How Charli XCX Reinvented the Pop Album in 39 Days
What is the pandemic doing to the passage of time? Are the days blurring into one another? Plodding? Dissolving? Charli XCX, the crafty U.K. pop star, thought she had an answer. “The days are warping,” the 27-year-old sang in the rough draft of a verse she’d written for her made-in-quarantine album How I’m Feeling Now. On her Instagram feed in April, while sitting in front of a funky brick fireplace in her L.A. home and fiddling with her gray hoodie, she debuted those lyrics—and she realized she had a problem. “Warping” sounded like “whopping” when she sang it in her rapid-fire, Brit-accented cadence. Whatever the days are doing, they are not whopping.
Comments from viewers offered alternate suggestions for the word she should use. “The days are morphing,” seemed good, but Charli gave a perplexed look as she sang the line. The “ph” sound in “morphing” wasn’t sitting right; the word came off like muffin. Other ideas popped up in the comments: “merging,” “rolling,” “trolling.” She laughed at that last one. How about “these days exhausting”? Her eyebrows arched. That line worked. It’s what ended up on “Anthems,” a convulsing electro romp that, like the rest of the album it’s on, captures 2020’s intense mood of anxiety, boredom, and yearning.
Here is one example of how pop might adapt to social distancing: with more participation, with more transparency, and with obsessive descriptions of monotony replacing obsessive descriptions of partying. For the most part till now, celebrity-made music defined by gloss, physicality, and extroversion has seemed ill-suited for lockdown culture, which is shlumpy, digital, and lonesome. What’s more, the logistics of the mainstream hit machine—which relies on pro songwriting camps, copious studio time, and flesh-pressing promotional tours—have been disrupted. Meanwhile, the defining quarantine musical experiences have been relatively scrappy and communal: ballads belted from balconies, bands jamming on FaceTime, families singing along to Disney tunes from their couch.
But Charli XCX, at least, seems energized to build a bridge between the old ways and the new. Everywhere I scrolled on Instagram in the early days of social distancing, she seemed ubiquitous, whether in livestreams with other celebs or in newly buzzy Zoom galas. By April 6, she’d announced that she was going to make an entire album in quarantine, and fast. She set a May 15 deadline for its release, and expressed that she wanted it to have a DIY, collaborative sensibility. She’d use her home equipment and producer contacts. She’d loop fans in on the artistic process. And she’d make it about the experience of living in a pandemic, titling the album How I’m Feeling Now.
It’s fitting that Charli would be the pop figure to help shepherd our new 100-percent online culture. She has landed big hits as a solo star (“Boom Clap,” “Boys”) and as a collaborator (“Fancy,” “I Love It”), but she’s also made experimental, radio-agnostic fare heavily influenced by the electronic-music online underground. Her recent albums have come off as glitchy satires of club music, in which her pouty croon became a silvery, cybernetic instrument. Yet if the perpetual hype around her as “pop star of the future” has had merit, it’s been less from her sci-fi aesthetics than from her internet-native sense of authenticity. Her fans are ultra devoted—but it often seems like the devotion of friends rather than worshippers.
Throughout the creation process of How I’m Feeling Now, those fans had a chance to quiz Charli on Zoom meetings whose attendees also included famous admirers (such as Game of Thrones’s Maisie Williams, the comedian Jaboukie Young-White, and Rebecca Black of “Friday” fame). Between those gatherings were impromptu Instagram livestreams, which had a rambling, brainstorming vibe. Often Charli conveyed not the peppy salesmanship one expects of a celebrity influencer but the bored, glassy-eyed air that so many of us normies radiate during conference calls. She said that she undertook recording an album because that seemed to be the only way to stave off quarantine-induced feelings of listlessness and futility. As the self-imposed deadline neared, she confessed to not being able to keep to her schedule, to feeling inexplicably pressured, and to having mental blocks. Relatable!
The resulting songs are noteworthy for more than just how they were made. Charli has leaned into the oxymoronic idea of homespun rave pop by creating something fun but challenging, fussed-over but also messy, and electronic but also fleshy and visceral. You wouldn’t put it on in the background of a room full of people because some percentage of them would get a migraine—but, in the right mood, you might put it on by yourself so as to obsess over details while also jumping around. Avant-pop producers (including A.G. Cook, B.J. Burton, Dylan Brady, and Danny L. Harle) sent in ultra-distorted beats with whistling, often-cutesy melodic ornamentation. Charli responded with a blend of rap-sung verses and ooey-gooey choruses. On the weirdly moving lead single “Forever,” it sounds like she’s discovering the meaning of eternal love while trapped inside of an overheated Xerox machine.
The tension between heartfelt sentiments and mechanical aesthetics helps clarify Charli’s big pandemic insights. Lyrics that initially scan as hedonistic Mad Libs reveal themselves, with repeated listens, to probe the question of whether you really do need other physical bodies to have a good time. Quarantine intensifies the singer’s desire for intimacy, whether it’s with her boyfriend (whom she’s shut in with), the friends and fans she can only see on video chat, or with even her own inner emotions. On the freezer-cool 2-step track “I Finally Understand,” she relates lessons her therapist gave her about self-love and self-loathing. On “Party 4 U,” she drawls wistfully about a surprise celebration that the guest of honor never showed up to.
Fans appear to be mostly ecstatic with the album, though there have been scattered complaints that Charli overstated her promises to involve listeners in its creation. The lyrics on “Anthems” are really the only ones she co-wrote with her audience; fan-submitted beats and remixes didn’t make the album’s final cut. Yet if How I’m Feeling Now’s mythology as an open-source art project doesn’t fully line up with the truth, that feels strangely on theme: Charli is reveling in the way that pop is always about the illusion, not reality, of connection and intimacy. On the super-energetic opening track, she asks her homebound legions, “In real life, could the club even handle us?” The answer is that of course it could, and that online hijinks are a bad substitute for the lives we once had. But music’s value, for now, might be in helping people pretend otherwise.