Pretty Nihilist Pop – Defending Charli XCX against her devotees
By Mandus Ridefelt
When Charli XCX released “Charli” in September 2019, it was her third full-length album and her first after the 2016-17 mixtapes, “Vroom Vroom”, “Number 1 Angel” and “Pop 2″, that had defined her as an artist”. Particularly, the ingeniously titled “Pop 2”, which established Charli XCX as a central figure to what commonly was referred to as the “future of pop”. “Pop 2” featured a showcase of guesting producers and performers, with Charli XCX acting just as much as a curator as being the pop star. The sound which has become Chalie XCX’s signature was decided on “Pop 2” – autotuned vocal hooks performed with a slap-in-the-face-confidence, syncopated high-definition synths and norm-bending, expansive song structures. Together with the glossy, overtly sexy and deceptively superficial lyrics, this is the sound that made Charli XCX herself, her core fans and many critics cry out that the sound of the future had arrived. The buzz of having the future of pop in the palm of her hands has followed Charli XCX ever since and is, of course, the core thematic of the freshly released record. In what follows, I will attempt to sketch out how to engage with Charli XCX’s music as the “future of pop”, beyond its mystification and tokenism.
The artistically trailblazing moment in the career of Charli XCX was actually not “Pop 2”, but the preceding 2016 release of “Vroom Vroom” – a four track mixtape produced by SOPHIE (the same SOPHIE who recently achieved mainstream acclaim with Grammy nomination for her album, “OIL OF EVERY PEARL’S UN-INSIDES”).
The credo of “Vroom Vroom” and its eponymous opening track is presented immediately with the lyric, “Let’s ride”. It is a statement deliberately thrown, performed with the blinding confidence of a party Bolshevik and activated by throbbing, highly syncopated percussive synths and a minimalist four on the floor hi-hat. “Vroom Vroom” is, paradoxically, a banger almost devoid of a drum rack. Instead, the synth figure is enveloped in an effervescent, metallic frame, expounding an insistent rhythm of catchy quirkiness, pushing to the point where the slender hi-hat appears to be nothing but a timekeeper. The credo – “Let’s ride” – sets out, more as an onomatopoetic exclamation than a melodic hook, as something of more percussive energy than melodic or content-carrying.
By reimagining the functions of the components of pop music, Charli XCX undermines the purported identity between compositional placement and function. Heard in conjunction with the percussive synths, the flat credo of performed confidence – “Let’s ride” – forms an aesthetic alliance with McKenzie Wark and her noting that “Perhaps what is pretty is instead displacing this whole idea of appearances as a cover for some essence. Perhaps what is pretty need not be seen as hiding something, as damaged goods, but as a gift, as offering the possibility of stepping outside of exchange value.” “Pretty” is an aesthetic that does not set out to hide anything.
This is possibly quite counterintuitive. Interpretation of music is, generally, guided towards determining meanings and relations of a composition, of investigating what the sounds point towards that lies beyond its brute presentation, what emotions a melody might be connected to, how lyrics are manifested in sounds, sounds in lyrics etc. By introducing exchange value as a mode of aesthetic engagement, Wark identifies both the trouble and the political potential of “Pretty”, an analysis much interesting in the case of “Vroom Vroom”.
The Marxian concept of exchange value describes what a certain commodity is worth on a market. From this follows, according to Wark, a masculine logic obsessing about possessing and abusing, facilitated by treating appearance as a cover-up for essence. At the market, this manifests in a compulsion of making sure to get what you bought, to control that the appearance of the commodity is actually at par with what you are paying for it. As expected, a paranoia of always being at risk of deception follows. The “pretty” not only rejects this paranoid capitalist logic of extractive investigation, but more importantly, it sets out to preclude its very possibility.
The Party Bolshevism of Charli XCX and SOPIHE on “Vroom Vroom” is a study in the composition of “pretty” music. One could say that this music is composed in such a pretty way that it excludes and wryly shrugs it off when anything attempts to impose a logic of exchange value onto it, or treats it as if it were hiding something – treating it as if the appearance were a camouflage for an essence or meaning. Whole swathes of music criticism have made themselves dependent on arguments based on the unfolding of “hidden” meanings. But such criticism is often ignorant of the work at hand and heedlessly applies an intrusive, standardized questionnaire.
There is simply no way to engage with the lyrics “Let’s ride” as something other than a percussive slogan of confidence. Any textual interpretations are condemned to end up shadow boxing with a straw man, probably quite aware of the fact that there is nothing much to decipher, yet committed to extract meaning. Of course, the exclamation as such does not call for a listening along “pretty” lines, but in the composition of the track it does. In “Vroom Vroom”, when the credo is coupled with the reimagined functionalities of the arrangement, the pretty is our tool in the first instance. However, because we can see that the lyrics are nothing but percussive propulsion and an explicit vocal power pose, anyone trying to frame the conjoined arrangement of voice, synth and the faint hi-hats as a deconstruction of their functionalities would be shadowboxing as well. Indeed, “Let’s ride” is a statement too sparse, too performative to be held in isolation.
Following from this, to speak about how certain strands of pop challenges notions of the assigned functions and essences of instrumental arrangement in the same sentence as “Let’s Ride” is to detach the lyrics from the musical composition and vice versa. “Let’s Ride” is not about contrasting sparse lyrical content to maximalist, syncopated synths, but wielded in the same form of overtness.
In both of these examples, a projection of an exchange value logic implicitly holds the appearance that some essence is hidden in the song. What marks the compositional ingenuity of “Vroom Vroom” is that such accounts can never accurately describe what is going on in this track. The song will shrug away, leaving such interpellation alone with its unidirectional and intrusive quest for what the track actually was getting at and, if none is found, calling it out as a deception. To paraphrase Wark’s discussion of “pretty” in relation to self-presentation by transgender people – for the intrusive gaze, the lyrics might hide percussion and the synth might hide lyrics, but in fact, nothing is hidden.
A similarly pretty arrangement is yet again employed in “Next Level Charli”, the first track of the recent record “Charli”. The sweeping introductory synths map out an open, harmonic space of deceptive cadences, perfectly in line with major parts of contemporary pop harmony. Charli’s tonal rap trips in continuous staccato lines above. The prettiness of the song is here to be found in the song structure – no verse, no chorus, no bridge can be found. Or perhaps all of them can be found everywhere. The track blazes onwards, not towards catharsis but round and round in an extended space of ecstasy. The extroversion of the introductory lines (“I go hard, I go fast and I never look back”) are, like “Vroom Vroom”, not setting out to hide anything. There are no hints of an interior to be probed by the analytic tools of the gaze of exchange value – it operates on what could, misleadingly, be called the surface. The introductory lines of “Next Level Charli” echoes throughout the rest of the song, where a futurity of snappy decadence is formulated. The song is infused with a credo comparable to that of “Vroom Vroom” and subsequently unfolds into an upheaval of the commonplace pop logic of katharsis, that of tension and release, of chorus and verse. From this point of entry, the song provides no narrative arch, no lyrical content to be probed for meaning, no confessions, no synthesis. This preclusion, based on the composition of the track, is, as Wark would describe it, so so “pretty” and I will attempt to phrase what this pretty actually offer the listener a later in this text.
Throughout the critical reception of the recent record, “Charli”, it has often been remarked that the album exposes an as yet unseen vulnerability and a willingness to express what purportedly reaches beyond the previously encountered Party Bolshevism. This is very true – “Charli” boasts material of more confessional and emotionally interior nature, both lyrically, as well as in performance and production. Here, Pitchfork critic, Michelle Kim, take note of what seems to be a split in the desires of Charli XCX as conveyed in interviews. She has often lamented the apparent incompatibility of nurturing the forward thrust of creativity and garnering the kind of mainstream recognition her co-authored tracks did (Icona Pop, “I Love it”; Camilla Cabello and Shawn Mendes, “Kiss”; Iggy Azalea, “Fancy”). This split perfectly aligns with an almost unavoidable trait of the “pretty”. Success in mainstream markets will inevitably indebt itself to the suspicions of an exchange value logic, whereas the “Avant-pop” audience, with strongholds in LGBT-circles, is less prone to carry out this paranoid move of intrusion and instead joyously endorses the pretty pop-supremacism of “Vroom Vroom”.
Entering a Pretty Nihilism
The question that lingers now is: what then? How do we actually engage with “Vroom Vroom” outside this persistent and oppressive logic? What is it that actually becomes accessible when assuming these tracks to be hiding nothing? As for now, the pretty might appear completely flat, any musical gesture could be any other when the preclusion is successful. By turning to a specific contemporary account of nihilism, we might find a beginning to an answer that does not fall prey of a flat and stale musical ontology.
In Nihil Unbound (2007, chap 7), Ray Brassier poses a determining question to the long tradition of nihilism: how can nihilism hold the world to be devoid of anything to believe in and still believe in this negation? By holding on to the belief this becomes a reprise of how unbearable the world would be without belief. In one of the notorious accounts of nihilism, the Nietzschean, the point-zero meaninglessness becomes a site of existential determination through “eternal recurrence” and affirmation of “joy” and “will to power”. Such a nihilism seems, perhaps counterintuitively, more geared towards saving the human from meaninglessness, than accepting it. Brassier resolves this by considering the world and its philosophies as being grounded on not the negation of meaning and life, but the assertion of non-meaning and non-life. This is, thus, not an attempt to save the world, its life and philosophies from the “threat” of nihilism but uses nihilism to shape a “speculative opportunity” that arises when the world is no longer seen as founded on life or philosophical vitalism. When rejecting the exceptionality of life, the attempt of recuperating something humanly exceptional from the nihilist point zero is not needed. Any politico-philosophical landscape would be significantly rebuilt if we were to lose the idea that some kind of life or meaning is the driving force in the world (Nihil Unbound, 2007, p. xi).
For the present purposes, the crucial point of this type of nihilism is how life and meaning are no longer of exceptional ontological or libidinal status. When the world is predicated upon its pointlessness and lack of meaning, there is no way any life form (yes, humans too) can claim exceptionality since the long held defining traits (life, meaning, purposefulness etc.) have exactly no place in the nihilism as explored here. Which is to say, a nihilism based on the assertion of a non-life, non-meaning.
Without dwelling in the vast philosophical topology opening up here, I want to investigate this specific notion of nihilism in relation to Charli XCX and the “pretty” pop aesthetics of “Vroom Vroom” and “Charli Next Level”.
When Brassier founds his nihilism on a completed dethroning of the exceptionality of the human, life and meaning, Wark’s makes a parallel move when she concludes that the pretty does not hide anything. Both these ideas share an insistence on being non-intrusive, non-paranoid (and, as follows, non-cynical) to the point of the very preclusion of these concepts. Brassier grounds his nihilism in the world as predicated on non-life/meaning with the corollary being that the unearthing of meaning is replaced by the empowerment of a “corrosive truth”, which allegedly no longer reinforces destructive human narcissism. In such a nihilism, the paranoid order where appearance hides essence is ruled out – no such opposition can exist, no hidden essence, no hidden meaning can be disclosed because its negation is the fundamental ontological assumption.
Wark’s inversion of Marx’s exchange value leads to a similar position but reaches it by means of aesthetics. Within late capitalist societies, the paranoid logic of exchange value is pretty much omnipresent. One of the few tools at hand for the fugitive is, obviously, aesthetics as a constructible space. Being an aesthetic device, the “pretty” does not imply allegiance to nihilist philosophy. It’s raison d’étre is to preclude and, as Wark has it, form the utopian potentials of the pretty minor gestures happening throughout the preclusion and after. Still, “Vroom Vroom” is hardly utopian.
“Vroom Vroom” hides nothing because its composition is founded on a musical nihilism of the kind above described and constructed as a “pretty” track.
“Vroom Vroom” is emerges from a vitalist point zero, where nothing can possibly be disclosed, no essence lying under appearance, no meaning behind the words and structures. As discussed, the song refrains so adamantly from offering anything that could pass as a credible story. Here also, Wark’s characterization of the pretty in in the cinematic context is of great use. Starting from the premise that cinema is deeply entrenched in cis-patriarchal investigation in how the eye of the camera functions as the eye of an order of sexualized control, Wark wonders how cinema could be made where that function of the camera is ruled out. The cinematic pretty, as in Jessie Jeffrey Dunn Rovinelli’s “So Pretty”, is, in very short, about having the camera to picture relations and never objects or bodies in isolation. Relations are bound to bore that gaze of sexualized control and preclude it. As a direct consequence, she notes that “the pretty isn’t egalitarian, as it has to remain rare.” And Charli XCX makes, by no means, egalitarian music. It is for these reasons that the pretty is politically exclusive. It is not made to be investigated. The listener yearning for nimble confession and interiority will be excluded, there is no credible story of a life to be disclosed.
Against this backdrop of Charli XCX, as heard through the pretty and the nihilist, the reimagined instrumentalization previously described is, not a move of deconstruction, but of its false opposite: a move to construction. We are wryly cornered into thinking “Vroom Vroom” as an emergent speculative musical form. It is, in a nihilist way, emerging from the grounds where any meaning and the commodifying projections of interiorities are destroyed. What could be devoured as superficiality is actually what rises from an aesthetic device that has fool-proofed itself from the suspicion that it is hiding something and has ridiculed the attempts of harvesting meaning from its political vector. Instead, Charli XCX engages in the calculated construction of something pretty.
At the moment when the exchange value listening-mode is precluded, we are listening to something that hides nothing. This pretty aesthetics of hiding nothing must not be confused with calling the song out for being “naked” or “authentic”. Wark neatly singles this out when discussing “pretty” as a transgender-aesthetics, or “pretty as a trap” (“trap” pointing to the homo and transphobic fear of being deceived when appearance and viciously assumed gender essences does not match up). The trap of “Vroom Vroom” is obviously a very different case but compares in how both functions as triggers of intrusive acts of investigation. In the case of Charli XCX, these are often posed as allegations of irony or elitism.
“The Future hides that it hides nothing”
(quote originally from Danish poet Inger Christensen and encountered by author as an exhibition title by Primer, Copenhagen, 2019)
Coming back to the concept of “future” – it is in urgent need of reformulation or of being simply crossed out. The frequent equation of “future” and a development of the sonic character of pop towards higher levels of artificiality is a reiteration of the retrograde mythology of modernist progression as a movement displacing an assumed human essence along the axis of complexifying technological interventions. When Charli XCX is knighted the “future of pop” by a more or less unanimous cadre of critics on the basis of the glossy, high-definition production, what is being reproduced is that same retro-futurist position which heralds a false, toxic household pseudo-dialectical tension between an othered artifice and a narcissist human essence as its sole referent.
Mark Fisher diagnoses this still prevailing condition as the “the slow cancellation of the future”, where the promises made by early digital revolutions are perpetually postponed. But the overall techno-capitalist landscape has darkened even further since Fisher’s diagnose. Already when Fisher made his diagnosis there were only a few who still found an untainted emancipatory potential in the exploration of the axis between a purported human essence and artificiality. Today, such a position should be impossible to hold. Yet it is striking how much of mainstream music criticism that still seems invested in approaching pop through this lens. Charli XCX, “Vroom Vroom” and “Charli Next Level” does indeed employ these tools tied to the retro-futurist conception of what is to come. But that simple fact does not vindicate a stale and depoliticized discourse around how pop can or cannot be a site of bootstrapping into whatever less distressed condition than the contemporary. Particularly the nihilist account above suggests a demythologized notion of future, where “Vroom Vroom” and “Next Level Charli” might be two of the devices that can activate this notion in a wider context.
Instead of wanting us to engage with the capitalized Future, I would regard Charli XCX’s musical prompt to be a shift in focus, from the expansion of the discussed exchange value logics into novel realms, to its preclusion and a speculative music geared towards the construction of musical socialites with zero patience for human narcissism or paranoia. By the pretty and the unbound nihilism, we can get a hint of on which grounds such practices might be build.
Info: Charli XCX plays VEGA on November 7. (RSVP)