‘Crash’: another failed mainstream attempt
Charli XCX’s new album “Crash” came out this week on March 18. It’s an electro-pop confection that is designed to bridge the gap between Charli’s experimental side and the music that might actually be played on the radio. In that regard, it’s probably a failure.
Charli had a few brushes with mainstream success early in her career: she scored a feature on Iggy Azalea’s number one hit “Fancy,” had her song “Boom Clap” featured in “The Fault in Our Stars,” and sang lead on Icona Pop’s “I Love It.” But in 2015 she swerved away from the pop mainstream by releasing “Vroom Vroom,” an “avant pop” record produced by experimental electronic music producer SOPHIE. Instead of a B-List celebrity pop star, Charli transitioned into a role as an A-List indie pop star and has released a slew of experimental EPs and albums since. A common joke is that her music now sounds like pots and pans clanging together, but while pots and pans won’t make it on the radio, she’s certainly had a niche.
Then, last year, she released “Good Ones.” “Good Ones,” a pop single about being bad at dating, was the most typical song she’d released in years. With it came the tweet “rip hyperpop,” hailing the end of the experimental genre she’d previously been lumped into, and, in many ways, been the biggest star of.
Now, four attempts at “mainstream” pop singles later, comes “Crash.” The album rollout and simultaneous transition into more typical pop have not been without hiccups. At one point, after a tepid fan response to her single “beg for you,” she released a statement asking people to stream it anyway so she could write more avant-garde pop later. She also called a fan a “c*nt” for finding the singles mediocre. The album is here, but it wasn’t an easy journey.
Yet for all the histrionics accompanying the album’s release, it’s a very good electro-pop album that, surprisingly (given Charli’s shouting about creating something mainstream), doesn’t sound like the current mainstream at all.
The biggest stars in pop music of the past few years have been Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, The Weeknd, Dua Lipa, Lil Nas X, and Ariana Grande. Charli sounds like none of these people. Of the mainstream sound, the closest she gets is via the ever-popular ’80s inspiration which is also present on The Weeknd and Dua Lipa’s recent albums. But, while they err on the side of Michael Jackson and Madonna musically, Charli sounds like Stacey Q, Rick James, and Janet Jackson. It’s easier to listen to than her “pots-and-pans” content, but sanding off the edges of her sound hasn’t made Charli more current.
But while she’s still unlikely to get a real radio hit out of the album, that hasn’t proved detrimental to the music. The title track begins the album and is the most reminiscent of her hyper-pop past in its use of vocal splices, but now they’re melded with a new jack swing influence that’s indicative of Charli’s larger approach to reference.
New jack swing was a trend beginning in the late ’80s, combining R&B with rap and dance music for a peppy, excited, manic music style. Despite our cultural music obsession with the ’80s, new jack swing hasn’t really made a revival in the 2010-20s. Yet Charli, ever the pop music intellectual, can take the manic quality of new jack swing and combine it with the similarly manic nature of her electronic pop. It works well, allowing current Charli to combine her predisposition for energetic, dizzying music with a previously mainstream music tradition.
The strongest song on the album is its eighth track, “Lightning.” Charli has long shown a facility with tone-shifting pop centerpieces (“Track 10,” anyone?), but here she refrains from the attention-grabbing clanging that defined her previous entries in this category. Instead, “Lightning” grabs attention through its sheer number of hooks and constant left turns. Its slow start belies a bright yet morose electronic love song that seems to be more regretful of love than anything.
“Lightning” works partly because it contrasts the album’s largest flaw: the songs are simply too short and it’s the fault of her mainstream pop ambitions. “Lightning” is the only song over three and a half minutes, and thank God for that because the tonal shifts the song makes require a longer time. For some reason, the mainstream trend of short songs is the sole one that Charli has actually followed through. Spotify’s economic strategy has rendered short songs more profitable as it means more of them can be played, and it’s led to situations like Ariana Grande’s “Positions” having no songs longer than four minutes.
It’s unfortunate that Charli has followed suit. Many of her songs here could use a little breathing room — they’re all so jammed with songwriting “moments” that it can be hard to catch your breath, and it hurts the album as a whole. Listening to “Crash” straight through means that a strong song is likely to be missed because these short, intense bursts of energy blend together. “Move Me” and “Every Rule” in particular are lost in the shuffle of the album’s near-constant push forward.
The short-song issue is particularly difficult to grapple with because of its purely commercial nature. Charli knows better than this. For all her intelligence as a writer, she is seemingly incapable of identifying her audience. None of her singles off this album have charted in the United States, but she’s creating music as if she expects to go to the top 10. The strongest parts of the album are the moments when she lets the mainstream go. Hyper pop may be dead, but Charli XCX, pop auteur, needs to live.