When I was eight years old I had a friend named Alyssa. We did everything together, but our favorite thing to do was make up dance routines to Madonna’s The Immaculate Collection cassette. Alyssa’s grandmother looked after her most days and so I spent a lot of time at her house. Her grandmother would just watch soaps and let us do our thing. We would pop on Madonna in Alyssa’s big, clean living room and go song-by-song. I always wanted Alyssa to start because that meant I would be on the evens and get to do “Crazy For You,” “Cherish” and my favorite Madonna song, “Open Your Heart.” I had serious moves that went along with “Open Your Heart” and I thought they were genius. Performing to the white living room walls and Alyssa, I owned those moves. Madonna’s pop was powerful. It took me over.
Of course, both Alyssa and I were too young to understand what made Madonna iconic and progressive. We were only eight years old. We still played with Barbies. Madonna’s explicit lyrics and overtly forward sexuality were a strong pro-sex message that resonated with adults and critics, not young girls like Alyssa and me who simply wanted to dance. But that’s kind of what made that album brilliant, like the humor scale on The Simpsons, The Immaculate Collection appealed on many levels that transcended age and class. That’s what made it a great pop album. It spoke big, and to everyone.
There will never be another Madonna, but Britain’s self-made pop star Charli XCX is coming close. Charli XCX isn’t giving blow jobs to glass bottles or anything like that, but she is proving to be one of the most intelligent pop composers and producers of this generation. She co-wrote “I Love It” by Sweden’s Icona Pop (you know, that annoyingly awesome pop song that is everywhere from a Dr. Pepper commercial to HBO’s Girls to Snooki & JWoww’s show) and her first mixtape singles spread like wildfire once they received the stamp of approval from the Pitchfork crowd.
On her debut album True Romance, the 20-year-old Brit delivers an album packed with pop hits. There is rarely a dull moment, and even when there is, it’s not really dull, just slowed down so that Charli can complement Brooke Candy’s frantic rapping with a bubbly drawl. There’s this unspoken rule that when sequencing songs on an album, you always put a banger first and then the true hit as the second track. It’s, like, mixtape 101. True Romance doesn’t need to follow this rule. “Nuclear Seasons” is sticky, predictable and infectious, “Grins” is spacey pop with an r&b spine, “Black Roses” chorus line is frustratingly catchy while “So Far Away” and “How Can I” are heavy with thick, globby production that sounds like they were co-produced with lines of morphine and all the members of Salem. True Romance swings back and forth between fluffy-pop-sweet and melodies that fall out of the speakers dark and thick like maple syrup. That Madonna-loving eight-year-old inside of me is summoned out the minute Charli’s vocals come in on “What I Like.” Arguably the most playful, sincerely “pop” song on the album, Charli sounds like Goth Spice (if Goth Spice was the one Spice of the bunch who wrote, produced and manifested the entire pop image of her troop).
Pop music is supposed to be big, bright and contagious. It’s not always supposed to challenge the current musical landscape, so when it (or its creator) does, we listeners tend to get that much more excited. Charli XCX is doing something right here. She may never be Madonna, but I don’t think she wants to be. She’s Charli XCX and that’s powerful enough. She’s summoning the pop-hungry eight-year-old in all of us while intelligently toying with the rules of pop production, song structure and appropriation. Charli XCX is The Simpsons of pop: transcending age and appealing on all levels.