The biggest (and accidentally self-perpetuated) misconception about Charli XCX is that she’s just another moody Goth princess. True, the 20-year-old singer boasts unruly black hair and kohl-smeared eyes, but read her interviews and the bubbly, starry-eyed, Disney-loving tween shines through. She loves being in love, and talks about her music in terms of synesthesia, describing her personal sonic color palette as being filled with purple, pink, gold, and sparkle. Someone asked her to describe the ideal listening setting for her debut full-length, True Romance, and her reply was as follows: “I reckon it probably would be under the ocean with glittering mermaids and Venus popping out of a shell. But the ocean is in the middle of a jungle and the sky is pink and has stars and unicorns jumping around in the background, things like that. It would be in a weird heavenly tropical jungle under the sea.” Don’t get it twisted: Charli XCX is just as much Lisa Frank as she is Hot Topic.
Taking the singer’s brooding lyrics and motley-Tumblr-kid style at face value is an important step to unpacking her pure pop ambition. The young U.K. starlet isn’t being ironic when she claims to idolize Britney Spears (pre- and post-K-Fed) and the Spice Girls. She adores French pseudo-celeb Uffie, too, so much so that her first stage appearances were as a 14-year-old rapping over Ed Banger-esque electro. Other early exploits including a ridiculous rhyme about T-Rex amorousness (“Dinosaur Sex”), jabs at vapid art-school scenesters (“Art Bitch” and “!Franchesckaar!”), and some indecipherable indie-dance vocoding (“I Wanna Be Darth Vader”). True Romance is a strident departure from those frivolities so far as solid, true-to-aim songwriting is concerned, but the divergence and a touch of the silliness remains: Goth, she is not. Dramatic? A bit. Complicated? Like every budding pop starlet. Defiant? Absolutely.
As it stands, there’s no doubt that Charli XCX’s biggest song isn’t here: That’d be “I Love It,” a track she wrote for Icona Pop that has since become an anthem fit for screamy mosh pits, ShoeDazzle ads, and Girls montages alike. But the biting “You (Ha Ha Ha)” gives True Romance that same spirit, preening and exuding a similarly youthful I-Don’t-Give-a-Fuckness with whiny synth loops pulled from Gold Panda’s “You” and a bitter angst generally reserved for high-school rivals and ex-boyfriends. In the video, she wears a neon cut-off shirt emblazoned with the word “CYBERDOG” while scoffing at a fizzled-out romance and offering a new diss — “You were old school / I was addicted to the new shit” — delivered with the same nostalgia eye-roll that powered the “I Love It” couplet, “You’re from the ’70s / And I’m a ’90s bitch.”
This in-your-face confidence often works against younger artists, but Charli has a steady grip. She’s not as cheeky as fellow U.K. spitfire Cher Lloyd, nor as coolly unnerved as Lily Allen, instead playing the part of a captivating, unapologetic, Internet-era fashion brat. For “Nuclear Season,” she offers a sarcastic, sexy drawl that mirrors Gwen Stefani at her empowered, boy-belittling best; guest star Brooke Candy plays the “Let Me Blow Ya Mind”-style Eve role on “Cloud Aura” as the two vocalists lay down the law on disrespectful, discarded crushes. “Take My Hand” is a shimmery throwback that reflects on happier days, where tales of sweet hand-holding leave her yearning for sleepless nights and cosmic head-rushes. As far as sex, there’s no pussy-footing about it: On “What I Like,” we learn that what she likes is her man “undressing at my house again.”
There’s a handful of people who’ve carved the way for this. Grimes made quirkiness an endearing, relatable oddball indie-pop ideal. Bat for Lashes and Glasser (whose producer, Ariel Rechtschaid, shows up here) favor spooky expansive synth beds similar to those unveiled on Charli’s tormented post-breakup lament “Stay Away” and the spaced-out, hallucinatory “Grins.” Balam Acab shares a fondness for drum kits with distorted echoes and witchy reverb. A weird, unforgiving outsiderness — embodied by the likes of, say, Siouxie Sioux — is also certainly at play.
What sets Charli apart, though, and ultimately works in True Romance’s favor — is that she’s not interested in being coy about her outsiderness. It’s actually something that the Tumblr generation exalts — tweens boldly embracing their tween-ness. Britney, she is not, but her collage of pop dreams, electro flash, and diary-rage lyrics could very well create a new generation of pop stars, one in which being a weirdo is a necessity.