of her and what she is capable of or willing to produce. Exhibiting some understandable frustration, she said,
I don’t care about that shit, though. I don’t make an album to top the charts. Obviously. I don’t think about that. My label, obviously they are always thinking about that…It’s their job and it’s a major record label. But, they know not to bring that stuff up with me, because I don’t talk about shit like that. I don’t care. I don’t want to have that conversation. It’s a boring conversation.
And as if she could get any clearer on the topic:
I hate…You know what I hate? When a record label will say, “We need more hits.” Like, fuck off. I wouldn’t make this album if I didn’t think that every song on it was a hit. And I hate when people even call a song “a hit,” like, what’s a fuckin’ hit? A hit is a fluke.
It’s almost like she saw the “Fancy” experience coming. (Now that was a fluke!) But as defensive as the above comments may read, she’s right. As far as I and her loyal fans are concerned, they’re all hits.
When I think about the artists I love most, I sure as hell don’t love them for their popularity. If anything, it’s just the opposite. If an artist is meaningful to me, often the more obscure or commercially unsuccessful that artist is, the more “connected” I may feel to them. Even the artists that are extremely famous I do this with, insisting that their early stuff is far better than the popular shit. For instance, I find myself almost exclusively listening to 50 Cent’s pre-Get Rich or Die Tryin’ mixtapes. So yeah, I’m really cool.
It’s a perverse and greedy attitude that comes as the natural side effect of being a fan of things and internalizing them as part of your identity. It’s OK to have those attitudes, in certain measure. If we didn’t feel that way about music, it’d only mean less to us.
At the very least, it’s a great reason for fans and bloggers alike (and especially both, like me) to stop pondering and wondering whether and when Charli XCX is finally going to “blow up,” achieve mainstream success, or exert the kind of influence on the pop world that she is so clearly capable of.
Her live performance demonstrated that with the new album coming up, she isn’t approaching anything the least bit resembling an artistic decline. If anything, her songwriting and performance ability are continuing to evolve and take shape. As a fan, I’m content knowing that much.
Ironically, it still feels like more than ever that mega-success isn’t tied really to her at all, that it doesn’t matter what she does, that we’re dealing with an elusive and mystical substance that slips through your fingers just as you’re there grabbing it. Like she said, it’s often just a fluke.
So, I’m going to answer my thematic question by simply not answering it, and by trying to remember to stop asking it so much. That stuff is for suckers.