Charli XCX has spent the better part of her career figuring out her live set. She's had bands, DJs, gigantic props and even dancers. A confusing placement between the mainstream and the underground has seen her bounce between clubs and stadium support gigs. She's a great performer - that's never been up for debate - but it's never quite stuck. That was until last year. While playing the support slot for Taylor Swift's Reputation tour she put on club shows centred around her second mixtape of 2017 Pop 2.
She played Boom Clap and Fancy for Swift crowds in the afternoon and by night she'd let loose in the clubs with experimental, dirty cuts like I Got It, inviting friends from alternative pop and rap scenes to join her. In a lightbulb moment, she realised that's where she needed to be. This year, she set out to consolidate that identity vowing to ditch the support slots in favour of headline dates. She also finally dropped that long-awaited third album Charli.
In the final few months of 2019 her plan has been fulfilled. She's at the end of a US headline tour, closing in New York with two sold out shows. She began the first by airing half of unreleased fan favourite Taxi - a song she's vehemently refused to release despite fans' relentless requests. Why did she play it? Like her fans, she's a troll. She understands them and that's why the connection is so special at these shows.
Charli took to the stage alone in New York, flanked by two luminescent boxes. It's a futuristic and minimal set-up unlike any pop show around right now. Beginning with Next Level Charli, a song written for the 'Angels', she instantly caused hysteria as the lights strobed and the synths blared. By the time Click's disintegrating beats tore the speakers apart, the crowd was acting as if it were a punk show, thrashing around while drinks splashed over shoulders. Friends were split up, splayed across the room, but no one seemed to care.
As if to make sure there wasn't a stampede, Charli spent the night ramping things up and then slowing them down. Elongated ballad I Don't Wanna Know gave Charli a chance to show off her vocals as she commanded singalongs with her persuasive hand movements. Vroom Vroom and Gone followed. Both songs have never received any chart love but in the house of Charli they sound like global number ones. The former is an 'Angels 'anthem while the latter may be one of the best pop songs of the decade. Gone's dance break at the end felt even more wobbly and infectious in the live arena, spurred on by lazers.
The set was largely made up of songs from the most recent album. For most pop singers that's a no-go but Charli's crowd is different. They'd be more likely to boo the inclusion of Boom Clap than an album deep cut like Thoughts. It's lucky moments like that get an airing because Charli's voice sounded ethereal over the dense, tidal synths. It's an album that captures both the party and the comedown and there's something strangely emotional about feeling them both in one night.
White Mercedes and Official both proved themselves to have the most mainstream potential of any of the album, granting big singalongs but the night really took a turn at Shake It. The strangest moment of Charli was surely designed to fuck crowds up (for lack of a better phrase) and it does exactly like that. As soon as Big Freedia's commanding voice hit, the crowd rushed forward, leaving the back of the room desolate. Brooke Candy joined for both that and I Got It sending the crowd bonkers with a song that would simply not work at any other concert. Charli's party was at its peak at this stage - the waft of poppers diluting the smell of sweat.
She left briefly before returning for an encore that was purely made to take the hysteria to an impossible level. Silver Cross' hefty hit of euphoria got things off to a start before Troye Sivan made a surprise visit for 2099. Troye and Charli have a magnetic chemistry and together they make the oddball pop song sound like an instant classic.
I Love It was the most 'for-the-locals' moment of the night but she preceded it by referencing the "I thought this song was big in Germany" meme which got the crowd going. Hearing I Love It in a club is enough to make most consider leaving nowadays but given the atmosphere of the room Charli managed to re-capture the raucous party spirit that it birthed when it was first released. Sivan returned for the final song of the night 1999 - an effortless pop classic that recalls nostalgia for a year few of us can remember in any detail. As if she was looking to collapse a lung, she amped it up even more by tacking on the Easyfun remix at the end. At this point the crowd seemed to be torn between wishing the night would never end and wanting it to finish because their bodies couldn't take any more.
Charli's current headline show proves that she's found her lane and she's speeding ahead in a blur. It's the fulfilment of her pop vision, one she herself has failed to fully realise at times. There are very few pop artists around right now who could draw thousands of fans for a show made up of her most recent songs and bereft of her biggest hits but she gets her crowd. It's Charli's party and she's inviting anyone who can keep up.
Charli XCX will headline Laneway Festival 2020 in Australia.