Charli XCX in Oakland: ‘The best pop girl in the world right now’

April 3, 2022, 11:07 p.m.

Any of the fans clad in hot-pink leather pants and platform Doc Martens on the Fox Theater floor would’ve believed in the same savior of 21st-century pop. So when English singer-songwriter Charli XCX shouted out, midway through her Sunday night concert, “Who’s the best pop girl in the world right now?” the crowd roared back — “Charli!” 

Following the recent release of her newest album, Charli XCX kicked off her “CRASH” tour the weekend of March 26 and 27 at Oakland’s Fox Theater. Characterized by ’80s synths, explosive choruses and groovy basswork, the album heralded Charli’s return to pure pop perfection; the tour, meanwhile, testified to the maximalist magic of “main pop girl”-ism.

The night was packed with complex choreography, candy-colored set designs, and amazing tracks that the audience danced and sang along to. As Charli moved through her extensive discography, the concert felt like both a summation point of her wildly varied musical career thus far and an exciting launching pad for where to take pop next.

Charli began making music when she was 14, often posting her songs on Myspace; at 16, she was discovered by rave promoters in east London. After signing with Atlantic Records, she soon ascended to pop stardom with a string of chart-topping hits in the early 2010s, including “I Love It,” “Fancy” and “Boom Clap.” 

Charli subsequently swerved toward a more experimental pop sound, first unveiled in her 2016 EP “Vroom Vroom.” Working closely with producers A.G. Cook and SOPHIE — figureheads of the experimental pop label PC Music and the then-nascent “hyperpop” scene — her subsequent releases, including 2017’s “Pop 2” and 2020’s “how i’m feeling now,” pushed her music to be more forward-thinking.

The “CRASH” era, though, finds Charli dealing with the contradictions of pop stardom and her urge for experimentation. While she criticized the five-album contract that she’d signed with Atlantic Records at the age of 16 — often posting sardonic “tips for new artists” that included the advice to “sell your soul” — her quest for stunning chart success still seemed born out of a genuine love for pure pop and legends of the genre such as Britney Spears. 

In a way, this era often felt like Charli’s contemplative interlude at the crossroads: with the conclusion of her time at Atlantic, how might she bridge her backgrounds of warehouse rave, chart-toppers and avant-pop? Where would Charli go from there? What could happen next? Everything felt possible.

During the Oakland show, Charli made her case for the title of “main pop girl” by playing several of her biggest hits, including “Boom Clap,” “Boys” and “Gone.” While performing “Unlock It (Lock It)” — her first (and arguably only) song to go viral on TikTok — Charli swiveled her hips and pointed tiny finger-guns, mimicking the dance that had helped the song blow up online.

Beyond TikTok dances, the choreography at the show was next-level. Charli strutted and danced across the stage as she performed tracks from “CRASH,” even doing the “Baby” music video dance. For Charli (whose last show in Oakland in 2019 was far more rave-like), incorporating choreography was a completely new approach. It was astounding to see this transformation as part of her journey to “main pop girl.”

All the same, Charli never fully abandoned her experimental side. She played hits from “how i’m feeling now,” including “party 4 u” and “visions.” The electronica hissed and fizzed, resounding within the theater. During her performance of hyperpop classic “Vroom Vroom,” Charli abandoned the “CRASH” era’s carefully constructed choreography and instead began rolling and thrashing on the floor, a move that would’ve felt right at home in the warehouse raves where she played at the beginning her music career. 

A.G. Cook, one of the openers, played blissful remixes of Charli’s avant-pop gems, like “detonate,” “Silver Cross” and “Femmebot.” Harsh lights flashed over Cook; he appeared like a pixelated vision that stuttered and glitched before our eyes. Meanwhile, beats from the remixes popped and burst in sparkling pockets of sound. 

During the pre-show, loudspeakers blasted tracks from Charli’s scrapped 2017 album “XCX World.” A longtime fan favorite, the album epitomized an openhearted, futuristic vision of pop. Fans soaked in campy fake blood bobbed giddily to tunes like “Bounce” and “Taxi.”   

After asking the crowd to name “the best pop girl in the world,” Charli followed up with her next question. “Whose album just debuted at #1 on the UK motherf*cking album charts?!” The crowd cried out, “Charliiiii!” 

Something about the moment felt breathtaking, and it wasn’t just because I was being pushed to the edge of the barricade. Charli had achieved her long sought-after mainstream success, and to think that she could bring about the union of the avant-pop and the mainstream was exhilarating. 

On the way back from Oakland, my friends and I crossed the Dumbarton Bridge, bumping “I Got It” as loudly as my friend’s beaten-down little Lexus could handle. When we hit the chorus, we all screamed those words uttered by pop music’s savior: “I got it, I got it, I got it, I got it, I got it, I got it!” The inky waters of the Bay and the midnight sky surrounded us in a flat expanse of black; ahead, all we could see were thin, quivering trails of headlights. There seemed to be no end and no border to the bridge, as if we were crashing straight into the water, where anything could happen.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective opinions, thoughts and critiques.

Lydia Wei '24 is an Arts and Life columnist for the Daily. She loves blackberries. Contact Lydia at lydiawei 'at' stanford.edu

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