Charli XCX: Why the singer is Taylor Swift’s great enemy (and a new Gen Z mentor)

The British artist — who has swept the charts with her album ‘Brat’ — described the superstar’s previous tour as: ‘Getting up on stage and waving to five-year-olds.’ Her influence is shaking up youth culture

Charli XCX
Charli XCX, in May at the 2024 Met Gala, titled 'Sleeping Beauties: Reawakening Fashion.'Gilbert Flores (Variety via Getty Images)

There are times when a record, even in the age of streaming and playlists, manages to capture the essence of a moment. It’s not exactly about sales, impeccable production or million-dollar tours. It has more to do with finding the right formula for that intangible something that defines the times we are living in. Brat, by Charli XCX, is one of those albums.

The sixth studio record by the British singer was released at the beginning of June, and according to the review aggregator Metacritic, it is the highest rated album so far this year — above Cowboy Carter by Beyoncé, which remains in second place. In other words, it’s a smash hit. Proof of this was Charli XCX’s set at Boiler Room in New York in February, which received some 25,000 requests for 1,000 invitations, becoming the most coveted in the promoter’s history.

Charli XCX was one of the guests at the Balenciaga haute couture show.
Charli XCX was one of the guests at the Balenciaga haute couture show.Arnold Jerocki (Getty Images for Balenciaga)

Brat is abrasive, impetuous, fiery and also vulnerable. But Charli XCX’s impact transcends the music industry. Her sphere of influence encompasses everything of interest to Gen Z. The color Brat green — a toxic tone, typical of bile that floods the cover of the album — seems to be everywhere. It’s not known if it is the result of a cunning marketing campaign or just a viral trend.

The British Green Party published a version of the album design for their election campaign, the color has appeared in countless memes, TikTok manicure tutorials explain how to achieve the color, and there is even an image generator that creates imitations of the Brat album cover.

Other singers have embraced what is being called the color of the season: Caroline Polachek posed with an image of the recognizable cover, and Rosalía wore radioactive green nail polish.

This uncomfortable hue is already infiltrating the fashion industry, and has featured in collections by Prada, Martine Rose, Gucci and Loewe. Charli XCX said in an interview with Vogue Singapore that she experimented with 65 colors until she hit just the “offensive” tone she was looking for. “I’d like for us to question our expectations of pop culture — why are some things considered good and acceptable, and some things deemed bad?” she asked. “I’m not doing things to be nice.”

“Expectation is a powerful weapon. When we saw Charli XCX with that super green poster on social media last June 7, we already anticipated that an album with a fresh and powerful sound was coming,” argues music journalist Beatriz G. Aranda, pointing to lyrics such as “Should I stop my birth control? Cause my career feels so small in the existential theme of it all.”

“But the Brit’s career has always been about shattering expectations,” she continues. “And in this case, what no one expected was this honesty in her lyrics. For listeners tired of certain narratives of contemporary pop music (cult of the body as a symptom of sexual freedom, sonic hodgepodge to convince too many, overindulgence of collaborations), Brat offers more rawness and realism.”

Brat’s lyrics have also caused a stir, namely for Charli’s thinly veiled references to other singers. The songs are filled with trolling, drama, and gossip. Sympathy is a Knife allegedly talks about Taylor Swift, who briefly dated Matty Healy, singer of The 1975 — the same band in which George Daniel, Charli’s current partner, plays drums. In the song, Charli sings: “Don’t wanna see her backstage at my boyfriend’s show/ Fingers crossed behind my back, I hope they break up.”

But the feud between Charli and Swift predates Brat. The British singer first ruffled feathers when she talked about being the opening act for Swift’s 2018 Reputation Tour. “It kind of felt like I was getting up on stage and waving to five-year-olds,” she told Pitchfork.

Swift, meanwhile, used her power to climb the British charts at the same time Brat was released, releasing the six reissues of The Tortured Poets Department for a limited time in the U.K. This move put Swift at the top of the chart, preventing Brat from reaching No. 1. Amid the feud, Charli has asked her fans — known as “angels” — to stop shouting “Taylor is dead” at her concerts, saying that she will “not tolerate” that kind of hate.

But it’s Charli’s tense relationship with New Zealand singer Lorde that is causing even more of a stir. The fact that the two singers are frequently confused has become a recurring joke. Charli’s fans have jumped on board, and at the British singer’s concerts, jokingly call on her to play Lorde’s hit song Royals. In the song, Girl, So Confusing, Charli may be talking about her friend and rival: “You’re all about writing poems. But I’m about throwing parties.”

But any suspicion that Charli was holding a grudge dissipated when Lorde joined Charli on the remix of Girl, So Confusing. In her version, Lorde says that she always admired Charli, and admits that she would cancel plans at the last minute because she was “scared” to appear in her photos. In the original song, Charli fantasizes about a musical collaboration that would make the internet “go crazy.” And that’s exactly what has happened.

But there is something else that explains the success of Brat. In our chronically online existence, the album builds a bridge between digital and club culture. Charli — whose real name is Charlotte Aitchison — started performing in London raves at the age of 14, and at 31, she has gone through both MySpace and Tumblr as well as illegal parties in industrial warehouses. Her Boiler Room sessions — full of unexpected cameos — make us feel FOMO again. And although Brat makes references to Instagram influencers that many consider obnoxious, such as Gabbriette, she is like that friend who convinces you to leave the house and not come back until the next morning.

It is sobering to think that this work has burst onto the scene after months of crisis, wars and political tension. Its feverish hedonism encourages people to let themselves go, argues against the needlessness of constant optimization, warns that partying is also about taking care of yourself, and reminds listeners to be wary of criticizing others. Brat undoubtedly is the final blow that has pulverized the clean girl trend, defined by yoga classes and undetectable makeup. Are we seeing a vibe shift? We’ll find out in the next few months.

In one of the songs on the album, Rewind, Charli confesses that she used to call the paparazzi herself to appear in the media (“everybody else does it”). After the success of Brat, chances are she’ll never have to pick up the phone again.

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