Charli XCX’s Experiment In Radical Transparency

Charli XCX’s Experiment In Radical Transparency

Charli XCX’s Experiment In Radical Transparency

During the first months of quarantine, she crafted an album in real time—and, in the process, celebrated how online connection changed the way we live and create.


In mid-March, around the time lockdown measures started forcing people to become intimately familiar with their own four walls, a subset of Internet-facing artists searched for the silver lining. “Just a reminder that when Shakespeare was quarantined because of the plague, he wrote King Lear,” tweeted the singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash. Her sentiment was parroted, and ridiculed, ad nauseam across the platform. 

It is, of course, cavalier to propose that this quarantine can be treated like a writers’ retreat rather than a black hole of financial and emotional despair (not to mention that such a stance stems from an obsession with productivity at a time when the flaws of capitalism are more visible than ever). But for some, creativity is a coping strategy—at least, that’s what the British musician (and self-described workaholic) Charli XCX told the 1,000 fans who attended an April 6 Zoom call, on which she announced that her time in quarantine would be spent making her fourth album, how i’m feeling now, from scratch and sharing the entire process in real time.

Charli XCX, born Charlotte Aitchison, specializes in a strain of pop that is propulsive and sticky, layered with notes of bubblegum sweetness and cyborg freakiness. Her music is often called “futuristic,” but the question of whether Charli’s is the pop of the future—or whether her peers in the genre are just comparatively retrograde—has been raised (by critic Shaad D’Souza, among others, in a recent essay for Paper). The cybertronic glitching and brain-frying distortion that characterize Charli’s music seem symptomatic of profound alienation and hyper-stimulation—two defining characteristics of our times.

Such chaotic aesthetics make Charli a thoroughly of-the-moment pop star. And in a more tactical sense, the mechanisms through which she’s historically created and disseminated her music also position her to respond to present circumstances. Charli, whose moniker is derived from an adolescent chatroom screen name, spent years releasing songs and building a community on Myspace before ever signing a record contract. Since then, she’s aligned herself with PC Music, a wayward electronic music collective founded by A.G. Cook (Charli’s frequent collaborator), who once described its ethos via its name, which “alludes to how the computer is a really crucial tool…for making amateur music that is also potentially very slick”—that is, music that blurs the boundaries between bedrooms and professional recording studios.

Now, more than a decade into her career, Charli can hardly be considered an amateur, but her scrappiness and collaborative spirit have persisted. And with no option but to record at home, the willingness she shares with her collaborators to forgo a “professional” setup proved crucial to this project. Combined with her Internet savvy and very online fanbase, these attributes give Charli a unique ability to push the bounds of creative possibility within the context of a music industry that has largely been shuttered by the ongoing crisis. The result is the first—and perhaps the defining—quarantine album. 

A deadline for the record’s release was set: May 15. Not without considerable stress and at least one teary social media confessional, Charli delivered on a remarkably tight schedule. The finished product, though, is almost beside the point. how i’m feeling now was a process-oriented experiment—a creative exercise in transparency and fan engagement, the success of which hinged more on the sense of community it fostered than on the quality of the songs it generated (which, not for nothing, are very good). 

Charli has gravitated toward process over product before. She’s sometimes treated her songs like living texts, pulling bits from previous releases and reshaping them into something familiar but new, as she does on how I’m feeling now’s “c2.0,” a reprise of last year’s “Click.” With this project, she further razed the distinction between something in its final form and something worth putting out into the world. She handwrote lyrics on Instagram Live. She tweeted out working track lists. On April 10, she posted early snippets of four songs and asked her followers to weigh in on which she should release next (“claws,” a bouncy song with lyrics fit to print on candy hearts, won). She shared audio files, so that fans could produce their own remixes, and a downloadable green-screen edit of the “claws” video, so they could superimpose their own visuals.

Even before this experimental undertaking, Charli made the kind of music that galvanized people. With their ecstatic references to fast cars, party drugs, and all-night raves, her songs have found a natural home at after-hours gatherings—particularly in queer circles, which comprise a significant and highly visible portion of her fan base. (“Imagine logging into Grindr at this concert,” reads the most-liked comment on a video of her performing at last year’s Pitchfork Music Festival.) The party girl persona that thrives in sweaty, darkened rooms has its limits, though, especially now that Charli’s beloved clubs are temporarily shuttered. 

The parties on how i’m feeling now are wistfully imagined. “In real life, could the club even handle us?” she asks on opener “pink diamond,” a churning, industrial, would-be going-out track. Another song, “anthems,” in the spirit of its name, spins the mundane tasks of housebound existence (“wake up late, eat some cereal / try my best to be physical”) into a high-octane cry for release (“I want anthems, late nights, my friends, New York!”). But those familiar with Charli’s work will notice that, overall, her bacchanalian attitude has ebbed. This leaves room for uncharacteristically sentimental material, from “forever” and its loved-up musings on eternity to “7 years,” on which she calls herself “wife”—“without the holy matrimony.” 

Charli made her quarantine album viable by reprioritizing and celebrating the forms of connection that are within reach—whether online, connecting with collaborators and fan communities, or in her home. Currently, the latter is a Los Angeles residence she shares with her longtime, on-and-off boyfriend; as a result, how i’m feeling now contains some of Charli’s most shacked-up work to date. Don’t expect the party queen to emerge from lockdown a homebody, but for now, this thematic pivot brings a welcome bit of tenderness. Partying can be a means of escape from the tribulations of the world—but if you’re lucky, so can love.

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