If you are ever in need of a stark reminder that social media is not real life, I can recommend Zooming with Charli XCX. Moments before I am due to speak to the pop star, she posts a series of images on Instagram to trail the release of her new single, Baby. On all fours in a tasselled leather bikini, with dramatic eye makeup and talon-like nails, she is the epitome of the provocative, vampish pop star.
So when she appears live on my computer screen, it is slightly jarring to see the 29-year-old looking utterly ordinary: dark hair scraped back, no makeup, grey baggy jumper and cradling a mug of coffee. Instead of dramatically writhing, she is thoughtfully musing – in the kind of unclipped, middle-class English drawl that makes everything sound deadpan and dry – about her 13-year career, the majority of which has been spent at the coalface of experimental pop.
To be confronted by these two very different Charlis is extremely fitting. Because for her new album, Crash, the musician – otherwise known as Cambridge-born, Essex-raised Charlotte Aitchison – has decided to embrace the artifice and industrial mechanisms of big-money pop like never before. “I’ve been playing the game,” she explains, in her matter-of-fact way.
Despite signing a five-album major label deal at the age of 16, Aitchison has never neatly slotted into the mainstream pop landscape. She initially caught the attention of record executives with a string of bratty indie-electro tracks, which combined unfiltered, uber-British, Kate Nash-style vocals with nu-rave era keyboards (even their titles – Art Bitch, !Franchesckaar! – feel painfully evocative of their time). In 2013, she pivoted to moody, maximalist pop for her debut album, True Romance – which was greeted with good reviews but lacklustre sales – and in the same year scored a No 1 single with the anthemic I Love It (she gave the song to Swedish duo Icona Pop, but appeared on it as a featured artist).
And then she changed tack again. Working with members of the pioneering London label PC Music, Aitchison began moving in increasingly daring and innovative directions, helping to establish the abrasively modern and overwhelmingly digital genre known as hyperpop. This era has cemented her status as a critically celebrated pop futurist, beloved by a huge, devoted online fanbase – but it has also seen her move away from mass appeal. With Crash, she is resetting her sights on the mainstream: both in a genuine sense and in a tricksy, meta way – by approaching conventional pop stardom as a form of performance art.
Crash is at once, she says, a “great pop record” – full of slick, upbeat and hyper-consumable tracks with an 80s sonic flavour and 2020s urgency – and also a “commentary on what a pop star is.” The record will be her last in her deal with Atlantic (the storied major label whose artists also include Cardi B, Ed Sheeran and Sia), and to mark the occasion, Aitchison is conducting her “own personal experiment of how far I can push myself into this 2022 pop star character who’s signed to Atlantic Records”.
After years of rebelling against such a role, she is now embracing its trappings. Not only by writing songs that are more “commercially friendly” (see: the almost maddeningly infectious dance-pop of Good Ones), but also working with a broad spectrum of collaborators (Crash’s credits feature everyone from cerebral electronica maestro Oneohtrix Point Never to chart-pop producer Digital Farm Animals). She also uses interpolations – snippets of old songs woven into new material – to cultivate a sense of inbuilt familiarity: sultry recent single Beg for You featuring Rina Sawayama incorporates the Europop megahit Cry for You by Swedish singer September. All of this is designed to curry favour with hit-making streaming platforms, she explains, and help tracks fly on social media apps such as TikTok, which in turn will “allow the label to pour more money into the project”.
It is an approach you imagine may be lost on great swathes of the listening public – and Aitchison is keen to stress the album works as a straightforwardly enjoyable collection of tracks as well. Despite maintaining a massive profile over the past decade – no mean feat in the mercurial world of pop – Aitchison has never had a Top 10 album in the UK or US. It’s a situation that’s meant she’s spent practically her entire career on the brink of the big time. Is she hoping for a major commercial breakthrough to go with her majorly commercial attitude?
Not really, she says, with some ambivalence. In a sense, she has been there, done that and found the experience unfulfilling. In the mid-10s, Aitchison had a trio of bombastic hit singles that were for a time inescapable – she followed Icona Pop’s I Love It with similar crowd-pleasers such as Boom Clap and the Iggy Azalea collaboration Fancy – but it didn’t bring her any joy.
“I’ve never really cared a lot about commercial success after having experienced it and feeling really lost within it,” she says. “I think it’s cool that Beg for You is doing really well in the UK. Is it going to make me happy? Probably not. I think I’ve learned that I will never be satisfied; I get to one goal and it becomes irrelevant and I want to do the complete opposite.”
Wanting to do the complete opposite is actually the real reason Aitchison is embracing artifice, pretence and naked business-mindedness. She says she is rebelling against what she sees as a recent trend towards authenticity in pop: “Over the past four or five years there’s been this desperate craving of realness from pop stars – of needing pop stars to be human.” She doesn’t think social media is to blame, though admits that “obviously the more an artist is active on social media, the more ‘real’ they become, and fans feel like they know who they are”.
Instead, she sees it mainly “from the media and artists themselves: if I’m not seen as authentic or real, I’m not going to be able to be connected with, or they’re not going to believe me”. It’s a trend that not only encourages a down-to-earth persona among the megastars (see: Ed Sheeran, Adele), but also requires artists to have written their own material in order to be seen to be communicating something of themselves in their work. You only have to witness the recent furore when Damon Albarn claimed Taylor Swift didn’t write her own songs to realise how important this is to modern pop; Swift responded that it was “fucked up to try and discredit my writing”, and Albarn issued a grovelling apology.
As somebody concerned with pushing pop into the future – and also something of a contrarian – Aitchison feels as if she is over this. “I’ve already been authentic for a very long time and I’m interested in the opposite of that, to take songs that have been written for me, to play into this hypersexualised character. I’m just interested in doing what is not really wanted right now, which is probably my flaw,” she laughs.
It may not be a surefire path to popularity, but isn’t that how artists move culture forward? “To be honest I think it is and there are a lot of people who are annoyed at me for that. I’ve seen a lot of commentary [online] of ‘She’s taken it too far – she really has sold out!’ But people who take it too far are better than people who don’t. I don’t want to feel safe in the hands of musicians I admire, I want to feel like: fuck, I don’t know what they’re going to do next.”
Aitchison’s previous album, 2020’s Mercury prize-nominated How I’m Feeling Now, could be said to have gone too far in the “authentic” direction. Made at her LA home in just six weeks over the first lockdown, it was created DIY-style with help from PC Music founder AG Cook and Bon Iver producer BJ Burton – and also her fans, who were invited to give feedback on songs as they were being made. She workshopped lyrics with them on Instagram Live and invited them to submit artwork and video ideas. And she chronicled the whole exhausting process with great candour on her social media feeds (a documentary about the process, Alone Together, is coming to UK cinemas next month).
Aitchison says collaborating with her fans was a very easy process “because I have always really respected their taste. I genuinely feel that there are a lot of similarities between us: we grew up on the internet, my fans are also outsiders a little bit and I feel very much like that. We are very much inspired by queer culture and have been embraced by that community or, in some cases, are part of that community.”
She talks about her fans as if she knows each and every one of them personally – which, considering she has 3.9 million Instagram followers, is clearly impossible. How difficult is it to navigate this large-scale, internet-based relationship? “What are you trying to ask? I feel like you’re trying to ask something but you’re not fully asking it,” she shoots back.
I am not entirely sure what she means, but it’s clearly a delicate subject. I try again, more delicately. Does she think much about the unusual nature of these fan relationships – sometimes referred to as parasocial relationships – where one party has an intimate but completely one-sided knowledge of the other? “Totally, and I’m very much aware that comes with the territory, I think it would be extremely naive to not understand that.” Aitchison knows she is both the focus and also merely a convenient meeting point for like-minded people. “The artist is the common ground. I’ve had some fans tell me ‘I found my friend through your music’ or ‘We met at a show’ or whatever, so there is that connective tissue of me in their relationships.”
Still, being at the centre of a huge social media community is – famously – not all a bed of roses. With passionate devotion comes a sense of ownership and with that comes criticism – most vehemently directed at detractors, but also sometimes the artist in question, too. Aitchison admits this discourse can “sometimes cause pressure – well, not pressure, that’s the wrong word – but sometimes the way you can have the loudest voice in a fan community is by saying something negative about the artist. Unfortunately, we live in a world where positive isn’t really rewarded that much, especially online.”
In February, Aitchison wrote a post on Twitter telling her followers that she was stepping back from the platform. “I can’t really handle it on here right now,” she explained, having noticed “lately that a few people seem quite angry at me – for the choices of songs I’ve chosen to release, for the way I’ve decided to roll out my campaign, for the things I need to do to fund what will be the greatest tour I’ve ever done, for things I say, things I do”. Some of the criticism was directed at her new music and some was prompted by her decision to play at the exclusive Las Vegas music festival Afterparty, where tickets are linked to the ownership of NFTs – an event she has since pulled out of.
She doesn’t particularly want to talk about the statement, she says, but gamely gives what sounds like a well-rehearsed overview. “I have felt really, really low for the majority of this year so far and that’s actually unrelated to my career, it’s just a general feeling I’ve been trying to deal with. And obviously when you’re feeling low, things that sometimes aren’t really very triggering to you suddenly become triggering. Therefore, reading comments on social media, no matter what they’re about, is sometimes just hard to deal with when you’re already in a low space. It’s not that deep – if you feel sad don’t read bad things about yourself – but it’s also so instinctual of humans to focus on the negative and the danger and try and protect yourself.”
Has she stayed off social media? “I stuck to it for a week but now I’m very much back on,” she admits. This becomes very apparent in the days after we speak, when she makes headlines for replying to a critical fan. “Bitch BYE. I will NEVER understand what possesses people to be such C*NTS online,” went one since-deleted tweet.
Ultimately, though, Aitchison’s social media break is symbolic of a much bigger shift she dreams of making in her life. “I’ve been doing this since I was 16 years old – I’m going to be 30 in August. I feel like I need to just take time to be a human being and live and maybe not constantly be thinking about music.” Is that something she’s been able to start doing yet? She practically scoffs at the suggestion. “No, not right now because I’m obviously about to release the album. Maybe after this album.” She muses on the practicalities. “I don’t know if it’s possible, because it’s all I’ve done in my life – this is my life, it’s not something I can dip in and out of.”
She may be a self-confessed workaholic, but Aitchison is aware that a golden opportunity to pause is approaching. She describes the conclusion of her Atlantic deal as “the end of an era, it’s very comparable to completing school” as well as an “in limbo time. I’m not just saying this because I don’t want to tell you: I genuinely don’t know what I’m going to do next: whether I’m going to sign another deal with Atlantic, whether I’m going to sign with a different major, whether I’m going to go independent.”
It is also a chance to look back at the 16-year-old her, who made inroads into the industry by uploading her songs to Myspace, where they gained impressive traction for the time. Now, of course, the sorts of numbers required to get the attention of labels are vastly different: “I did have online success, not really at the level that artists who are signed young now have – like a million TikTok followers or whatever.”
Aitchison is not nostalgic for that less complicated time – in fact, she welcomes TikTok wholeheartedly, delighted by its power to resurrect older songs and take away some of pop’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it time-sensitivity. Last year, her 2017 track Unlock It, overlooked at the time of release, went through a mini resurgence on the platform. “It felt really cool that Unlock It had that moment because I’ve always loved that song,” she enthuses. “And for the record I really love TikTok. In ways, I wish I had only just started my career because I feel like I would absolutely crush on TikTok at 16; I’d be making TikToks every single day, doing dance routines constantly.”
You don’t doubt the teenage Aitchison would have known exactly what to do with 2022’s technology if she’d been handed it in 2008: this restless, pioneering pop star has always been ahead of her time.
Crash is out now. Alone Together is in cinemas for one night only on 14 April and shows at BFI Flare, London, 19 March.