Scream Queen Daydream: Charli XCX’s Sucker

Several Forever 21 employees recently told me I looked like Charli XCX & honestly that’s the whole reason I’m writing this review. At that point, I only knew her from the chorus of “Fancy” & was already mildly irritated as a result of her portrayal of Tai in the music video (I have been told for years that I look like Brittany Murphy in Clueless so I took personal offense). I saw her AMA performance & compared it to a Courtney Love impersonation but then the universe truly intervened to melt my green jello heart: her Nylon cover was delivered to my house & her label sent a promo copy of her latest release, Sucker, to my work.

I love pop music but I live for female pop stars from the UK (Spice Girls, Little Mix, Cher Lloyd, Lily Allen). I feel like UK pop is the pinnacle, the gold medal. The UK has given us the biggest girl bands on earth across several decades. I learned a lot about self-love & general girl love & the unique bliss that comes from girlhood from UK pop (this is the abridged version of my feelings on this topic, more to come later).

Sucker conjures a lot of Spice Girls-related feelings for me. The girl power vibes are high; Charli is stomping around in platforms & channeling the 90s. She has achieved what I consider to be a near perfect 90s equilibrium. She’s bringing together the two things I love most about the decade – Spice Girls-style pop & the inherent restlessness & dissatisfaction coming from female artists. Sucker is definitely a pink glitter bomb dosed in some fluorescent colored alcoholic sugar water but the songs extend beyond the flash.

The vibe of this record is Self – self-love, selfishness, self-ownership, self-worship. Sucker is throwing glitter all over feminism – this isn’t equality, this is queenship. The love songs on this record are mostly from Charli to Charli. “Body Of My Own” stands out to me as the truest, purest love song of all, praising the self instead of erasing or compromising it. Charli makes herself the subject & the object of her love & attention: “I don’t need you/My touch is better” … “Got my darkness/I’m into myself/Don’t need you/Cause I’m gone.” The title track is an anti-fuckboy anthem – the chorus is a chant of “Fuck you, sucker!” which reminds me of a boot-on-neck version of “Wannabe” in that it essentially shares the sentiment of girls making all the rules & rejecting boys who dare to not obey.

charlixcxI love the glare that pop music emits, the atomic shine, but sometimes the glare is so bright it inadvertently distances the audience. It is necessary to temper the glitz with human flaw & authenticity, with normalcy. Sucker does this well and often. Charli doesn’t seem to view herself as a pop star but pop star adjacent at best. She’s bored, she’s lazy, she’s a gum popping, hair twirling, daydreaming girl. She isn’t rich but she pretends to be, she isn’t famous but she drinks until she feels like she is. The track “Gold Coins” is an elaborate $$$-laced fantasy in which she hides in bed behind a wall of money & jewels. She’s dreaming the same bedhead trash queen dreams we all are. She wants to smoke weed & eat pizza & steal the crown from the prom queen.

I’m remiss over the amount of time I spent questioning Charli XCX & failing to immediately realize the true impact of the work she’s doing. I’m not remiss over calling her a Courtney Love impersonator. She performs with an all female band in sunglasses & prom dresses. She’s attacking “Just A Girl” levels of unrest with a shrug & pink champagne. She loves & answers to the self above all else. I feel like pop music has reached a place where the impact of the artist isn’t lost or ignored as a result of the historic dismissal of the genre as a whole. For those of us looking to Beyoncé, Taylor, Lorde or Nicki for lessons in girl love, self-love & ever growing levels of female celebration, add Charli XCX to your list of women to watch.

photo by flickr user Jenna Million

“We’ll Do It All Again”: Fall Out Boy’s American Beauty/American Psycho

Island Records; 2015.

It’s pretty impossible to talk about one Fall Out Boy album without talking about every Fall Out Boy album, at least a little bit. That’s most true for their post-hiatus material, which has appeared more prolifically and more quickly than I think any of us could have expected. If you’d asked me in 2008 what another Fall Out Boy album would sound like I would probably have just said “perfect,” fresh off the high of Folie à Deux. If you’d asked me after Save Rock and Roll I would have had no idea. American Beauty/American Psycho is not a perfect album. Save Rock and Roll almost was. AB/AP feels, in some ways, to be the spiritual cousin not to any of Fall Out Boy’s past albums, but to the space between them, to a fundamental acknowledgement that the band is older now, that its member are older now. It’s filled with regret, with waiting, with the past, with Pete Wentz’s undeniable Peter Pan complex. That being said, this is a deeply dynamic album. Every song is catchy, every song is produced to a shine—“Irresistible” opens with a trumpet, “The Kids Aren’t Alright” with a catchy whistle. The first half of the album, up to “Uma Thurman,” is almost entirely up-tempo, and feels shorter than it actually is. “Uma Thurman” is probably the standout non-single on AB/AP. We get some of the record’s ugliest, growliest vocals, and those vocals lead nicely into the later mid-tempo songs. It’s a good song on a good album, and it really is a good album. Still, at times it seems to be missing something.

There is loss, here – loss of sense of place, so integral to Fall Out Boy’s earlier material. Not a mention of Chicago, but plenty of mentions of Seattle and Los Angeles, even France (there’s a surprising amount of French scattered throughout the album, as if in quiet homage to their 2008 album Folie à Deux, not widely loved but probably a quiet masterpiece in and of itself.) Their production is slicker than it’s been before, it opens up more space – the songs feel bigger, less intimate, more anthemic. Part of the appeal of early Fall Out Boy was the unpolished ugliness, the sense that you were almost too close to Patrick Stump’s voice. They gave you emotional truth via claustrophobia. There’s not a lot of that on this album. Lyrics have been pared down even more from Save Rock and Roll, especially the choruses—you still have to work to parse Pete Wentz’s intricate, rapid-fire metaphors on first listen, but they’re more sparsely spread. Much of the melodic heart of this album rests on oooh-ooooh-ooohs, on repetition, on chanted choruses that are going to sound great in stadiums. That’s not a bad thing—Patrick Stump has only become a better singer as he’s gotten older, and there’s something about his voice, repeating the same thing over and over and over that makes it feel almost like a ritualistic experience, listening to these songs. Your headspace changes when you’re trying to hear yourself into all that emptiness.

This is an older Fall Out Boy, a more mature, restrained Fall Out Boy. Save Rock and Roll was powered by fury, by rage, burning hot: put on your war paint. AB/AP is less visionary than Save Rock and Roll, less precocious and political than Folie à Deux, less overwhelmingly lovable than Infinity On High, less hungry than From Under the Corktree. It is precise, though. It is vicious. It’s Fall Out Boy that remembers exactly what it means to be Fall Out Boy, fascinated by their own legacy. “Centuries” was the first released song from that album and that’s important, has always been important: “We’ll go down in history / remember me for centuries.” This is a band that has always been obsessed with being remembered, with us as listener looking in and them as watcher looking out at us looking in. “Centuries” recalls so much of their early lyrical content, obsessed with dying out and fading away. They’ve proved that they can withstand the passage of time, and they’ve done that sounding drastically different than ever before. “Immortals,” too, picks up this theme at the tail-end of the album: “I am the sand in the bottom half of the hour glass / I try to picture me without you but I can’t / We could be immortals / Just not for long, for long.” This is the natural thematic evolution of all the material that’s come before it even if sometimes the music feels a little hollow. And it does—sometimes Fall Out Boy seems to lose themselves underneath all that production, underneath the echo chamber. None of these songs feel intimate, not in the same way that even “Save Rock and Roll”, their last album’s title track, did.

Still, I’m sitting here and listening to “The Kids Aren’t Alright” and genuinely crying a little bit. In 2007 this band sang “we do it in the dark / with smiles on our faces” and they were talking about making an album but I always held that close to my heart like a token. “I’d do it all again / I think you’re my best friend” makes me feel the same way—protected, heard. An invitation: “empty your sadness / like you’re dumping your purse on my bedroom floor.” That idea, then, overwhelmingly domestic: come into my house and I will keep you safe. Come into my house and lay down your burden, make things easier on yourself, dump your sadness out with used tissues and candy bar wrappers, with old lipsticks and empty Tylenol bottles. This is not music meant to make you happy, not really, but it does succeed in making me feel like I can come home after a long day and put this album on and sink down into it, submerge myself, never come up again. The kids aren’t alright but they don’t have to be.

Listen: Fall Out Boy have always been in the business of taking care of us. Not in an evangelizing way, not in a patronizing way, just: Pete Wentz said on his blog in 2008 that you should “never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you” and this is still, years and years later, Fall Out Boy bleeding for you. It sounds different, and I miss parts of that sound—the claustrophobic guitars, baby Patrick Stump’s bellowing and still somehow little voice, the sense that you were right there in the room with them, “landing on a runway in Chicago.” But, in the midst of this album about navigating fame and the idea of your own legacy, in the midst of all this beautiful slick production something emerges: never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you. “In the end I’d do it all again / I think you’re my best friend. / Don’t you know that the kids aren’t alright?” Fall Out Boy has always been good at writing love songs that aren’t love songs at all, and this is one of them. Another is “Favorite Record”, which barely made it onto the album but was included because Pete Wentz thought the fans would like it: “do, do you, do you remember…./ you were the song stuck in my head, every song I’ve ever loved.” This is so close to things they’ve written about before that despite my fervent belief in self-reference as artistic process, I’m almost bemused: “We’re the therapists pumping through your speakers” (From Under the Cork Tree, 2005); “we only want to sing you to sleep” (Infinity on High, 2007); “I will save the songs that we can’t stop singing” (Save Rock and Roll, 2013). Fall Out Boy believes they are helping you because they believe that music can help you and so do I, and that is why I love this album even though it’s not my favorite (or the best, but what does that matter) album Fall Out Boy has ever made. I love this album because of “you were the song stuck in my head” sung not just to anyone but to me, to us, so that when we get this song stuck in our heads it’s like a strange reverse-affirmation. You are valuable because the music thinks you’re valuable, because you’re worth taking care of.

Never trust a band that wouldn’t bleed for you, and this is still a band that wants to. American Beauty/American Psycho doesn’t always sound like a Fall Out Boy album but it feels like one. There is loss, but there is gain as well. 3/5 incomprehensible choruses.