How Charli XCX became a certified queer icon

Author: Marcus Wratten

“For the longest time, I refused to admit that I love Charli XCX,” drag star and DJ Tete Bang tells PinkNews.

She cringes as she recounts her experience of coming out as a Charli stan. “I just didn’t want to be a Charli XCX queer… the more iconic she became, I just couldn’t keep it any more.”

When her career truly kicked off in 2012, then aged just 20, Charli XCX – born Charlotte Aitchison – was one of many upcoming indie pop artists vying for the spotlight. She fitted nicely alongside Sky Ferreira, Marina Diamandis and MØ, but didn’t strike a particular chord with the LGBTQ+ community. Then, with her slightly vapid second album Sucker in 2014, she was disregarded by some as just another, paint-by-numbers pop girly.

“At one point, [being a Charli XCX gay] was aligned with [being] an ASOS gay. It’s quite stereotypical homosexual,” Tete says. “As her music has evolved, the fandom has also evolved. It’s become less basic.”

In 2016, that music evolution came. After working with trans producer Sophie and British drag legend Jodie Harsh, she released the Vroom Vroom EP, her first venture into avant-pop, and one of the earlier iterations of hyperpop to receive mainstream attention.

Critics didn’t get it, but the gays did. In the years since, the queer community’s connection to the star has become palpable, and Charli has become synonymous with queer pop-music lovers.

Later this month, London venue Clapham Grand will host The Grand Goes Charli XCX, featuring drag performers and go-go dancers. Girls Night Out, a national club night aimed at queer people, is named after a Charli XCX song. The connection runs so deep that last year, one straight person went viral for asking if he was gay because he likes Charli’s music.

It’s a love she sees and recognises. “Generally, the queer community just has, like, better taste,” she famously once said.

And, as she releases her sixth studio album, Brat, she’s been leaning into that connection, both metaphorically and physically. At her recent pre-album Boiler Room set in New York, she got up close and personal with her queer fans, while her latest “360” music video features an abundance of trans talent.

One song on Brat, “So I”, is a remarkably vulnerable tribute to Sophie, who died in 2021, aged just 34, after falling from the rooftop of a building in Greece while trying to take a photo of the moon. The work she created with the producer changed Charli’s career, Tete believes. 

“I think that was very informative for her in terms of where she was in her career,” Tete says. In her eyes, it was Sophie who made Charli realise she wasn’t going to be a chart-dominating pop act, but could instead build an unfailing home for herself among the queers. “All the dots joined up. That’s probably why she recognises that queer people have the best taste.”

Charli has gone on to collaborate with a number of queer artists, including well-known stars such as Troye Sivan and Kim Petras, but also the not-so-famous Tommy Genesis, Dorian Electra, Pabllo Vittar and Big Freedia.

“Charli is willing to take more-unknown artists under her wing or help elevate people [who] maybe don’t have the same platform that she does,” Tete insists. “As queer people, we can really relate to that. She’s kind of the straight cool girl in school letting us be her friend.”

But at the same time, “they helped her a hell of a lot. They made her cool.”

It’s not just musicians, she’s championed drag artists, too. Her “videos for Good Ones” and “Hot In It” featured performers from RuPaul’s Drag Race, while her music has become a rite of passage for drag performers internationally.

Charli XCX is performing at two UK festivals following her sold-out headline tour.
Charli XCX has performed with famous and not so-well-known queer artists. (Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic)

Having first seen Charli at London gay nightclub Heaven, UK drag queen Paige Three said: “I haven’t actually performed a lot of her tracks, but the reason for that is I don’t hop on [them] quick enough, because people just snap them up.”

Paige has since tried performing Charli songs, but often other queens have claimed them for their own performances. 

For Paige, drag artists are drawn to Charli because her career and search for artistic identity aligns with their own, in some way.

“As a drag queen, you go through quite a process of finding… whatever your vibe is, finding whatever your brand is. It’s nice to see an artist like her go through these different peaks and troughs.”

From indie newcomer to manufactured pop princess and on to experimental provocateur, Charli has lived many lives in her career and has now reached her Brat era.

“She’s branding herself in rebellion, which is just a natural thing for us queer folk to do,” Paige says, adding that she thinks it teeters towards Britney’s Blackout territory – another queer-favourite album by a queer-favourite artist.

“It’s darker, grungier, it has more grit. It’s riskier, but then our community loves the risk. That’s exciting. It’s something that then stands out from the crowd, I’d say for people outside our community for the wrong reasons but for us, the right reason.”

Great pop music an LGBTQ+ ally does not automatically make, however.

But Charli XCX knows how to be a queer ally, and how to be one effortlessly. She knows how to be one in a fun, trivial sense – be that when she’s signing the oestrogen of her trans fans, the douches of her gay fans, yelling “Gay rights” while holding poppers, or writing music for lesbian high-school comedy film Bottoms.

She’s a serious one, too. Last October, she posted on social media about the Tory government’s “violent act of hatred” when it promised to ban trans women from same-sex hospital wards. She spoke out against hate targeted at Sam Smith when she teamed up with them for their song, “In The City”. She’s called for queer people in the arts to be paid properly for their work, and, in 2019, she spoke about her love for the LGBTQ+ community – while on stage in infamously anti-queer Russia.

In Paige Three’s mind, she doesn’t need to talk about being to be an ally. “The word proclaim for me is a big word, because the thing I think about Charli is, she just is. You either are or you’re not [an ally], and you can be actively [speaking] about doing things that make you an ally, or you can just be one.”

It helps, of course, when the music just bangs. “She doesn’t sing soppy love songs. She’s making us feel empowered and making us feel, just fab,” Tete points out.

“Even if you are an underdog, if you’re dancing to a Charli song, you instantly feel like the cool girl, especially queer people, we all want to feel like the cool girl in school. Charli gives us that energy.”

Brat is out now.

Actual Story on Pink News
Author: Marcus Wratten

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