Charli XCX’s Rock Reinvention Takes Shape at SXSW 2014


AUSTIN, TX: It’s easy to forget that a year ago, Charli XCX was just getting ready to launch her proper debut, True Romance. Instead of a l o n g campaign to promote the shit out of the excellent electro-pop LP, Charli was onto the next thing by September, releasing new single “SuperLove” and discussing her “raw,” Ramones-inspired, nearly-finished next album in the press.

When I saw she would be playing a lot of high-profile shows at SXSW this year, I had a feeling she had a few tricks up her sleeve. She doesn’t dwell on the past, so much so that she didn’t even play any True Romance tracks until the last song of her Friday afternoon set at the Under the Radar party at Flamingo Cantina. Even then, it wasn’t her “hit” “You – Ha Ha Ha,” but rather, “Grins.” With help from XCX’s new all-female backing band, the album cut was transformed from moody, production-heavy pop into a soulful rock jam. Charli’s committed to the new sound.

Earlier this week came the news that Charli teamed up with Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo and Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij for the new record, expected later this year via Asylum/Atlantic. Hearing new song “Breaking Up,” it was pretty obvious what Cuomo brought to the table. (Sidenote: Why is he so much better these days at helping others make prime Weezer cuts than writing his own? ) XCX’s band as at its finest on the cheeky rock kiss-off, full of harmonies and throwback pop bliss.


Hearing “Breaking Up,” in addition to her other promising new songs and a cover of thrashing cover of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy,” it struck me that XCX might be purposely bucking against the recent alt-pop trend of which she’s at the forefront. There’s some material here that seems to occupy the middle ground between raw rock and electronic rock, a la The Cure, but for the most part, 21-year-old Brit seemed to be on to the next thing.

By retreading the past for influences, I don’t know that Charli’s new work will reinvent the musical wheel or anything, but it’s clear she’s a trendsetter with longevity. She was smart to never stop promoting herself following the critical attention for True Romance, but what was even more shrewd was the way she seamlessly changed the conversation surrounding herself. Pop reinvention doesn’t always have to involve an over-the-top declaration and bold new look. That’s not how real people change. Instead of being a character, Charli is content to be herself through and through — and it’s exactly what pop needs.