The last time I saw Charli XCX live was in 2018 - she was in Australia supporting Taylor Swift on the Reputation tour, off the back of Troye Sivan-collaboration “1999”. She told The Project that she was nerve-wracked by the prospect of joining Taylor on stage for “Shake It Off”, an assignment that came with a classic stadium show dance section.
“It was very scary, because I don't really dance. I dance in my way, but I don't dance choreographed pop star routines,” she said.
I wasn’t at the Gabba show, but I was at The Flying Cock afterward, where Charli was announced to appear alongside a slate of more experimental electronic and pop acts, including Banoffee, Miss Blanks, and Rebel Yell - who seemed to be more in dialogue with her Sophie-produced Vroom Vroom EP.
Charli arrived around midnight, closing the ecstatic, sweaty party in a striped rainbow bodysuit overlaid with volumes of sheer tulle. It was the first time I’d experienced the feral joy of a curated, queer-centric dance party, established with the intention for one night only.
Half a decade later, Charli is the main course at Sydney’s WorldPride Opening Concert, eclipsed on the line-up only by Kylie Minogue. To coincide, small-scale headline sideshows at The Tivoli in Brisbane and Northcote Social Club in Melbourne were announced, leaving many unlucky twinks to navigate the wastelands of the ticket resale market in hope of joining her for communion.
After a weekend of watching Instagram Stories from the trenches of WorldPride - slutty fit checks, shots from the parade, shaky footage from late-night warehouse set-ups - I walk to The Tivoli, eager to dance alongside everyone else who couldn’t afford flights and accommodation and party favours in Sydney last week. Opening the night, it feels like Prophecy Girl senses a similar hunger in the theatre.
The DJ/producer wears a spiky, 100 gecs-esque headpiece and a sleeveless, skin-tight vest with metallic plates sectioning out their muscles, like a hunky insect. Their set opens with Sophie’s “Faceshopping”, and it no longer feels like a Tuesday night. They cut in Robyn and Shygirl and Ninajirachi, and a hyper-poppy remix of Ethel Cain’s “American Teenager”. Despite the minimal stage setup, PG is larger-than-life, coming out in front of the decks to jump around and lip sync to their selections, eager to engage with the rows of cyber enbys and baby-tee boys squished up against the barrier.
Charli’s production design is anything but understated. Just after 9pm, a high-octane scene is projected onto the stage. There is a center line of a dark road, disappearing faster and faster under a moving vehicle; we see tires revving, and a red-lit dashboard with a steadily climbing needle on the speedometer. Flashes of thunder and lightning: Charli emerges from the eye of the storm and the carnage of the crash. The fuzzy rainbow rave sleeves she wore for her WorldPride performance are replaced by black ones, matching her matrix-style sunglasses and snatched Nicole Scherzinger high ponytail. She’s joined by two bare-chested dancers, Nathan Kim and Robbie Blue, and the trio swiftly disprove her old reservations about popstar dance routines. Opening with “Lightning”, she flaunts soaring vocals and precise choreography that sees her dominate the stage like Beyonce or Dua Lipa. Against the projected backdrop, it’s easy to believe that something has been delivered to us from the skies.
Next is “Gone”, from 2019’s Charli LP; the stormy scene gives way to the image of a fiery setting sun, which could have been lifted from the same 80s fantasy as the song’s throbbing bassline. “Move” brings the heat down to a simmer - Robbie and Nathan get a brief break from the spotlight, and I hope someone side-of-stage is pouring Powerade into their open mouths. Next is “Constant Repeat”, also taken from Crash, followed by “Baby”. We see shots of an opulent mansion, with an entrance lined by tall, fluted plinths. Robbie and Nathan return in flowy silk button-downs, and it’s giving Grecian drama, but at what cost? Meanjin’s humidity is high, and that’s without accounting for the heat of the stage lights and the tempo of their choreography.
Introducing “Yuck”, Charli offers a brief explainer of “the ick”, a term that originated in her UK homeland. In the song, she rebuffs a sneaky link trying to get all “lovey-dovey”, but the Brit has a disclaimer: she’s currently “so in love right now” with The 1975 drummer George Daniel.
It’s hard to create a sense of vulnerability within such a large-scale extravaganza, but it feels like Charli invites the whole room into her world for “Every Rule”. We see a projected blue sky, rolling clouds; she reclines on stage to sing about the “something like magic” chemistry she once shared with someone who was in another relationship at the time. She’s backlit, and her signature auto-tuned vocal somehow makes her sound more human, less machine.
Up next, fittingly, is our first taste from How I’m Feeling Now, the shimmering, intimate record that she released mid-lockdown, and worked on in collaboration with her fans. I remember adding “party 4 u” to a playlist called “I MISS THE CLUB” in 2020, and it feels cathartic to experience it live, in a room that smells like poppers and sweat.
We continue to delve into Miss Charli’s back catalog, with “Track 10” from Pop 2, and “1999”. “Boom Clap” divides the room, a little - on the mezzanine balcony, I spot a woman in a Millers button-down and white capri pants who is screaming every word, but a lot of the punters on the floor seem to be using the song as a moment to catch their breath. Charli notices.
“Bitches! People throw shade at Boom Clap, but it pays for my life! It pays for my hair, it pays for my show… F**cking bow down to Miss Boom Clap, because she brought us here.”
The crowd complies. For the most part tonight, Charli is successful in her attempt to unite fans of her commercial hits with the club gremlins hoping for more B-sides in the setlist. At 30, she’s newly out of the five-album recording contract she signed with Atlantic when she was 16; fans are speculating about the mystery deal she’s inked for the next two, and it’s unclear whether her evolution will aim to bring both follower camps with her.
The bimbo-fied “Boys” is next, and then “New Shapes”, which features supersized Just Dance-esque avatars of Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek beamed onto the screen. The stage goes black, and the revving is back. A sea of smartphones get raised for the beginning of “Vroom Vroom”, and the group of aforementioned club gremlins behind me roar so loud I can feel it on the back of my neck.
“You fucking ready?” Charli asks. Part Soul Cycle instructor, part Megachurch priestess: “Let’s blow this place up… Hands up, hands up!”.
While the Crash tour has taken Charli to venues with capacities greater than 10000, the turbo backend of the set - “Visions”, “I Got It” and “Unlock it (Lock It)” - features tracks that most of her Meanjin devotees have only heard at parties, independent club nights and DIY warehouse events. It feels surreal to gather and witness them in a packed theatre, where everywhere you look there are outstretched hands and jumping bodies, flashing lights, and sweaty faces.
There’s no encore, and when the ‘Charli, Charli, Charli’ chant starts up, it seems half-hearted. Everyone is exhausted, and back on Earth, we’ve remembered that it’s Tuesday night. But one thing is for sure - at the end of her Atlantic deal, Charli XCX has assumed her final form as a pop megastar, both thanks to the legacy of her blockbuster hits and in spite of them.