In 2014, a year dominated by savvy female hitmakers, the smartest artists recognized the false dilemma that now exists between pop and anti-pop, prom queen and outsider. Taylor Swift breakdanced and pirouetted all over that bogus divide in her masterful “Shake It Off” video, and with her brand-new album Sucker, Charli XCX erases whatever’s left of the line.
Punky and poppy in all the right ways, Sucker sounds like the Spice Girls jamming on Buzzcocks covers, Cyndi Lauper hanging with the Strokes. It’s the second coming of Brittany — and no, that’s not a misspelling. We’re talking Murphy, not Spears — or, more precisely, Tai Frasier, Brittany’s indelible Clueless character. She's that tough and sexy chameleon who can hang with the skaters and the socialites — and rock the hell out of some thigh-highs.
With all due respect to Swift and Beyoncé — another lady who killed it this year — Charli XCX is the Queen of ’14. She locked up that honor in early June, when “Fancy” went to No. 1. In the song and in the Clueless-themed video, Charli turns Iggy Azalea’s braggy rap track into a sly pop song that’s both a send-up of hip-hop arrogance and a bit of rightful boasting: “Remember my name / ’bout to blow.”
Like Lorde on “Royals,” Charli is having it both ways, sniffing at pop-star opulence and digging it, too — telling a joke that’s a little bit true. On “Fancy,” though, she’s having way more fun, and throughout Sucker, Charli goes rolling with homies like Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend and Rivers Cuomo of Weezer on a set of hot-pink synth-punk flirtations and teases. “Do you get me now?” she asks on the opening title track, a wonderfully blown-out update of Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy.” “Wow, you’re awesome!” You don’t need a video to see that she’s rolling her eyes.
That’s Charli’s look on much of Sucker, an album about laughing at fame from the VIP bar line. On “London Queen,” which references the Ramones in sound and lyrics, the 22-year-old Brit invades Hollywood, where she naturally goes “driving on the wrong side of the road.” Let Lorde have those Cadillacs in her dreams; Charli is taking hers for a spin, clipping parked cars without uttering a single, “Oops, my bad.” On “Gold Coins,” she takes her ambivalent celebration of materialism to Gatsby-like proportions, walling herself into a “pretty green castle” of dollar bills and lighting up some pretty green of another sort.
On “Famous,” her “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” Charli gets the urge to dance and scams a ride to some glittery pretty-people soiree. “Weren't invited but we're feeling so outrageous,” she sings, intoning like her idol Gwen Stefani. “Just like we're famous!” By using the first-person plural, “we,” she’s including us fans in this adventure — which is great, because we’d never get past the gates without her.
Of course Charli was invited to the party. For all her goth-chick cool-girl cred, she’s in with the cheerleaders, benefiting from the new-school high school politics that now govern popular culture. The old rules no longer apply — but that won’t stop Charli from breaking them and making it seem like she’s getting away with something.
And, she’ll keep doing it — hopefully not sporadically.