The last time I saw Charli XCX was in 2015, at a theater in Detroit, where she was absurdly upstaged by her tourmate/co-headliner, Jack Antonoff’s Bleachers. Despite not having the same level of high-charting hits, Antonoff seemed to command more passion from the crowd, never hesitating to pull from his Springsteen bag of tricks.
An indie-pop darling, fresh off her first album at the time, Charli had suddenly been blasted by a mainstream spotlight, mainly from a song in The Fault in Our Stars (remember that?), a guest spot on the Icona Pop track “I Love It” (remember that??), and the hook to Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” (remember that???). On stage, she had sort of a pop-riot grrrl persona, but nothing about “Boom Clap” or the rest of her decent sophomore album, Sucker, had a personal attitude, or a calling card, or whatever that quality in music is that makes fans want to reach out and touch an artist when she walks to the edge of the stage.
I remember that concert as a mildly depressing contrast: XCX possessed a strong arsenal of songs, but with no real conviction in her performance, while Antonoff had the more exciting opposite problem. Less than two weeks later, the second leg of the tour was canceled. On Facebook, she wrote: “I am struggling to create whilst I’m on the road and that is making me unhappy.”
Three years later, despite still having no official major-label album to her name since Sucker, Charli XCX was the hottest ticket in Brooklyn. Her Sunday show at the Bushwick venue Elsewhere, one of two dates so far in support of her December mixtape Pop 2, sold out in less than a minute. No longer just “that girl from the John Green soundtrack,” she’s cool as hell now, and even as (or perhaps because) her third album remains indefinitely delayed, at least one subset of Brooklyn has massively embraced her.
Not knowing the exact location of Elsewhere as I got off the train, I took an educated guess and followed two peroxide-blonde guys wearing short shorts in 40-degree weather. Sure enough, they led me to the end of a stretched-out line that must have contained every Kings County white person under the age of 25, wrapped around the block waiting to get through security. Fifty freezing minutes later, I stood inside on a packed warehouse dance floor with no cell reception, greeted by ambient synths and a blinding purplish light coming from the stage. It all did well to both preserve the mystery and hype up the anticipation.
If Pop 2 is a great album in its studio form, it’s a masterpiece in its natural habitat—a big-city club venue with a great crowd ready to dance. On Sunday (and in LA a few days prior), XCX ignored her most mainstream hits and instead devoted her set solely to Pop 2 and its preceding mixtape Number 1 Angel, bringing out guest star after guest star, all of them women—including Caroline Polachek, Brooke Candy, and CupcakKe—while PC Music’s A.G. Cook handled the production all night. The crowd danced, snapped photos, made out, and sang the lyrics of every song. And toward the end of the night, XCX, despite remaining confidently untouchable behind sunglasses and a focused attitude for most of the set, indulged us with a stage dive.
“Pop 2 is the future!” she shouted early in the set. Hearing her dominate that club, it’s hard to say she was wrong. But it should also be the present. XCX’s music perfectly aligns with the mixture of pure pop, hip-hop and EDM that’s had a stranglehold on Top 40 radio for the last few years. But it doesn’t hold your hand through the hooks like the biggest radio hits do, and this mixtape doesn’t seem to have her major label’s muscle fully behind it. So instead, XCX remains a cult phenomenon—an act to be adored by relatively smallish young crowds on the coasts, instead of all over the world—which she unselfishly shares with other artists she admires.
The beautiful tragedy of the Pop 2 show is that it really can’t be toured, or taken across the country so everyone can see what they’re missing. When XCX hits the road this summer, opening stadiums for Taylor Swift, it’s hard to imagine how she’ll recreate a high-energy dance party chock full of special guests—especially while playing in front of a crowd that won’t know her recent work or give her anywhere near the attention that Brooklyn did.
The singular, sensory-overload fun that this Pop 2 show created was hammered home with the finale. XCX ended with “Girls Night Out” and brought on every collaborator who had done anything during the show, overstuffing the stage with dancers and fellow artists who she clearly loves. Charli got lost in the chaos for maybe a few moments, semi-successfully urging everyone in the crowd to get on someone’s shoulders as the line between singer and fan became increasingly blurry. This wasn’t a concert. It was an event, a festival headlining slot somehow forced into an intimate venue.
But the biggest moment of the night came a little bit earlier, when young Chicago rapper CupcakKe blasted onstage for her verse in “I Got It,” following it up with solo performances of “Deepthroat” and “Duck Duck Goose,” and then “Lipgloss” with XCX and Brooke Candy. Her appearance alone lit a fire, as the dance floor teetered on the edge of mosh-pit territory while CupcakKe flawlessly rapped with the skill of a much more experienced performer—an explosive, scene-stealing turn that highlighted just how high a level CupcakKe has hit so quickly, and how much captivating potential is still within her.
When your crowd is rowdiest for a guest star showing off her own material, that is, by some definitions, “getting upstaged,” and maybe it symbolizes how XCX, no matter what her talents, keeps getting passed in popularity by her peers. But when your joy is in collaboration, which Charli XCX’s appears to be, that’s not the case. For CupcakKe’s time in the spotlight, Charli stayed on the side of the stage, holding a drink and mouthing the words, loving the performance like a movie director overseeing her star. She wasn’t getting upstaged. She was the one making it all happen.