Charli XCX’s ‘Brat’ Demands You Get Your Ass on a Dancefloor

It’s not difficult to understand why queer people love Charli XCX so much. When she arrived on the scene a decade ago, she came blazing in, all pretty, party girl bravado with a keen sense of which beats will get people’s asses on the dance floor and an understanding of what people want to hear from those labeled “pop stars.” She never fully gave into the latter part of that, though. In a lot of ways, Charli has kept herself on the margins of pop, even laying the foundation for the subgenre hyperpop through her releases, while still managing to work her way into the spotlight in different ways. You’ll hear her music around but, depending on the crews you spend most of your time with, opinions on the extent of her fame and popularity may vary.

This straddling of the borders between industry “It-girl,” insider, and outsider is exactly what’s given her an irresistible edge and the ability to keep innovating, improving, and building on the sound she blasted onto to scene with originally. The hubris of her particular sound, birthed from Charli’s experiences partying in UK dance clubs, has become so intertwined with her persona that it feels difficult to untangle the two. While other pop stars have been writing and releasing songs about their insecurities and fears, Charli always seemed above it — not too cool to be vulnerable but too cool to let us know her vulnerabilities have the power to tear her apart.

On her new album, Brat, all of the emotional and sonic worlds that Charli has created for herself come circling back with the bombastic mood of mid-2000s celebrity culture, a time when pop stars still felt like they existed in a world completely removed from ours, where the paparazzi were waiting on every corner, and, thankfully, culture existed far outside of our phones. That doesn’t mean Brat is completely devoid of feeling, though. In fact, Brat very clearly puts on full display some of the insecurities that make fame so impossible to navigate sometimes, especially when you’re young. But because Charli knows she doesn’t need to be relatable to be considered talented, there’s a self-aware defensiveness that guards the authenticity of the tracks on Brat. It creates an interesting tension that feels fresh and unusual in the current state of pop.

The album opens with “360” and “Club classics,” both of which are obviously direct nods to all the time Charli’s spent in dingy, neon-tinted underground dance clubs. They help lay the groundwork for the rest of the album’s cooler-than-you-even-when-I’m-unsure-of-myself tension that permeates every single track. Both of them name drop some of her famous friends — actress Julia Fox, producers A.G. Cook and SOPHIE, and her boyfriend, George Daniel — while “360” refers directly to Charli’s influence on pop music and “Club classics” demands that we get our asses in the club and dance all night.

Where “360” sounds kind of like the acid-tinged upbeat pop that Charli’s become known for, the beats of “Club classics” are reminiscent of that time in the mid-2000s that this album is preoccupied with. But the two tracks work together to build an opener that perfectly anticipates the work of the rest of the album. The clap bass dubstep of “Club classics” leads directly into the buzzy synths that take center stage on “Sympathy is a knife,” one of the most danceable tracks to take on the subject of feeling less than someone who is in your direct orbit. On it, Charli sings, “’Cause I couldn’t even be her if I tried / I’m opposite, I’m on the other side / I feel all these feelings I can’t control / Oh no, don’t know why” over a glittering melody that would make anyone — especially in the middle of a sweaty dance floor — feel transcendent. “Sympathy” kicks off a number of tracks on Brat that take this feeling on directly. “Girl, so confusing” and “Rewind” offer different perspectives, a kind of callback to the Charli she’s always given us, the girl who’s just a little too cool to fully admit she doesn’t feel like she’s enough. “Girl, so confusing” takes on the fakeness of some friendships and how destabilizing they can be, while “Rewind” has Charli recalling an era before she was in the spotlight, a time when she “didn’t overanalyze [her] face shape.”

On the opposite end of these feelings are tracks like “Von dutch” and “Mean girls.” Over shrieky, revving synths and a bass track that will remind you of a movie fight scene, the lyrics of “Von dutch” present Charli as a smug badass who knows people are jealous of her and thinks they’re right for being so. “Mean girls” — which will be on many Pride playlists, I’m sure — is a slow-building full-on throw-your-hands-up-in-the-air anthem that praises the virtues of being a particular kind of hyper-online bitch. The simple chorus, “This one’s for all my mean girls / This one’s for all my bad girls / This one’s for all my break your boyfriend’s heart girls / For all my tear his shit apart girls,” on top of the huge, stadium-filling bassline feels like a Song of the Summer in the making.

Other tracks on the album — “So I” and “I think about it all the time” — take on subjects Charli has never addressed in her music before. “So I” is a soft, 80s-electro-style ballad that discusses Charli’s relationship with the late producer SOPHIE. In it, she talks about being intimidated by SOPHIE’s brilliance and not warming up to SOPHIE’s friendship as a result of the intimidation: “Wish I’d tried to pull you closer / You pushed me hard, made me focus / Your words, brutal, loving, truthful / I was petrified.” On the lowkey, kind of indie-dance-influenced, “I think about it all the time,” Charli addresses her feelings about the possibility of motherhood, and most interestingly, the specific fear of not experiencing something when some of her friends become parents. Charli sings, “She’s a radiant mother and he’s a bеautiful father / And now they both know thesе things that I don’t,” illustrating those exact feelings. Although they seem like slight departures from the rest of the album, it’s interesting how well the themes of these songs fit into the themes of the rest of the tracks on the album. They’re still touching on feelings of inadequacy.

While Charli has been extremely successful in not only creating her own work but also writing and producing songs for others, you get the sense from these tracks — for the first time — that even Charli with her impenetrable cool-girl persona isn’t free from the insecurity, loneliness, and anger that success often brings with it. On Brat, Charli is reminding us you can only keep up that hard exterior for so long before you need to do something different, embrace a new era of being, and not just come into yourself but also create new possibilities for who you can be. And she does it all on top of some of the most danceable, inventive, and energy-stirring compositions of her entire career. This is the biggest difference between Charli and her superstar peers. As they keep releasing music that muses on the impossibility of fame, Charli generously offers herself — every side we know and don’t know — to us. Yes, it’s hard to be famous, but as Charli shows repeatedly on this album, it’s actually just hard to be alive right now.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 89 articles for us.

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