Club Classics: “Brat” by Charli XCX

Some strange but pervasive beliefs continue to surround dance music in 2024. One: that it’s a lesser genre, requiring fewer musical “chops” to create than rock or pop. Two: dance music can’t express emotional truth like other genres. Sure, you can pop a pill and get high to it, but the emotional element is seen as external to the music, something only the listener brings. Three – and this one’s more of a whisper – women can’t succeed as dance artists. With the possible exception of the xx’s Romy Madley Croft, there are still no major female dance acts out there headlining shows. 

On “Brat”, her sixth album, Charli XCX joyfully takes a sledgehammer to all of these misconceptions. In the process, she also sets fire to another industry “truth”: that an album cannot be experimental, critically acclaimed and commercially successful all at once. But then, Charlotte Emma Aitchison isn’t just any artist. 

To her fans, Charli XCX is simply „Mother“. It’s particularly appropriate for her, signaling not only her longevity in the music industry, but also her status within queer culture. Before most of 2024’s hot new acts were starting school, XCX, now 31, was commanding the decks at underground raves across London. Underage at the time, she’d be accompanied by her parents. Even her stage name is a reminder of her history: it was her username on MSN Messenger, the long defunct platform that birthed Instagram, Snapchat and Tiktok. XCX was initially marketed as another pop starlet but always hungered for, and was capable of, so much more. By the end of the 10s she’d pioneered the hyperpop genre in creative partnership with producers A.G. Cook and SOPHIE and collaborated with many queer artists, including Kim Petras and Troye Sivan before it was on-trend. XCX gained a reputation along the way for innovation, outspokenness and a phenomenal work ethic along the way. In early 2020, while most of us were mourning amid the wreckage of our old lives in lockdown, XCX galvanised her devoted fanbase, asking them to collaborate with her on the project that became her most critically acclaimed album up to that point, “How I’m Feeling Now”. If we couldn’t come to her party, she would bring the party to us.

Then came “Crash”, XCX’s experiment with commercial dance-pop, for which she sexualised herself in her lyrics and stage performance, complete with male dancers, in a way she never had before. It was a new direction that garnered her the greatest commercial success she’d ever had but the worst reviews, critics sensing that she’d lost sight of who she really was as an artist. Now, she says she finds large sections of the album unlistenable. 

There are no such qualms with “Brat”. From its abrasive lime green cover, adorned with only the album title in large black font, to its dance-steeped fifteen tracks, it not only knows who it is but it dares you not to love it. “I went my own way and I made it, I’m your favourite reference baby,” XCX sings on opening track “360”. With A.G. Cook once again sharing the driving seat – on “Crash” XCX mostly worked with other, more mainstream producers – “Brat” feels a bit like taking “How I’m Feeling Now” on its first night out clubbing post-Covid, riding all the highs and lows it has to offer.

The album opens with admiring yourself in the mirror at the start of the night (the stripped back, bass heavy, earworm “360”) then throwing yourself on the dancefloor to the vibiest track you’ve ever heard, to bounce with all your best friends (the thrillingly addictive, aptly named “Club Classics”). Hyperpop, XCX’s best and definitive style, infuses a number of the tracks here, particularly the high-pitched distortion and attitude of “Von Dutch” (“It’s ok to admit that you’re jealous of me…it’s obvious I’m your number 1”) and “Everything is Romantic”, with its pulsing bass. “Mean Girls” channels Noughties dance such as David Guetta or DJ Mehdi, unexpectedly breaking down into piano loops. The twinkling synth melody and distorted bass pairing of “Girl so confusing” feels like a sublime, sugary cocktail in musical form. The final track, “365”, a remix of the album’s opener, brings us full circle as the title suggests, adding frantic, chaotic layers of distortion in the beats and vocals that somehow convey that “3am- stupid drunk-high-and-spilling-out-on-the-streets“ feeling more acutely than any other song out there. “Brat” showcases some of the best floorfillers of XCX’s career, but like all epic nights out, there are dark and profound moments too. XCX isn’t afraid to take us to the darker reaches of our consciousness and off the dancefloor into the toilets and onto the street for a cigarette-and-bitch session or solo cry.

“Brat”, like its title suggests, brings vulnerability, thoughtfulness, a realness that’s not afraid to voice what’s unpalatable. While “Crash” dealt in lust and obsession, “Brat” predominantly ponders XCX’s relationships with other women and the insecurities and contradictions of these that can become hyper-present on a night out. Who the inspiration for “Sympathy is a Knife” might be will keep Deuxmoi and friends busy for some time (“Don’t wanna see her backstage at my boyfriend’s show fingers crossed behind my back I hope they break up quick”). “Girl so Confusing” puts the conflicted emotions of female friendships as simply and profoundly as perhaps it’s ever been expressed: “I don’t know if you like me, sometimes I think you might hate me, sometimes I think I might hate you”. 

The album’s most affecting moments, though, come in quiet form. Just like dance as a genre, a very epic night out brings those profound realisations. On “I Think About It all the Time”, XCX confronts the age-old dilemma of the 30-something woman who wants a career and children, but imbues it with XCX-style realness about envy and fomo: “She’s a radiant mother and he’s a beautiful father, and now they both know these things that I don’t.” Most poignant of all is “So I”, XCX’s tribute to her former collaborator SOPHIE, who died in 2021 and with whom she made her iconic 2016 track “Vroom Vroom”. XCX reflects on the barriers she put up at the time, intimidated by the other woman’s strength of character, and her continuing sense of loss. The ghost of SOPHIE is so present on “Brat”, from the heavy hyperpop tones that colour all its tracks to the line “I wanna dance to Sophie” on “Club Classics” that it doesn’t feel like an overstatement to read “Brat” as a whole as a tribute to her. On “So I” she craves hearing SOPHIE’s voice one more time: “Things you’d suggest – ‘make it faster!’ would you like this one?” XCX needn’t be in any doubt. Unquestionably, she would. “Brat” is Charli XCX at the top of her game, awaiting the vast success and acclaim that was always rightfully hers, and in an industry that sometimes seems to reward conformity and homogeneity, that’s thrilling to witness.