If creativity flourishes under constraint, then, theoretically, the restrictions of quarantine should be ideal for making art. In practice, this hasn’t proved quite true. For the last two and a half months, live-streamed music events have been spotty and chaotic; standup-comedy sets on Instagram Live have been awkward and plagued by technical difficulties. Everyone, from the laymen to the celebrity class, has been rendered amateur. People have begun trying to re-create classic paintings using their pets, and Banksy transformed his bathroom into an art project, making it appear as if it had been overrun by rats. There have been flashes of frenetic D.I.Y. genius, but, in general, boredom and desperation have not been the wellspring of innovation they were once hoped to be. And, for many, it’s virtually impossible to soldier on with artistic pursuits—movie and television productions have been frozen, and many musicians have postponed projects out of financial necessity. Without the prospect of tour dates to bolster revenue, releasing an album is largely unfeasible.
And so the British pop star known as Charli XCX presents an unusual—and refreshing—case of art under quarantine. A nimble observer of pop trends for the last decade or so, she has not only embraced the physical and emotional conditions of lockdown but, in a mere thirty-nine days, has produced one of the more professional and enlivening artifacts to emerge in the COVID-19 era. When quarantine went into full effect, in March, Charli announced on a Zoom call with her fans that she would immediately begin recording her fourth album. The result, “How I’m Feeling Now,” channels our cooped-up state into a dance-party soundtrack that will still appeal when dance parties become legal again.
Which is not to say that Charli has fallen into the trap of taking quarantine too literally. “How I’m Feeling Now” is not a pure concept album. It’s a record that reveals the discomforts of quasi-captivity in brief glimpses rather than by beating listeners over the head. One of the more maddening aspects of quarantine has been how quickly it reduces our extraordinary circumstances to stale cliché: nearly everyone has experienced the same form of claustrophobic doldrums, a malaise that can’t easily be transmuted into insight. There is only one song on Charli’s album, “Anthems,” that taps into these experiences with an intense directness. She opens the song with a survey of her brain. “I’m so bored, woo!” she bellows over a strobe-like beat that mimics delirium. “Wake up late, eat some cereal, try my best to be physical,” she says. “Sometimes, I feel O.K. / Some days, I’m so frightened.” Later, she talks about aimlessly shopping online and feeling exhausted by doing nothing. But the song, like so much of the album, eventually becomes about the desire to unleash her coiled energy. “I want anthems, late nights, New York,” she yells. It’s one of her best tracks to date.
Charli entered the pop scene in 2012, when the boundaries between Top Forty and indie were beginning to dissolve. She succeeded because she could work in a state of fluidity, singing, at one moment, the hook for summer bangers (she did guest vocals on Iggy Azalea’s irresistible “Fancy” and Icona Pop’s ecstatic “I Love It”) and collaborating, in the next, with outsiders and provocateurs, often manipulating her deep, raspy voice with digital filters. Even as she’s slipped into the mainstream, she’s kept a faintly ironic attitude, making synth pop with strange, glitchy undertones. And despite her adaptive qualities, everything she does sounds like Charli. She’s the unusual trend-surfer with a trademark sound, a robust and panoramic pop filled with a longing for nighttime adventure.
One might assume that, when stuck at home, people would be more inclined to listen to music. But data suggest that, in March, music streaming dipped by about eight per cent, while TV numbers soared. A smattering of artists have been agile—or opportunistic—enough to seize the moment. Drake, ever the savvy marketer, took advantage of lockdown, in April, by releasing a song geared toward the viral dance factory of TikTok. “Toosie Slide” is a breezy song that instructs viewers how to do a rudimentary sequence of steps: “Right foot up, left foot slide,” Drake sings. (The video for the song is shot entirely in his Toronto mansion.) A few weeks later, Drake released “Dark Lane Demo Tapes,” a collection of song scraps that didn’t quite cohere as an album but that was potent enough to capture the attention of his stir-crazy fans. Meanwhile, others have made quarantine a source of comedy—the rapper DaBaby appeared on the cover of his new album wearing a face mask. And still others have tried to harness the quietude and isolation of the moment. The neo-soul experimentalist Mahalia released “Isolation Tapes,” a whisper of a project, last month.
These elements—topical humor, frustration in solitude, intimacy—are all present on “How I’m Feeling Now.” Some tracks explore the excitement and angst of sharing quarantine with a significant other. (Charli sings of holding a party “only for you, for you.”) But the album doesn’t succeed because of how it speaks to the shared experience of a crisis. Instead, it fixes its gaze on the future, and the hunger for any form of release. This album has a slightly jagged, homespun sound that feels deeply of-the-moment, but its yearning—for community, for adrenaline, for the perfect night—is not a product of a pandemic. It’s what animates so much of the best pop during ordinary times, too.
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