By Paige Daniel
Charli XCX isn’t afraid to express big emotions in a deceptively simple pop song – she’s been doing it since 2013 when she released her debut album, “True Romance.”
That album was comparatively “experimental” (what some were calling it) to the pop others were doing, and it earned her a devoted following. Her second album, “Sucker” (2015) was a paltry attempt at recapturing her former glory, and that wasn’t good enough for her fans.
I was in that camp, too, as it turns out. Convinced of her greatness but hesitantly supporting the work she submitted on “Sucker,” I nearly gave up altogether when I realized the album just didn’t live up to the hype. Shortly thereafter when she announced her shift toward “PC music,” I was ready to rescind my skepticism and love her music again.
Allow me to turn the clocks back to March 2016, when I wrote about PC music and Charli XCX for our beloved newspaper.
I credited PC music to London-based producer A.G. Cook, the owner of a record label dedicated to conceiving PC music as a network of pop artists designing their output in its mold. Cook could be seen as the forefather of the genre, and it was by his hand that it ended up a genre in the first place.
I will paraphrase my definition of PC music from that article: literally defined as “personal computer” music, PC music is heavily computerized electronic pop music, made to sound hyper-real, hyper-digitalized, and even hyper-artificial.
Imagine the noises a PC from 2008 made when sputtering into its dial-up connection, and you come close to understanding the basic conceit of PC music.
As I credited A.G. Cook with PC music’s inception, I credited Charli XCX with the task of bringing PC music to the wider audience it desired. Her 2016 EP “Vroom Vroom” was just that – the introduction of PC music to her fanbase.
She had made a grand gesture to initiate herself into its ranks, stating that she was to have her own PC music label. This was what her music sounded like now, she seemed to assert, so get used to it.
Funnily enough, I felt the way about “Vroom Vroom” the way I did about “Sucker,” and I panned it in my aforementioned March 2016 review. The problem, I recognize now, was that “Vroom Vroom” seemed mostly like her stylistic meet-cute with the sounds that populated PC music’s vocabulary.
It lacked the big emotions that made “True Romance” so timeless. Without that focused center, its lyrics were often shallow in their send-ups of sports cars and trophies, and the music suffered.
It’s impossible to subsist on a diet of air – which is what some PC music ends up sounding like without the dramatic and vulnerable emotions to back it up.
My recognition of the necessity of emotion to PC music stems, ironically, from XCX’s 2017 mixtape “Number 1 Angel.” XCX succeeded in matching those big emotions to the sonic anomaly of PC music. Incredibly, she continues this on her second mixtape “Pop 2,” released just last December.
It clearly took a little bit of historical reframing to get to the actual review within this article, just like it took XCX a little bit of time to situate herself comfortably within the genre of PC music. I can’t fault her for needing time to practice her skills; of course, hindsight is 20/20, and I wouldn’t have panned her EP if I had known what was to come.
On “Pop 2” (produced by A.G. Cook), style does not overtake substance like it did on “Vroom Vroom”; instead, XCX seems to acknowledge that style is the carrier pigeon to her strongly-worded letter.
Where “Number One Angel” balanced the silly with the serious, “Pop 2” finds XCX more intent on advancing PC music into its next incarnation.
And this incarnation is perhaps more nuanced than before: opener “Backseat” (feat. Carly Rae Jepsen) softens its pulse for the verses so that the chorus can explode, and “Out of My Head” (feat. Tove Lo and Alma) employs a minimal instrumental, relying on the voices to orchestrate the bulk of the track.
“Backseat,” “Delicious” (feat. Tommy Cash) and standout track “Tears” (feat. Caroline Polachek) present a more anguished XCX, importantly drawing from the reservoir of those big emotions.
For all the hot air PC music is apt to push around, she’ll pop the balloon and leave its pretty tatters on the ground. “Tears” is particularly gorgeous, Polachek’s slow-motion horror movie scream lending the background an electric charge while cascading keys arpeggiate atop it.
Unlike “Number One Angel,” XCX lets the tracks wander more, content to devolve into repetition and spiraling beats (which are a highlight throughout the whole mixtape). Notable tracks “I Got It” (feat. Brooke Candy, CupcakKe and Pabllo Vittar) and “Unlock It” (feat. Kim Petras and Jay Park) are the most fun you could have listening to songs that rest their entire weight on three syllables.
The number of featured artists manages not to swallow her up, and that is more a testament to the precision of her vision – PC music is a constant collaboration, and she holds that dear to the project.
“Femmebot” (feat. Dorian Electra and Mykki Blanco) deals in the high-fructose corn syrup synths familiar to the genre, but it is the only one of its kind on this mixtape.
That’s probably for the best, because it makes room for XCX to include what are ultimately two of the best tracks (and interestingly, the two that do not feature another artist). “Lucky” has an intro that sounds like the Kanye West song “Wolves,” and honestly that’s a compliment. But what matters more is the type of balladry that XCX puts forth: its slow burn is only improved by the auto tune, which fits her voice like a glove.
If anything, “Lucky” serenades from some futuristic place, one we don’t have access to yet. It’s during these moments that XCX reaches past stylistic flourish and purely becomes the style.
With the closing track, fittingly titled “Track 10,” this point is taken further. People called PC music a fad, something that would fade out as quickly as it arrived. “Track 10” is trancelike, and the mechanics of the style fall away when the parts come together this well. In the sublimation XCX achieves, I can see a brighter future for PC music if it continues to advance with her at the helm.