Later this week, the British singer Charli XCX—a 19-year-old Londoner (born Charlotte Aitchinson) with a goth-pop appeal that fuses the pouty personae of Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson, postpunk pioneer Siouxsie Sioux, and the Cure’s Robert Smith—will make her Stateside debut with a pair of shows in New York. Charli’s 2011 single “Stay Away,” a plush, brooding lament directed toward a lover who kept her hanging just long enough to get her hooked, was the year’s most staggering introductory statement, a lovelorn bit of sulking synthpop that, despite the KEEP OUT signs plastered all over it from its title on down, reels the listener in almost reflexively.
Her follow-up singles have been similarly soaked in retro tropes, sprinkled with just enough flourishes of the present day—particularly maxed-out sonics that make speakers crackle like those on a particularly overtaxed laptop—to jar the brain into realizing that the song in question was in fact crafted during the 21st century. They’ve also straddled the line between being danceable and being utterly sullen; “Nuclear Seasons,” which she self-released last fall, recalls bygone radio hits by the likes of Talk Talk and Johnny Hates Jazz and compares a breakup’s aftermath to that of the titular bomb, while the peppy “I’ll Never Know” was recorded as an accompaniment for a runway show, its aggressively sunny glockenspiels shielding—or at least temporarily hiding—the longing of lyrics like “If I see you alone on the pavement/Will my heart freeze/Will the sun melt down my bones?”
Escaping personal heartache through the dancefloor isn’t all that new of a trick, though it’s one that can be treacherous to navigate—pain can tip over into suffocating melodrama if not handled with the right finesse, or at least a danceable enough beat to gloss over some of the more LiveJournal-ready lines. Charli’s first few singles have handled this dilemma in a way that bodes well for her future releases. (She’s set to release an EP through the Los Angeles label IAMSOUND in May.) This past Saturday night at the Lehman Center in the Bronx, a gaggle of artists operating in a similarly lovelorn idiom since the 1980s gave an indication that, when 2037 or so rolls around, the sadness she’s putting forth now might sound just as heartbreakingly satisfying.
Saturday night’s show paid homage to the electropop subgenre known as freestyle, which was birthed in New York City’s Latino enclaves by producers like the Latin Rascals and Jellybean Benitez. They’d pick apart early electro tracks such as “Planet Rock” and “Trans-Europe Express,” speed up the samples, and add their own flourishes, like piano riffs borrowed from salsa and polyrhythms. Over the years, the genre was refined into an easily recognizable one; signifiers included emotion-filled vocals, breakdowns that consisted mostly of synthesized drumbeats, and the “treble” setting being turned all the way up.
The genre’s two hubs were New York and Miami, and though the basic frameworks were the same, the cities had a few stylistic differences. “New York Freestyle, even in its most polished forms, retained a raw edge and underground sound, using minor chords that made the tracks darker and more moody,” producer Joey Gardner wrote in the liner notes to the 10-disc compilation Freestyle’s Greatest Beats. “The lyrics also tended to be about unrequited love or other more somber themes.”
The show, dubbed Forever Freestyle 6, had a party atmosphere and a quick pace; the stage setup was minimal, with artists like Nayobe, Sa-Fire, Noel, and Stevie B performing in front of a DJ and the occasional dancer or three. The crowd danced and held up camera phones, and the between-sets DJ caused hoots and clapping when he dropped similarly bygone hits like “Poison” and “Just a Friend” into the mix. But those somber themes lurked among the mirth, and the songs that walked the same lonely path as Charli XCX’s first few singles, in which professions of sadness were remixed into dancefloor gold, garnered the biggest pop from the crowd. Particularly Sa-Fire’s “Boy I’ve Been Told,” in which the singer is psyching herself up to cut things off with a crummy boyfriend, and the Bronx-born singer Noel’s 1987 track “Silent Morning,” about a lover who has taken leave. (He spat out an ad-libbed “bullshit” after repeating one line about men being expected to not cry.)
The final act of the night was the Miami-based singer Stevie B, whose plainspoken ballad “Because I Love You (The Postman Song)” topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990. His catalog is spangled with enough crowd-pleasers to allow him to leave the track off his brief headlining set. (Although he’s touted as being the man responsible for the song at his next freestyle-extravaganza appearance, set to take place in Red Bank on March 17.) The hit the people wanted was instead the 1988 single “Spring Love,” a lament about a onetime paramour who left an impression despite only being around for a couple of months. They shouted for it as he prepared to leave the stage (of course, he was going to come back), and, while wearing a T-shirt bearing his own image, he tore through it, leading the crowd in singing the chorus. The words being uttered in unison were drenched in sadness—”But something changed, the season came to an end/I had to leave you, and that’s where my heartache began”—but that didn’t lessen the wattage of the smiles coming from both the crowd and the stage.
Both the freestyle laments and Charli XCX’s tracks are directed toward a “you” that’s floating in space; few details about those responsible for the heartbreak are filled out by the lyrics, which instead focus on the pain radiating from within and its sources. It might be one of the most crucial elements in making singles like “Spring Love” and “Stay Away” more immediate, even while they’re soaked in retro tropes; that relentless looking outward allows the listener—or, in probably a lot of cases, the person singing along—to share in the catharsis, making the space between artist and audience charged with the sort of commonality that defies ideas of timeliness.
Charli XCX plays the Knitting Factory on Saturday and Santos Party House on Monday.