A picture of Charli XCX she posted on her instagram.

How (and Why) Charli XCX Embraced the Commercial Machine

The British pop pioneer has always been on the outside looking in when it comes to the music industry, but on 'CRASH,' she tries her hand at something more traditional.
June 23, 2022
7 mins read

On March 18, British pop star Charli XCX released her fifth studio album, “CRASH,” receiving both critical acclaim and widespread admiration from fans. Not only has she literally “crashed” onto the album cover, but she’s also metaphorically “crashing” back into mainstream territory.

Though she’s been consistently releasing projects for the last several years (a total of five albums and two mixtapes since 2013), “CRASH” stands out in her discography.

What has always made Charli XCX stand out among her fellow pop peers is her determination to do things her way and never fall into the herd mentality of how pop music “should be.”

This, in effect, has mostly pushed her out of the mainstream consumer consciousness, but she’s still managed to cultivate a large “cult” following with some of the most dedicated fans in the music industry.

Nonetheless, Charli XCX remains a pioneer for her nurturing and dissemination of a niche sub-genre of pop music often called “hyperpop.” The Atlantic has described hyperpop as “a headbangable hell-scream into eternity,” and the singer has been experimenting with the electronic maximalist sound since 2015, spearheading the genre with music producers SOPHIE and A.G. Cook.

A perfect example of Charli XCX’s ability to perfect this sound comes on her 2016 niche hit “Vroom Vroom,” which was produced by SOPHIE.

Although this style of music is what has endeared her to many fans, she took a step toward more “traditional pop” on her latest album.

Her determination to be artistically unique has led to disagreements with her record label, Atlantic Records, and has also perhaps hindered her ability to appeal to the masses.

Charli XCX told NPR about this struggle of not being “mainstream enough” in March of this year.

“There’s been quite a lot of tension between the way I’ve chosen to do things and the way a major label expects female pop artists to do things. And I think a lot of my previous work has really been born out of that tension,” she said.

“CRASH” is essentially a product of all the frustration and resistance she’s faced in her career and shows Charli “playing the game” so to speak, for the first time.

Charli XCX had been planning “CRASH” since early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, but put the project off to the side until it felt right to release what she teased as being a “high-gloss, super-pop, luxurious feeling” record.

Almost two years later she’s done just that, releasing a collection of 12 songs (16 on the deluxe edition) that are sure to become some of the summer’s catchiest earworms. The album has immense sonic range, going from the explosive title track, “Crash,” to the booming ’80s-inspired deep-cut, “Lightning,” and finishing with “Twice,” a mid-tempo tale about reminiscing on life and being in the moment.

The journey to “CRASH” officially began in September 2021, when Charli XCX released the lead single to the album, “Good Ones.” Right off the bat, fans could tell something about this era was going to be different. Firstly, “Good Ones” didn’t sound like the hyperpop many had come to expect from her. Secondly, the promotion for the single was unlike anything fans were used to, as Atlantic was pushing out promotion consistently and Charli herself was busy with public appearances and performances.

Beginning promotion for a record six months before its release is typical for commercial music releases, something that Charli XCX is not accustomed to. “Good Ones” was followed by five singles: “New Shapes feat. Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek,” “Beg For You feat. Rina Sawayama,” “Baby,” “Every Rule” and “Used To Know Me” — all receiving their own music videos.

For an album with only 12 songs, it’s impressive that half of them already have accompanying music videos. But Charli XCX isn’t stopping there, as she’s teased fans that she wants popular actress and model Julia Fox to star in an upcoming video.

Just over one week after the album’s release, Charli XCX embarked on “CRASH: The Live Tour” and will be playing shows through September of this year. This tour is by far the biggest production she has put on to date, featuring large set pieces, video interludes and backup dancers for the first time in her career.

It sounds like everything that Charli XCX could have ever wished for is happening, right? While much of that is true, that’s not to say this era of her career hasn’t come with some sacrifices and challenges.

In the weeks before the release of “Crash,” Charli XCX participated in several interviews about the album, one of which was with Apple Music.

“I know that I would be an excellent humongous pop star. But I also unfortunately know that there’s a vision of who I am in the mainstream’s mind,” she said. “While I’m a very defiant person, I’m also a human, and sometimes I do just want to be accepted, and I don’t understand why I’m not totally even though sometimes I relish in the fact that I’m not.”

This struggle of feeling not worthy of mainstream appreciation isn’t something new for Charli XCX. In her 2021 documentary, “Alone Together,” she discusses these feelings and the impact of fame on her personal life.

The energy felt throughout the entire album can be traced back to Charli XCX’s feelings of restlessness and conflict with her public perception, which makes the music so personal despite her insistence that this record is a shot at mainstream luxe pop.

If “CRASH” represents anything to Charli or her fans, it’s the culmination of almost a decade of work since her commercial debut. While she has been transparent about her feelings about fans who cross the line from time to time, she appreciates their support at the end of the day and acknowledges how lucky she is to have such a passionate fanbase.

“We feel like we’ve been in it together for a really long time,” she said. “I don’t think they would admire me as the artist I am if I just kept giving them what they expected.”

“Whilst I absolutely love and adore [the fans], I don’t make music for them specifically when I’m sat in the studio–I’m making it for me,” she added.

Charli XCX’s dedication to her fans, accompanied by the acknowledgment that she needs to create for herself, is at the core of what’s allowed her career to evolve in the way it has over a near decade.

To fans, 2022 may just be the year that the rest of the world finally caught up with Charli XCX.

Avery Heeringa, Columbia College Chicago

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Avery Heeringa

Columbia College Chicago
Communication, Minor in Journalism

"Hi there! I’m a senior at Columbia College Chicago studying Communication
and Journalism, with a big passion for music, entertainment, and all things
popular culture!"

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