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Charli XCX embraces pop like never before on CRASH

If Charli XCX had gorged on all that pop stardom had to offer when it was first presented to her on a silver platter nearly a decade ago, she would be unrecognizable by now. That isn’t to say that she wouldn’t have been able to convincingly slide into the Main Pop Girl role post-”Boom Clap” and “Fancy” in the early 2010s – she might have actually done so a little too meticulously. From the very beginning of her mainstream presence, Charli has demonstrated a monstrous natural instinct for the melodic and lyrical structures that reflect the best of what pure pop music has to offer. She even had the quintessential Tumblr It Girl image on lock. And once she was signed into a five-album recording contract with Atlantic Records, she had all of the resources (read: money and access) she could possibly need to dominate as one of the genre’s most prolific figureheads.

But the give and take relationship between an artist and a major label is not without compromise. If Charli had played by the music industry rules, performing all of the big-budget, choreography-heavy, and aesthetic-driven pop girl duties that would have been asked of her, the artistic freedom that has afforded her the signifier of futuristic pop disrupter over the past half-decade would likely have been siphoned from her in the process. “If I wanted to make loads of fucking money, I’d make the whole album with Stargate and learn how to dance properly, and I’d kill it,” Charli told TIME in 2015 while promoting Sucker, her sophmore record that – however reluctantly – adhered to a safe vision of what her version of palatable pop could be, just left-of-center enough to make a statement about her artistry without ruffling too many feathers internally. “It would be fucking easy for me.”

But she couldn’t restructure pop while simultaneously serving as a piece on its game board. Part of what Charli was able to do is not something that many pop artists, particularly women, are afforded the opportunity to even attempt, which is take the time to explore and develop a meaningful understanding of what her creative landscape looks like. There’s a rarity to the act of spending years wandering down these weird sonic paths while still having a presence in the pop arena without fully committing to residing there. And her formula for keeping that door open for herself was more strategic than she’s been given credit for. Even when she was huddled up in the studio creating club-ready hyperpop with PC Music founder A.G. Cook, her creative director and closest collaborator, she never really went away.

There was a tongue-in-cheek-ness to the way the singer littered subtle reminders that she knows pop inside and out throughout the mid- to late-2010s. She didn’t make that easy money album with Stargate, but they did serve as producers on the 2015 Selena Gomez single she wrote. “Same Old Love” peaked at No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100 with Charli’s unmistakable musical identity all over it – down to the backing vocals tucked into the chorus. It was an understated call-back to when she passed “I Love It” off to Icona Pop three years prior. Then, there was “Boys,” released in 2017 as the second single to a leaked-then-scrapped third studio album with a female-gaze frenzy of a music video, boasting dozens of male celebrity cameos from Joe Jonas and Aminé to Kaytranada and Jack Antonoff. The following year, Charli hit the road with Taylor Swift as an opener on the Reputation stadium tour.

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