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Better Than: Going to school.
It’s been a while since we’ve been to a show that had the stipulation “16+,” as if there’d actually be younger kids who would show up. Sometimes it’s easy to forget, even in the wake of “I Love It” and “Fancy” and now “Boom Clap,” that Charli XCX is a pop star that a lot of people know, and a lot of people love, teenaged pop fans and adult listeners who self-identify as “discerning” alike. That’s always been the interesting tension with Charli–when True Romance came out last year, it felt like contemporary pop music with a New Wave gloss that allowed it to be claimed by the indie crowd. She’s always seemed poised to be a bigger star, the process somehow feeling both sudden and slow-burn as she continued to gain notoriety with those guest spots. This was still a show in New York, though. From up front against the stage, you could hear the sort of high-pitched screaming you’d probably attribute to girls around the age of 16, but towards the back there were dozens of bearded dudes of varying age groups. The process of Charli XCX falling into one world or another–or, being able to keep one foot in both–is still one that appears to be unfolding.
Before her new album Sucker (her second or third LP, depending on how you look at it) was delayed from October 21st to December 16th, this Webster Hall show was likely planned as a sort of record release party. The decorations were still there; balloons lined the ceiling, some suspended to the balcony walls spelling out “SUCKERS.” (There were a bunch of other balloons, some of which had been rearranged and some of which had seemingly been stolen by excitable fans, that we think were supposed to spell out “CHARLI XCX.”) Below them were seemingly spray-painted banners reading “Pussy Power” and, again, “Sucker.” Now that Sucker‘s still a few months off, the overall vibe in this room switched to something more like an ecstatic preview party. Tickets were cheap, and one would imagine Charli can fill New York venues far larger than the mid-size club. This was a knowingly small show that didn’t go all intimate–it still had all the thrust and power of big screen pop, crammed into a smaller space.
Charli took the stage wearing a tiara and with a three piece band–all women, playing guitar and bass and drums, all outfitted in the same black and white cheerleader uniform as her. It had, once more, “SUCKER” written across the chest. Though the bulk of influences Charli namechecks fall into pop, dance, or rap categories, live she pushes towards rock, too. The set was liberally filled with new songs, giving us the opportunity to see how Sucker would depart from True Romance besides what we already know from the singles. Thing is, everything, new and old, had more crunch to it than in Charli’s studio work. “London Queen” leaned towards punk, and “I Love It” basically went there entirely–like with many other moments in the night, Charli’s guitarist far overpowered whatever synths were being piped in through the sound system. At times Charli thrashes around like a rock frontman; she even had one mic move reminiscent of Steven Tyler, of all people. Whether any of it was actually indicative of the vibe of Sucker remains to be seen, but there was an easy takeaway–many of these were still the same kind of euphoric, endearingly sneering, and occasionally/winkingly raunchy pop Charli’s already perfected, but perhaps now with a more aggressive focus on hooks, and maybe less of the idiosyncrasies that originally made Charli amenable to more indie-minded listeners. (None of the Sucker material, for example, seemed likely to have sampled Gold Panda, or anything.)
Whether frontwoman or rising pop icon, there’s no question Charli knows exactly how to work a crowd. The woman just exudes confidence and swagger. It is, after all, kind of ballsy to drop a song like “I Love It” three songs in when it could easily close the show, or at least the main set (as opposed to something that’d also be catchy and well known but slightly less universal, like “You (Ha Ha Ha)”). The set was almost perfectly constructed for this kind of thing, though, the hits balanced well amongst the more infectious deep cuts and the songs nobody really knows yet. In any case, Charli’s simply so in control the entire time. Each hip sway, each time she flips her hair, each gyration–it all occurred in a believably organic fashion, but it also leaves you with the impression that Charli knows exactly how to be a star. The whole show is a very well-calibrated pop endorphin rush.
After an encore break filled with persistent strobes and intense chants of her name, Charli returned for a victory lap, knowing full well she had two aces left in her hand. “I think you all know this song,” she said as “Fancy” began, and of course everyone does. Surprisingly, bizarrely, and amazingly, she basically rapped Iggy’s parts of the song. Along with drenching the thing in more cotton candy synths, it was a move that allowed her to take more total ownership of the song; it felt entirely like a Charli XCX song at that moment, down to her addition of a “Pussy! Power!” chant. “I’ve never been to prom but this is a pretty good replacement,” she said as she finished, and then, of course, closed with “Boom Clap.” What balloons were still intact from the big drop during “Break The Rules” flew through the air as confetti doused the crowd, and as everyone screamed along, and that was it.
“Peace out, goodnight, I’m Charli XCX,” she said, as if anyone didn’t know at this point. The floors were slick–almost soaked–with whatever alcohol, and shards of popped balloons. There was a buzz in the air, not just because it had been a thoroughly satisfying show, but because this seemed like a small triumph for all those who wondered how Charli XCX didn’t totally blow up with True Romance last year. Part of her narrative was how it was always so odd that she’d then achieved major hits by being a guest star. Well, the crowd screamed louder for “Boom Clap” than anything else last night, by far. Louder than for “I Love It,” louder than for “Fancy.”
The coronation is on its way.
Random Notebook Dump: Charli walked offstage to Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” which was followed by the Clash’s “Train In Vain,” a neat summation of the contrasts in her own personality.
Critical Bias: It doesn’t take much to make me like a British pop star of almost any sort.
I Love It
Lock You Up
Caught in the Middle
I Need Your Love
You (Ha Ha Ha)
Money (Barrett Strong cover)
Break the Rules