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Building the Imperfect Pop Star

Charli XCX is responsible for one of the year's biggest hits — so why isn't she huge yet?

It’s a propitiously bright summer evening in Central Park, and three teen girls in high-waisted jean shorts and paper-thin tops are talking. “Did you guys, like, tell your parents you were in New York City?” We’re at Rumsey Playfield for a U.K. starlet double bill — melodramatic chanteuse Marina and the Diamonds and her opening act, Charli XCX — and these three might-be runaways are part of a bubbly invading horde. Some have come with parents in tow. One fortysomething man in a thin goatee stands stoically in the back with a bulging Harley-Davidson leather fanny pack parked emphatically on his waist.1 Many are quite likely at their first-ever show. One girl, with a weak grasp of the general concept here, expresses delight that she can see the stage; she was apparently expecting screens projecting a live feed of the concert taking place somewhere else. Nearby, an oblivious and mostly toothless security guard is explaining to a female coworker that he’s been MIA due to court-mandated anger-management classes. She casts a bemused looks at the squealing masses around her, already bopping to “Oops! … I Did It Again,” and offers a friendly instruction: “Remember to breathe.”

Backstage, the diminutive Charli — who, in her customary skimpy plaid skirt and massive Baby Spice platforms, looks a few shy of her 20 years — play-wrestles with her videographer boyfriend, Ryan. Beside them, her band silently enjoys the complimentary pizza. There’s Sixpoint on tap, an elegantly graying lady working a busy massage station, and picture-perfect Central Park foliage swaying lazily above our heads. And so despite beefy, calf-tattooed security guards and harried tour managers humping bulky laptops, it’s safe to say the scene is downright serene. Though you don’t have to dig deep to find a few pressure points.

Charli XCX has been performing professionally since she was 14, when she signed to Atlantic Records. Throughout her teen years, she’s casually stoked her ascendance with a string of one-off singles snapped up and triumphed by the Internet’s early adopters. Then, around this time last year, the tenor of the operation changed.

Charli wrote a hit song. It’s called “I Love It,” and it’s a glorious ode to fucking shit up that has charted in more than a dozen countries and soundtracked reality shows and animated movies and cell phone commercials and even fueled Lena Dunham’s coke binge on an episode of Girls and why am I telling you any of this because you’ve heard it 10 billion times. The second thing that happened is that Charli’s proper debut, True Romance, was released in April. You may not have heard it. A finely manicured collection of her Internet hits outfitted with all-new haunted-house synth anthems, it’s a convincing document as to why, if you care about the future of pop music, you should pay attention to Charli XCX.

But the real story here — and it’s glaring — is that Charli gave “I Love It” to the Swedish duo Icona Pop. And more crucially, nothing on True Romance would be allowed near the club while “I Love It” is in there holding down the VIP. And so, after years of gradually fashioning herself as a bona fide potential pop breakout, Charli did land a hit single. Only she did it for somebody else.

It’s reductive to say, with the album finally out and a solo tour kicking off in August, that the clock is ticking. Atlantic has been patient, Charli’s only 20, and she has just begun to work her stuff live in the U.S. But no one is sheepish here. Ed Howard, the Atlantic A&R rep who signed Charli and has worked with her closely ever since, says that at “14, she had this ambition. She wants to be a big, big artist.”

Charli XCX finds herself stuck between two worlds. For alt-pop stars — the pretty young things with radio-friendly aspirations and support from the machine who insist on writing their own material — there are facts with which to contend. Lily Allen had it for a while, and maybe could have kept it had she really wanted it. Robyn had the charts, disappeared, then came back, smaller and on her own terms. Diplo’s still bummed that M.I.A. stopped listening to him after “Paper Planes.”

There is another side of the divide: the polished, corporate artists. Fresh off a seven-albums-in-seven-years run, Rihanna is a malleable cypher and increasingly celebrated for it. Nicki Minaj forced down producer RedOne’s screwdriver-to-the-cortex single “Starships” and grinned right through it. Stalwart Britney Spears was chewed up by the system and spat out. But after her 2008 conservatorship, she reentered the frame. Her reward: maintaining her A-list status. There are rules to pop fame.

Or, at least, there were. “Pop music’s about to change,” Charli says backstage, supremely confident. “Why run a race that’s practically finished when you can start your own?” In 2013, who do we want to trust more: the amorphous rules of the industry’s production line or some plucky kid from the suburbs of London?

Charli XCX says she can do it her way. Atlantic’s betting she’s right. So you know what? The clock is ticking.

What’s up New York!” she yells, sprinting onstage. “My name is Charli XCX!” And then she’s off. There’s the hip-to-hip swivel, the head bangs, the arms–outstretched–palms–up–Whatdya got? move. There’s the hands-on-thighs knees-together bounce, the grabbing-the-bottom-of-the-skirt, the jumping-up-and-down-in-place. On her various sing-talk bridges, when she rips the mic off the stand and stalks the stage, there’s the surprisingly effective rap-hand move. Most of all, there’s the trademark hair flip, a thick tangle of black moving with her from side to side.

Certain tracks spike the primed crowd, particularly the operatic “Nuclear Seasons.” But it’s “I Love It” that goes the hardest. “This is a song that I’m featured on and that I wrote,” Charli announces, which is sort of an awkward thing to say emphatically. Still, it’s a potent little performance. At the end, two fingers in the air, she cries out, “Goodnight! I’m Charli XCX! Peace! Out!” Mic drop.

Back when Charli was still Charlotte Aitchison2 — a restless, artsy kid in the sleepy Southern England town of Hertfordshire — she convinced her father to fund a debut album. The result, 14, was never properly released, but the precocious material — the swooning “Art Bitch,” the jagged kiss-off “!Franchesckaar!” — landed her attention. Charli was spotted on Myspace — back when that kind of thing was actually still happening — by a party promoter working the hip East London illegal warehouse circuit. “His name was Chaz Cool,” Charli says. “He played in a band called the Coolness. Very cool.”

One of her first gigs, Charli recalls, was at an old peanut factory, where the stages were planks of wood balanced on kegs. “People dressed up like zebras and giraffes,” she says. “I had a lightsaber.” Not long after, major label reps started rolling in. “They were all in their suits at 4 a.m. They stood out real bad.” Howard remembers seeing her for the first time at an East London pub called the Coach & Horses at three in the morning. “There was no stage. I couldn’t work out where she was gonna play. Then this little girl, she gets up on a chair in the middle of the room, with a microphone, her iPod plugged into the stereo, with a wig on. And she was amazing: rolling around the floor, stomping around the crowd. It was like performance art.”

“As soon as I signed,” Charli remembers, “I said, ‘I hate this, I wanna play in East London forever!’ Which, was, like, when I was really fucking stupid.” Confused as to how she wanted to progress, she stopped for a bit. “I didn’t really do anything because I didn’t want to sign that over to somebody else, and never be able to take it back. So I took a break.”

At 16, she agreed to have Atlantic pair her up with producers. She was flown to L.A. for the first time, and did “the really soul-destroying go-from-session-to-session kind of thing” with major producers. On the last day of the trip, hours before her flight, a defeated Charli met with Ariel Rechtshaid, best known at the time for Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah.”

They rendezvoused at a coffee shop across the street from his Echo Park apartment, hit it off, then quickly moved to his home studio. “She got on the mic, started rapping, freestyling,” Rechtshaid recalls. “I didn’t really expect that to happen right away.” In minutes, Charli had “Stay Away,” and her new sound: a darker, moodier, more desperate thing. “The label was confused,” Rechtshaid says. “They were like, ‘This is clearly awesome, but it’s nothing like what we’ve been working on for the past couple of years.'”

“Usually, as soon as you step out of the session, you think it’s the shittiest song in the world,” Charli explains. “But that was the first song I hadn’t done that with. I kept playing it on repeat on the plane. I was like ‘Whoa. Whoa! WHOA!'”

The Central Park show was Charli’s last opening gig for Marina. Now she’s on her own. First up: an in-store at the basement of an Urban Outfitters in Soho. There’s a recognizable demographic — girls with tiny dogs taking selfies, dads dressed like Judd Apatow3 — sitting and waiting eagerly, staring at the glowing neon rhombuses backdropping the stage. When Charli trots out, the crowd rises, shouting and swarming forward en masse. “I like your shoes!” rises above the din. They’re a sort of Fifth Element–esque strappy platform. One girl, hearing the music start, sprints out a back hallway, drops to one knee, and perfectly executes a Vine; another excitable young woman sings along to every word while adding her own emphatic eyes-closed-hands-to-the-heavens-speaking-in-tongues choreography.

Charli closes out with “one you’ll know”: her unironic cover of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” This crowd is psyched for the sing-along. Then it’s “Peace out!” again, and down the hall, into an elevator, past the Hanger Station, and deep into the bowels of Urban Outfitters.

Charli, Ryan, the band, and the rest of the crew file into a room outfitted with tapestries and throw pillows, where a big, burly, bald British man — Charli’s manager, Dave — has been Hoovering chips and hummus. “They liked the Backstreet cover!” he says by way of hello. “That sounded dismissive — ‘Well, they liked the Backstreet cover.'”

Charli heads upstairs to sign CDs, and faces a line that’s out the store and down the block. Collages and tinfoiled food trays are laid at her feet. One chubby kid tells her, “I tried to meet you last night, but security … ” The crazed girl from the front row charges up and declares “You’re, like, the baddest bitch.” After her fans depart, Charli reaps the spoils of low-level fame: free stuff. She wanders the store, collecting a tidy pile of garments as a pair of Secret Service types trail behind. Before her gifting spree, she jokes to the store manager, “I won’t talk to anyone. Tell them not to look me in the eyes!”

Charli XCX

Charli’s first stop after a day’s work is a janky karaoke bar near the Holland Tunnel, abandoned on this weekday except for a young curly-haired woman and a middle-aged Asian man intently singing Enrique Iglesias’s “Hero.” Charli leads the crew to a big back room, and a string of hits pour forth.

Charli’s first selection is a bellwether for the night. The music video accompanies Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” and Charli is transfixed. “I used to want to be Avril. I used to wear the ties.” In sync, she mouths the intro: “Dude, you wanna crash the mall?” On “Call Me Maybe,” Charli runs around the room, hair-flipping her way through a call-and-response, happily rooting on her Atlantic marketing rep. “Tony, are you harmonizing?” City High’s “What Would You Do?” comes off huge, with Charli assuming a B-boy stance. She shrugs it off when she gets the wrong “Let’s Dance”: “It’s not Bowie, it’s 5ive! Oh, I still know it.” Meanwhile, shots of tequila are lifted for keyboardist Tom’s birthday. “It’s Tommy’s 21st tonight, yeah!” “Oh, baby, sweet 16!” Tom, it turns out, is 31.

Finally, when the Spice Girls’ turn comes up, things go up a notch. There’s a brief conversation about which song to choose — “Wannabe”? “Spice Up Your Life”? — before an executive decision is made: “Both!” Charli quibbles with Ryan over who gets to be Baby Spice, then hops up on the couch to face her willing audience, like she’s fronting a hardcore band. Dave calls out instructions: “Everyone in the house for this! It’s getting fookin’ rough!” Charli does the “la la las” in Tony’s face; the whole room cries out the initial “Yooooo I’ll tell you what I want” crest. As we walk out of the bar, sweaty and triumphant,4 Charli lets out a series of “Bwah! Bwah!” shouts. Then, briefly, she joins the curly-haired woman and the Asian man on “Hey Jude.”

At night’s end, we’re rebuffed from a quasi-legal Chinatown venue where the band Cerebral Ballzy is playing. So the posse lands at an Edison-bulb-lit cocktail bar where a girl in a Dennis Rodman jersey and a besuited Danger Mouse drink martinis and watch a man in white pants and a popped collar crush it on the dance floor.

Grown-ups who love pop music often have an uneasy relationship with it. It’s not the guilty-pleasure aspect; in post-taste America, any genre is as valid as the next. But there is the machine to consider. We pay tribute to Dr. Luke and Max Martin, and marvel at the mysterious ways they make us sing our lungs out. We want to know the secret formula, but more than that, we want proof that it exists: that devious string-pullers have figured out an algorithm to make the right synapses fire. We wince at the cynicism, and fear the implications. Ultimately, it would be comforting to know our pop needs are being taken care of by androids.

You’d think the combination of Charli XCX and Atlantic — a malleable young pop entity meeting a major-label budget — would be ripe for the machine.5 But at no point since signing that 14-year-old girl running around pubs in wigs — when she was, in her own words, “rapping about ponies and rainbows and glitter and cupcakes” — has Atlantic forced her hand.

And the big names are perhaps not quite as shackled as we imagine. Rechtshaid has worked with Justin Bieber, and describes those sessions as not fundamentally dissimilar to his work with Charli. “There’s a whole team behind him,” Rechtshaid says. “A machine making the Justin Bieber thing work. But at the heart of it is just Bieber in the studio, vibing out. He might be into five songs, and only one of those attracts the label. But if he’s not feeling it, it’s not even going to the next level.”

“Obviously you can’t compete with sheer dollars,” says Jasper Goggins, label manager for Diplo’s Mad Decent, which recently branched out with a radio-targeting R&B singer named LIZ. “Those [major label] campaigns, when they’re trying to build a pop star, there’s money being spent on everything from vocal coaching to choreography to videos to studio time to producers to topline writers.” So the dwindling importance of traditional platforms like radio airplay means major label money is mitigated, not devalued. Now those same resources shift to, say, ensuring the artist is getting prime Vevo side-banner action. But there are certain holes that money can’t fill.

Manish Raval is a music supervisor for Girls and other shows. He’s inundated with pitches, and swears he gives each one, “from multiplatinum acts to GarageBand tracks,” equal weight. “It’s one of the few areas where acts can still make money,” Raval says. “And I mean, it’s like hitting the lottery — you land an amazing feature, sales skyrocket. And they didn’t even have to do anything for it. We did all the work.”

But unlike a radio DJ, Raval has no vested interest in picking one label’s track over the other: He doesn’t need to maintain relationships, get exclusives, land big names to play the station’s annual summer concerts. He only has to make his employers — the showrunners — happy. When Raval picked “I Love It” for Girls, the song hadn’t yet been officially released. There wasn’t pressure to bet on a winning horse. It was, at that moment, anonymous. Until a payola scandal erupts within the world of TV music supervisors, the well appears to be thus far unpoisoned.

Charli XCX

We care about the process of creating pop stars because we care about pop stars. Says Rechtshaid: “The greatest God-sent prophets were pop musicians.” We care about the machine because it provides a sense of order and dependability. Your future stars are currently being minted. It’s corporate totalitarianism in the name of comfort.

But the machine is subtler than that. Take Kuk Harrell, an in-demand vocal coach. The New York Times, in profiling Harrell last year, explained his process: “In the studio, rarely, if ever, does a star sing a song the whole way through. Instead Mr. Harrell builds a gleaming whole from granular bits. A singer working with Mr. Harrell covers a few bars — a line or two, maybe four — over and over, with different emphases and inflections, until Mr. Harrell hears what he wants. The process repeats for each section. Only later, after the singer is gone, does Mr. Harrell stitch the best pieces together, Frankenstein-like, into the song you hear.” So yes, that really is your favorite pop star singing. And, no, they will never sing that pristinely again. They never did in the first place. This may be the most profound manipulation in the star machine.

But how are they promoted within the system? “I’d been asked to be featured on some crazy tracks,” Charli mentions at one point. She declined those opportunities. “That’d be like a shortcut for me.” But if Charli had nabbed a Dr. Luke production, or hopped on a song with Lady Gaga, or been forced by label overlords to keep “I Love It” for herself, would she be more of a sure thing? Maybe this isn’t so complicated. “Do [major labels] know what they’re doing?” Goggins asks. “That’s a good question for anybody. We’re all trying. They’re just spending more money.”

When I ask Charli about “I Love It” — if she feels even a twinge of regret — she cuts me off: “Everyone asks that.” After writing a song, Charli can usually pair it with a visual. (An example: the video for “You (Ha Ha Ha),” in which Charli and a crew of female assassins pop off with lipstick bullets.) After writing “I Love It,” nothing visual came to mind. She felt it didn’t reflect her life at the time, that she couldn’t connect with it. “It’s elevated me as a writer,” she says. “And it’s paying off a load of debt that I’m in. Which is great, yeah? It’s making my record label happy and it’s making my publisher happy, but it’s also enabling me to say, ‘I’m gonna make the weirdest second album ever! And no one can stop me! ‘Cause I made you loads of money!'”

She’s not joking: “It’s kind of actually freaking them out. I sent my record label this Serge Gainsbourg song the other day and they were like, ‘What?’ And I was like, ‘Don’t worry, you just don’t get it, but you will.'” She pauses. “They will.”

Ed Howard says the label isn’t worried about Charli’s instincts. “We’re not concerned about her ability to get behind another one.”

One night after karaoke, Charli performs at Glasslands in Williamsburg, a lightly renovated former DIY space now brandishing air conditioning and at least minor concessions to the fire code.6 It’s 21-plus, so there are no parents here; the kids at this sold-out show are the ones who read about her on Pitchfork. The stage is decorated with a glow-stick canopy and Charli’s brought her own glowing mic stand. “What’s up, New York! My name is Charli XCX!” she shouts. “God, I’m so hungover tonight.”

There are smoke machines, “fucks” uttered, and more air-humping. But this is the same Charli: the hair flip, the rap hands, the stomping around the lip of the stage. “This is my first headline show in a while,” she says. “It’s kind of rusty and raw. But I’m sure you like raw.” Again, she closes with “I Want It That Way,” and it’s another instant sing-along. But she’s apparently made some imperceptible mistake. Her last words, before exiting stage left: “I fucked it.”

Afterward, in the tiny, graffiti-marked backroom, Charli meets with a superfan in a motorized wheelchair as the band breaks down their own equipment. It’s a long way from the Marina and the Diamonds tour, and even further from the European arenas she was playing with Coldplay last summer. But no one seems to mind.

Backstage at Central Park, I’d asked Charli about the plan. “I’m ambitious, but it’s not something I need. I’m happy to be making the music that I love, and doing fucking punk-ass gigs and shit. And if the pop world isn’t ready for that, then that’s their loss.” She smiled. “Like, I’d rather have fun than be a cunt.”

This article has been updated to correct the claim that the record label IAMSOUND is distributed by Atlantic Records. They are separate entities.

Filed Under: Music, Charli XCX, Amos Barshad

Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad