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‘CRASH’: Behind Charli XCX’s “Most Sexualised, Vampiric” Album
Warner Music
In Depth

‘CRASH’: Behind Charli XCX’s “Most Sexualised, Vampiric” Album

Going full-throttle on her ‘CRASH’ album, Charli XCX invited fans to ‘get on my level and enjoy the fucking party… or just not be invited’.

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“I almost just feel like this album title is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Charli XCX told Rolling Stone in 2022. She was speaking ahead of the release of CRASH, her fifth album. “I feel very explosive right now. I feel very on the edge, sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way.”

Listen to ‘CRASH’ here.

Charli XCX fans love her frankness. There isn’t much that’s off-limits for Charli to address in her music. She is also known for calling out destructive music-industry dynamics, particularly warped standards for women. When she’s asked to tone it down, rein it in, and just be more commercial, she’s gone public: “They were like, ‘We just need you to post every Tuesday about your flaws and maybe you could post some pictures with dogs,’” she told Dazed’s A Future World podcast in 2022.

When she made CRASH, she took a different approach. What would happen if Charli XCX did play the pop star game?

The concept: “A commentary on navigating the sadistic nature of pop music”

“Imagine if this entire album campaign was just a commentary on navigating the major label system and the sadistic nature of pop music as a whole?” Charli tweeted at the start of 2022.

The word “authentic” is often used about Charli XCX – she is a writer (for herself and others), an executive producer, and gives off a general no-bullshit air. “I’ve definitely had that narrative surrounding me: ‘Oh, she can write a song, she is authentic,’” Charli has said. “I hate saying that about myself, but I feel comfortable to toy with the idea of being the complete opposite because I know that I have the receipts.”

The initial idea behind CRASH was to do everything a compliant pop star would do – working with an A&R, taking pitch songs, using interpolations – as “a personal test to see whether I can handle it and whether that makes me happy and how it makes me feel”.

The setback: “I’m only going to be able to use the tools I have at my fingertips”

Work on what was to become CRASH began early in 2020. Charli XCX posted images of herself in the studio with producers Patrik Berger and Justin Raisen (both of whom had worked on Charli’s major-label debut, True Romance). Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sessions were cancelled, and Charli – like everyone else – went into isolation.

A mayfly mind like Charli’s is never still, and during the pandemic she created How I’m Feeling Now. “The nature of this album is going to be very indicative of the times just because I’m only going to be able to use the tools I have at my fingertips to create all music, artwork, videos everything,” she told fans on a Zoom call announcing the album. Led by the single Forever, How I’m Feeling Now was recorded in a month, and came out in May 2020, just two months into the pandemic.

The recording: “I was into a lot of self-referencing for this album”

As the pandemic receded, Charli resumed work on what she was now calling “The Janet Album”, in homage to Janet Jackson, whose influence was particularly important in CRASH’s early development. She announced that she was “feeling extremely creative” and debuted two new songs in March 2021 – early versions of Twice and New Shapes.

The link with Crash – the David Cronenberg film based on JG Ballard’s novel which explores a group of people sexually aroused by car crashes – began to make sense in Charli’s mind. She placed this concept alongside her own body of work – earlier songs such as Vroom Vroom – which deal with speed, cars and feeling out of control. “Referencing Cronenberg is unavoidable when the album is called CRASH,” Charli said. “To be honest, I was into a lot of self-referencing for this album, which was part of the reason why I called it CRASH. I’ve had so much constant narrative around cars in my lyrics and videos.”

The songs: “I’m just saying exactly what happened and it feels very truthful”

“I’ve kind of always gone off grid, made my own path,” Charli told NPR in 2022. Ever since her MySpace and mixtape days, she has contained experimental urges and pop chops within the same persona. The tracks on CRASH include some of the best Charli XCX songs, and they very effectively fuse the clinical sheen of technology with fleshy, volatile humanity.

Baby is “a sex anthem, basically,” Charli has claimed. “I was feeling myself that day in the studio and that song just makes me feel so sexy and confident and was an important song for the foundation of this album.” Elsewhere, notably on CRASH’s lead single, Good Ones, Charli expresses a messy emotionalism – the difficulty of love when every urge leads you to self-sacrifice.

Yet her subject matter wasn’t all conceptual or carnal. Every Rule is direct autobiography. It is “this really genuine and beautiful love story on this album [that] is also quite traumatic to listen back to, because this is a relationship from my past that no longer exists,” Charli has said. “Even the story within how we met is quite explosive, I suppose. I really love this song because I’m just saying exactly what happened and it feels very truthful.”

The visuals: “I was exploring the idea of what the most sexualised version of myself could be”

The imagery surrounding CRASH is some of the most uncompromising Charli XCX has ever created. On what was one of the best album covers of 2022, she is pictured bloodied in a bikini, but she doesn’t appear dead or dying – instead she is leaping at a windscreen, dagger nails ready to scratch. It’s a strong image that could mean revenge, desire or anger – or all three.

With other publicity shots, such as the covers of the singles Good Ones and New Shapes, Charli is intensely and deliberately artificial, all dead-eyed sexuality in restrictive clothes and hairstyling. “For this album, I was exploring the idea of what the most sexualised, heightened, vampiric version of myself could be,” she said.

The release: “Either get on my level and enjoy the fucking party, or just not be invited”

Released on 18 March 2022, CRASH is Charli XCX’s final contracted album, for now, on a major label. This fin-de-siècle feel permeates the record: a crossroads, the culmination of Charli XCX’s adventures in the music industry so far, it went to No.1 in the UK and became her first US Top 10. During promotion, she spoke of feeling low, of her sensitivity to criticism, and of the toll taken on her mental health. What happens next in the world of this modern maverick remains as yet untold.

Yet, she’s still Charli XCX, and she can still give both barrels. “Honestly, you can either get on my level and enjoy the fucking party,” she said at the time of CRASH’s release, “or you can just not be invited, because I don’t really care, do you know what I mean?”

Looking for more? Check out the best Charli XCX songs.

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