Midway through her Manchester gig, Charli XCX addresses Douchegate.
For those mercifully unaware of the spurious shit-storm, it involves LGBTQ fans requested she autograph increasingly bizarre items, which started in September when she signed a bottle of poppers. But that was merely an amuse-bouche (amuse-douche?) to the outrage-provoking main course – where she was asked to add her imprinter to the urn containing the cremated ashes of somebody’s dead mother, and an anal douche.
Cue a flurry of hair-trigger opinion pieces and tweets accusing fans of using meet and greets to take advantage of her “online clout” to boost their own profile; ignoring the irony that a journalist on Twitter complaining about others courting attention is like a flasher calling a nudist an “exhibitionist”. In the past, it would have merely been a trump-card weird anecdote for her to wheel out in interviews but in the bin-fire of 2019, it has to be conflated with toxic misogyny among gay male stan culture. Charli XCX was having none of it, pointing out hacks’ “fake wokeness”.
It’s a theme she underlines tonight. Before launching into the woozy track ‘February 2017’, she says, “I won’t lie. There’s been some drama on the internet for me in the past 24 hours. But I just want to say, it’s all fucking love.”
“So, everything in 2019 is so fucking serious. And sometimes that’s a real good thing because people need to be educated and sometimes it can go too fucking deep. And I just want to have a good time with my fans and I now understand me and I understand them. We’re all on the same page and it’s all love and I wouldn’t be here without you so I fucking love you guys, okay.”
She’s here toasting her latest album, ‘Charli’ – her first in five years (another team-up with the similarly boundary pushing AG Cook of PC Collective), following a series of mixtapes – which blends her trademark aspirational hedonism with tracks that explore a candid, heart-on-sleeve vulnerability. None of the big-names that grace the record – which include Chris(tine) and the Queens, Sky Ferreira, Lizzo and Haim – appear tonight, although her collaborators do receive a shout-out on a pre-recorded intro.
Instead, sans a live band, backing dancers, she’s the sole focus, effortlessly commanding the stage while performing in front of a cube, subsumed in smoke and strobes. She’s always flirted between club experimentation and pure pop hooks, and tonight the atmosphere veers more towards a sweaty after-hours rave.
She kicks off with the cacophonous ‘Next Level Charli’ and ‘Click’, which marries firecracker snaps with rapid-fire tongue-twister lyrics, her devoted Angels fanbase reflect each word back at her. The pace lets us for the ‘80s ballad ‘I Don’t Wanna Know’ as dry ice fittingly swirls around her, while the dirty beats of day-glo rave-up ‘Vroom Vroom’ elicit moshing. The bangers come thick and fast, including her Christine and the Queens collab ‘Gone’, a howl of insecurity shielded by protective dancefloor armour, and the autotuned Haim assisted trop-bop ‘Warm’.
The lovely ‘Official’ is Charli at her most guard-dropping. She pulls out all the tricks in the pop show playbook, from costume changes to commanding that the crowd crouch down before jumping up like whack-a-moles during ‘I Got It’. “It’ll look great on Instagram!” she insists.
She’s treated as a sybil by her queer fans, and they’re out in force tonight in colourful costumes and wielding banners. “I see you holding up a sign but my eyesight is terrible,” she exclaims, noticing one. “I hope it says something nice!” (Fingers crossed it isn’t: ‘PLEASE AUTOGRAPH MY DEAD, STUFFED DOG’’). “Thank you for turning up in these sick outfits and coming to party with me, the future of pop music,” she adds, acting as her own hype artist.
She pays tribute to the LGBTQ+ community by draping a rainbow flag around her during the braggadocios ‘I Got It’, and bringing out a cadre of local drag artists and voguers.
Charli has been applauded for her adventurous spirit throughout her career; her songs go in more unexpected directions than one of her meet and greets. However, the big-hitters – where Charli’s unfailing ability to craft an earworm aligned with actual Top 40 chart success – are reserved for the encore. “You ready for a smash hit?” she questions rhetorically before erupting into ‘I Don’t Care’, the breakthrough 2012 Euro-banger she wrote for (and performed with) Icona Pop, pogoing from side-to-side like a particularly-zealous HITT instructor.
The sugary, pinging Megadrive-like synths of the irresistible ‘Boys’ follows before she signs off with the effervescent, semi-novelty-pop ‘1999’ (where Troye Sivan played Leonardo DiCaprio to her Kate Winslet). Here she proves that even when referencing the past, she’s the sound of pop’s future.
Charli XCX played
Next Level Charli
I Don’t Want To Know
Cross You Out
Shake It – with dancers
I Got It
Track 10/I Blame It
I Love It