Interview by Adam Gold.
Twenty-one-year-old English singer-songwriter Charli XCX has had a hell of a rise. She co-wrote (and was featured on) Icona Pop's 2012 banger "I Love It," released her debut album True Romance earlier this year, and recently put out the single "SuperLove," a dreamy but upbeat synth-pop track that brings to mind the disco classic "More More More" along with fast-talking hip-hop influences. She's part of a wave of young women — including Janelle Monáe, Marina and the Diamonds, Ellie Goulding, Lorde and even Miley Cyrus (yes!) — who make modern pop music that is tinged with a good-natured, youthful weirdness that hasn't been this popular or respected since the days of Eurythmics and Cyndi Lauper.
"I don't know about where I fit in," Charli (birth name Charlotte Aitchison) tells the Scene via phone from London. "I just make music to be myself."
Aitchison's performance at Bonnaroo this summer was a treat: The young women in the audience cleaved from their boyfriends and enjoyed themselves in a particularly raucous way. At smaller club shows, I was told, mothers brought their daughters, even though conventional wisdom would seem to advise against bringing your kids to a concert where the performer isn't shy about topics like drugs.
"I feel like parents aren't stupid," says Charli. "In every Top 40 song you hear about sex, drugs or money. 'Go and take lots of drugs.' That's not what I'm saying.
"I don't see myself as someone to look up to," she continues. "I don't see myself as being an idol. I'd never encourage that. I don't think it's healthy."
Charli has noticed that her audience caps out at about 25 years old, but that many of her fans are "14-, 15-, 16-year-olds." She enjoys having young women at club shows, noting that "it means a little bit more to them." And she's still young enough to remember what pop influenced her as a kid, citing Britney Spears, The Spice Girls, Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake as childhood idols.
Speaking of Justin, Tennessee's own "Triple-Threat" Timberlake will spend his Friday night at Bridgestone Arena. Rather than a year of ascension, though, his 2013 outings have been underwhelming. Instead of hitting a sophomore slump (his second studio album FutureSex/LoveSounds contained forever hits like "SexyBack" and "Summer Love"), Timberlake apparently decided to tackle junior and senior year at the same time, releasing the double-album-but-not-a-double-album The 20/20 Experience in two separate pieces. The heavily anticipated single "Suit & Tie" was fun — until we heard "Get Lucky" and "Blurred Lines." And the first single from the second half of The 20/20 Experience was foolishly named "Take Back the Night," which anyone who's set foot on a college campus in the past 35 years would recognize as the organization that aims to eradicate sexual violence against women.
The "Take Back the Night" misstep is especially embarrassing for an artist of Timberlake's caliber. 'N Sync formed in 1995; he's been a mainstream pop performer for 18 years now. Someone somewhere along the line should have known better. He's been so consistently reliable as an adult songwriter and performer, it's almost difficult to remember that he's a child star made good. Timberlake is the only person from his generation of boy and girl bands to escape not only unscathed, but to achieve legitimate success in the pop and R&B world. His 'N Sync bandmates and Tiger Beat faux-rivals Backstreet Boys were nowhere near as talented, or lucky.
In fact, the most interesting The Backstreet Boys have been in years is thanks to Charli XCX and her live performances of their 1999 hit "I Want It That Way." Trading the late 20th century bombast of the original for a synth-y, minimalistic, '80s-inspired slow-jam approach, a song typically dismissed as teenybopper hokum is transformed into something decidedly more adult.
Charli and many of her contemporaries create such interesting, left-of-center pop that it's almost like a transitory stepping-stone for many teens into the wider indie world. After all, true pop fans can acknowledge the importance of melody in any genre. Charli seems to grasp that readily, citing '60s French pop as an influence. Not to mention another seemingly less likely influence.
"I love Bread very much. I feel like all of my melodies are Bread melodies."
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