While I can’t quite peg when I became a full-throated poptimist, I do know my conversion began when I was first introduced to the music of Lily Allen with Alright, Still in 2006. But even though it’s been a decade since I realized pop music didn’t have to be radio schlock for the lowest common denominator, I still have a pretty decent filter. It tells me what’s good, what’s hype, and that, just because a pop singer makes a “mature / grownup” album, the artist shouldn’t automatically receive “Album of the Year” considerations by certain influential tastemakers.
All that to say this: I’ve been a big fan of Charli XCX since Super Ultra dropped in 2012.
Her artistic integrity, creativity, rampant ambition, and ideas about subverting pop music give her more in common with Grimes and Janelle Monae than Lorde and T-Swift. And with the release of the Vroom Vroom EP (on the label of the same name she started herself!), Charli XCX has morphed her sound across three straight releases in her quest to further push the limits of what constitutes a pop hook.
Yet, while I respect Charli XCX as an artist who’s always looking for new and interesting ways to pursue her craft, I couldn’t connect with much of this new four-song EP. She embraces kinetic, high-energy EDM-influence pop with unbridled abandon. The result is a project that comes across as a curious and somehow incomplete mix of Ke$ha, In the Zone-era Britney Spears, M.I.A, and the aforementioned Allen.
Don’t get me wrong – there are good concepts on display in this 13 minutes of music. Heavy elements of contemporary electronic music receive plenty of attention, including big swipes at grime, footwork, underground hip-hop, and garage. The production from SOPHIE is flawless, right down to the slinky synth melodies, strong snare claps, and big bass thumps. But these songs need to be broken up into their component parts and reassembled into more coherent wholes in order for the attitude and aggression to make sense.
Or to put it in words that someone familiar with London club culture might understand: Charli XCX is trying to make a record that would somehow be a hit on Zane Lowe’s Beats 1 show, Annie Mac’s BBC show, AND a Rinse FM show all at the same time. And while those shows do feature some of the best electronic artists making music today, she’s trying to fit into a VERY specific musical Venn Diagram.
After the success of the bubblegum romanticism of 2014’s Sucker, I applaud Charli XCX for wanting to take her lyrical themes in a newer, darker, and more grownup direction. But that transition has to be organic and realistic in nature. You can’t make the abrupt move from “Boom clap / You make me feel good / Come on to me come on to me now” (on “Boom Clap”) to “Bitch, I’m here to fuck you up / Wanna make that bottle pop” (on “Trophy”) without it sounding a bit like you’re trying to create a hard-edged persona for yourself out of thin air.
Then again, what do I know about Charli XCX’s inner life? I’m a 30-something white dad in America. If these songs reflect who she is and how she sees the world, then more power to Charli XCX. She is certainly a role model in terms of knowing what you want and having the gumption to fight a male-dominated system to create the art that makes you happy and fulfilled. I’m just not a fan of the Vroom Vroom EP. I’m by no means telling this talented artist to smile – I just want a record that makes more stylistic sense.
Rating: Go bump Vroom Vroom from your car speakers and then chase down the leading albums from the genres that influenced this record.
Despite all of the cliches you might have heard about the place, Adam P. Newton actually enjoys living in Texas – most of the time. He currently creates and curates content for a marketing agency, and in his limited free time, he writes a memoir about his journey through music called “Explaining Grownup Music to Kids.”