Despite the fact that she co-wrote and lent her voice to “Fancy,” one of the most indisputable hits of 2014, the world is still arching eyebrows over Charli XCX and what exactly she’s all about. Is she a pop tart banking on plaid miniskirts and ’90s nostalgia in the hopes of finding her own voice in the wake of tired trends? Is she pop’s next big thing, an artist who’s more than capable of writing the catchiest of hooks and delivering them with an equally distinguishing voice, like Lady Gaga before her? Is she a flash in the pan or a strong talent who’s earned her shiny new acclaim, this Saturday Night Live spotlight, and a shot at headlining her own agenda instead of that of her collaborators in 2015?
We don’t know yet, because Sucker, her hotly anticipated full-length and first major release since breaking stateside, isn’t out till Tuesday, and those chips will point us in the right direction once they fall. SNL couldn’t have happened for Charli at a better time in that it gave her the chance to trot the record’s first two singles, “Boom Clap” (which also soundtracked The Fault in Our Stars) and “Break the Rules,” out for the most coveted of late-night audiences, the opportunity to really strut her stuff, belt it out, prove her might, etc. It’s easy to believe in Charli’s potential — that she’s so much more than the second billing to previous collaborators like Iggy Azalea and Icona Pop. Unfortunately, Charli played it too safe on SNL, and for a talent so intriguing, it would’ve been great to see more than a gimmicky all-girl backing band reduced to props and a performance that stuck to the formula instead of shirking it, as that seems to be the M.O. Charli both champions and deserves.
The band: We’re all for getting more women showing their musicianship onstage, but “Boom Clap” may as well have been taken on by Robert Palmer’s fembot ensemble, it was that devoid of a pulse, energy, charisma, and anything beyond bad gray suits. Charli hit her notes and brought some sass to the microphone, but the seemingly oversimplified presentation of a hit lush with bombastic arrangements and an immediately adhesive call-back chorus hardly did her any favors.
And with “Break the Rules,” we got more of the same: A catchy-as-hell song helmed by a great performer that’s reduced to glorified live-band karaoke with a television audience held hostage for the duration. Charli’s engaging, enthusiastic and direct delivery couldn’t distract those listening from the hugely overwhelming tracks behind her, and if you’re going to put musicians onstage with a powerhouse like her, make sure they can match her verve with a similar stage presence. Or skill. Or anything beyond blank stares and pantomimed strums.
This isn’t to say that Charli XCX is bad, undeserving of the accolades, or a talent to ignore in the coming year: Even the greats have off nights, and SNL has proved to be an unwieldy beast for pop stars in particular to confront, be it Gaga or Grande or Charli’s pal Iggy. That said, the name of the game here is “disappointing,” in that Charli XCX was seemingly framed to fail with boring execution and lackluster musical support when artists in recent weeks (Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson, etc.) have truly pushed the limits of what a sensational live band can do to make a song pop off the screen.
As for those tuning in, they were more amused by and interested in Charli As Character as opposed to Charli As Singer, and it showed in the bevy of (mostly good-natured) jokes and compliments thrown her way. To the Twitter!
Girl owns her own style, to be sure, but that belt though!
Charli XCX is wearing the fanciest diaper I have ever seen #SNL
— Alex Green (@TheAlexBGreen) December 14, 2014
We’re just including this one for the thought and time that went into crafting this tweet.
Charli XCX is that awesome chick you dated in college you think about 25 years later and are so relieved you broke up before she killed you.
— STEVE HUFF (@SteveHuff) December 14, 2014
Charli did play a high school dance recently, so if Sucker doesn’t do so hot commercially, at least she’s got a fall-back plan.
If 10 Things I Hate About You was remade in 2014, Charli XCX and her band would play during the prom.
— Josh Kurp (@JoshKurp) December 14, 2014
If Lorde and Charli did anything together we’d fall all over ourselves with joy as that collaboration would be fantastic and empowering as hell. (Still would pay to see that dance-off.)
Charli XCX is hot but her dance moves literally had me laughing out loud. Her and Lorde should do a dance off.
— Emily Kubacki (@mlykbck) December 14, 2014
I mean, Gwen Stefani works as the Gwen Stefani of the millennial set too, so.
— Shari Baldie (@ShariBaldie) December 14, 2014
What does this even mean? How?
I want to ask Charli XCX if she needs me to pick anything up from the store on my way home from the office.
— Tyler Lauletta (@tylerlauletta) December 14, 2014
And finally, as for the pop culture offspring references, Charli is A) the baby of Mila Kunis and Shakira:
If you combined the DNA of Mila Kunis and Shakira, you’d get Charli XCX #SNL
— William West (@williambwest) December 14, 2014
B) the baby of Lady Miss Kier and the Prodigy:
Charli XCX is serving up 1994 realness tonight on SNL. It’s like Lady Miss Kier & The Prodigy had a baby.
— Harvey Walker (@harveywalker) December 14, 2014
C) Millennial Spice:
Charli XCX looks like a long lost Spice Girl #SNL
— Janay Temple (@jay_sherell) December 14, 2014