Charli XCX on Sunday night at Pitchfork Credit: Tim Nagle

Near the end of her Sunday-night set at the Pitchfork Music Festival, Charlotte Emma Aitchison yelled, “Make some noise if me, Charli XCX, is one of the top 15 pop stars in the world!” The massive crowd, which stretched from the stage to the baseball diamond half a park away, howled in response. “Keeping it arrogant, but also fair, you know?” smirked Charli from behind black sunglasses.

Charli has earned the right to be arrogant. She’s managed to spin feature roles on two hits by other performers (2012’s “I Love It” by Icona Pop, which she performed at the fest, and 2014’s “Fancy” by Iggy Azalea) into one of the most interesting pop careers in recent history. She’s always been an eclectic performer, but her recent and frequent partnerships with the PC Music collective have been particularly fruitful, and have helped her tap into the same nostalgic 90s zeitgeist as vaporwave. Instead of making serene mall soundtracks, though, Charli combines the slick veneer of that decade with its cheap plastic excess, giving her pop anthems a sinister sheen that makes them anything but disposable—every so often, their glamorization of indulgence can even feel like a satire of capitalism.

This is probably the best photo for trying to read what Charli's top says.
This is probably the best photo for trying to read what Charli’s top says.Credit: Kathleen Hinkel

She’s got a new album, Charli, due for release September 13, but hopes that she might debut new music at Pitchfork were left unfulfilled. Friday festival performers Haim and Sky Ferreria both have features on Charli, and so a guest spot from either wasn’t out of the question. Instead we got a very welcome appearance from Chicago rapper Cupcakke, who showed up to perform her part on “Lipgloss” and nearly stole the show. Despite Cupcakke’s commanding verse, it was Charli’s night through and through. Her catalog is already so extensive that her set list didn’t even have to dip into either of her full-length releases, 2014’s Sucker and 2013’s True Romance, instead pulling from Pop 2, one of the two heavily collaborative mixtapes she released in 2017, and from a variety of singles and EPs.

Photo by Kathleen Hinkel
Photo by Kathleen Hinkel

After Charli’s previous two appearances in Chicago (brief hit-focused opening slots for Halsey and Taylor Swift, respectively), this overdue dive into her recent catalog showcased both her growth and her range. During flirty dance-floor filler “Focus on My Love,” Charli belted out mosh calls like the singer of a beatdown hardcore band (“I wanna see you move a little bit, come on, let’s go!”), and she was equally at home crooning the heavily processed wordless vocalizations in the stunning coda of the vicious and bitter ballad “Lucky.” Sometimes you’d get both in the same song: on the glossy, menacing, Sophie-produced “Vroom Vroom,” she flipped on a dime from rapping full speed down the highway to singing the sugary chorus. On “Spicy,” her reworking of the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” she led the crowd in a call-and-response on the verse, joyfully trading vocals with her fans, who are called Angels (judging by Charli’s other reference points, they’re named after the movie based on the TV show).

The highlight of the set was Charli’s most recent single, “Gone,” a duet with Christine & the Queens that she debuted in May at Primavera Sound in Barcelona. The studio version (complete with bondage-heavy video) dropped only last week, but countless fans at Pitchfork were already earnestly mouthing every word. It’s a simmering, anxious attempt at catharsis built around a chorus of unanswered questions, culminating in “Why do we love?” The finale of Charli’s emotional performance was a dance of near abandon during the stuttering vocal breakdown that closes the song, a moment that felt both celebratory and incredibly necessary—it was a signal to the crowd that they could finally take a breath after three and a half minutes of tension.

Photo by Tim Nagle

Charli closed her set with “1999,” her 2018 collaboration with Troye Sivan, which is also the lead single from Charli. She turned seven years old in 1999, but that barely matters: the song is about youthful nostalgia more than about any specific time. Musically, it’s a cheeky update of 90s Eurodance, a connection Charli made explicit at the end of the song. “I wanna do it one more time, but a little bit more ravey, OK?” she asked the audience, before leading them in a deafening sing-along to a sped-up version of the chorus.

After she left the stage, the devoted crowd didn’t disperse. They chanted “CHARLI,” “XCX,” and “ONE MORE SONG” until it became clear that the tight festival schedule wouldn’t allow an encore.

Part of the front row during Charli XCX's set
Part of the front row during Charli XCX’s setCredit: Kathleen Hinkel

In a 2017 interview with the Fader, Charli XCX talked about the goal of Pop 2. “This mixtape isn’t necessarily about me,” she said. “It’s really about giving everybody their moment to own the song.” The forthcoming Charli still has plenty of features, but right from the title she’s announcing her intent to take center stage. And her performance at Pitchfork proved that she’s finally ready to claim the spotlight as one of the best pop stars in the world.  v