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Charli XCX's coronavirus album 'How I'm Feeling Now' is a quarantine-defining work

The album's contradictions make for one of the most fascinating listens of this release season, a work-from-home project that could become one of the defining albums of this era.
Image: artist Charli XCX
Singer/songwriter Charli XCX performs in Los Angeles on Feb. 11, 2017.Christopher Polk / Getty Images for Mastercard file

With the entertainment industry in lockdown, the fight for the artistic spotlight has become particularly competitive. It seems like nearly every musician, song or album is vying to be the artistic statement of the pandemic, from Fiona Apple's "Fetch the Bolt Cutters" to Randy Newman's new song, "Stay Away," to Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber's new video, "Stuck With You."

Every artist is the artist of the pandemic, and every record is a compilation of COVID-19's greatest hits.

Every artist is the artist of the pandemic, and every record is a compilation of COVID-19's greatest hits.

Charli XCX is a clear outlier. The English artist born Charlotte Aitchison has just released "How I'm Feeling Now." The album was made almost entirely in her house in Los Angeles during COVID-19, an important distinction. (Apple's album, for example, was released during the pandemic but was recorded over several pre-pandemic years.) Several homemade and fan-inclusive music videos help to complete her concept of a captive artist.

Charli XCX and producer A.G. Cook's blown-out dance sound is sometimes described as a "jock jam," which makes for a potentially profound listening experience in the age of canceled sports. It's a celebratory beat for empty stadiums, games never played and pop that doesn't really exist on the radio.

The nature of the album's creative process both heightens and adds previously unheard subtlety to Charli XCX's often extreme pop. "How I'm Feeling Now" is music made in its own time for its specific audience. Take the imagery of the music videos. Gone is the slick "Matrix" style of her "1999" music video and the liquid metal of her eponymous record. The video for "Forever" unfolds with blurred micro-vignettes of her fans' lives, interspersed with her own intimate asides. Bordering on a ballad, the song plays out in a similar manner to Oneohtrix Point Never's groundbreaking 2014 video for the track "Boring Angel." Charli XCX uses the people behind the emojis to show the suddenness of the pandemic timeline.

Charli XCX has been described as an alien, a cyborg, a "lovestruck robot" and a (self-admitted) "femmebot." But "How I'm Feeling Now" is her most earthbound record — still pushing an absurdist party agenda while allowing for more personal issues to surface with a directness she usually avoids. The contradictions make for one of the most fascinating listens of this release season, a work-from-home project that could become one of the defining albums of this era.

The album artwork for 2019's "Charli" certainly reinforced the bionic woman trope, and her song "Femmebot" took ownership of the title. But while Charli XCX works with a number of collaborators and producers — especially those connected to the PC Music label and collective — she herself has proven to be multifaceted as an artist, video director and producer. Britney Spears — to whom XCX has been compared — was also critiqued for the synthetic aspects of her career. Experimental artist Diamanda Galas, a classically trained singer, once described the voice of "Oops I Did It Again" Britney Spears as post-human. In some ways, Charli XCX inspires in a similar fashion.

She's also a pop hit-maker. Having written Billboard-charting hits for A-listers like Icona Pop, Lizzo, Selena Gomez, Shawn Mendes/Camila Cabello and Azalea Banks, Charli XCX is a behind-the-scenes tour de force in the same vein as Dolly Parton.

On her newest record, Charli XCX has a potent artistic response for the listener potentially exhausted by the faux-concerned piano of pandemic ads. But while she launches into her album with reckless speed, she soon switches direction. The second track, "Forever," includes one of the more tender choruses of her repertoire. Elsewhere, there are vocal effects and drum-and-bass beats that would come off as tacky in more unsure hands.

This is music from a quarantined party addict facing a suddenly brick-walled exit. She's at home with her boyfriend and two of her best friends, who also act as her managers. She's going to the supermarket with a mask. This isn't tomorrow — it's purgatory. And it won't make everyone happy.

Charli XCX has appeared in arenas with Taylor Swift, left before the curtain for secret performances in a dingy underground club and then turned up at an LGBTQ+ honky-tonk by last call — all in the same evening. There are very few performers in mainstream music who can slide so easily among these disparate worlds. Coming of age during the neon decay of the American Apparel/Myspace era, Charli XCX has surfed the erratic tides of the bloghaus movement. She is dangerously close to being a household name, but she has retained enough of her DIY weirdness to barely avoid becoming one. This record is not likely to push her over the edge, but its unconventional construction will have implications for every big release in the foreseeable future.

"How I'm Feeling Now" ends with nearly as much energy as it begins. A distortion creeps into the breathing holes of the artist's formerly glossy packaging. Pushing the sound wave without clipping, "Visions" comes to an unsettling resolution, with a buildup that should still work as a set closer should large-scale festivals return in 2021. But there is no promised future, only this unplanned moment. Charli XCX has seized upon the inconvenience of this time with a clarity that should make her the envy of her peers.