The venue was packed. A large dildo complete with sparkles and a masterful blue gradient floated through the middle of the crowd. Glitter adorned the cheeks of teen girls in those cool, camouflage pants and grown men in mesh t–shirts. Someone AirDropped photos of Paris Hilton in one of her iconic graphic tees. This could only be one place—a Charli XCX concert. 

Charli XCX, a self-proclaimed “pop music genius,” has created an 8–year–long career steeped in hedonism, a relentless chase of pleasure, indulgence, and confidence. Her breakthrough album Sucker features the hidden gem “Body of My Own,” a  plea to normalize female sexuality and masturbation, while “Boys,” a dreamy 2017 single about savoring crushes, has become a fan favorite. Even her latest album, the self–titled Charli, is replete with bombastic brags and melodramatic confessions. The singer brought that same energy to her sold–out Union Transfer show earlier this fall, turning the venue into a party where everyone’s invited. 

Opener Dorian Electra primed the audience for Charli’s entrance, delivering high–concept pop tinted with the glam of early 2000s superstars. Strutting on stage with two back–up dancers outfitted in medieval–meets–BDSM costumes, they lurched into choreography reminiscent of Britney Spears’s classic hip thrusts and staccato rhythm. Each of Electra’s songs teem with campy subversion, playing into their gender fluidity with equal parts wit and vulnerability. Songs like “Guyliner” and “Career Boy” are fun to dance to, painting over heavy themes with a hard bass and clever word play. Their performance was a pure spectacle and left the crowd panting and hungry for more. 

Photo: Mona Lee Dorian Electra at Union Transfer

45 minutes later, Charli arrived, aglow with fluorescent lighting from a futuristic cube hogging the center of the stage. She burst into “Next Level Charli,” the perfect opening song to build anticipation for the coming attractions. Clad in purple joggers and a slicked–back ponytail, she bounced around the stage, fueled by the crowd’s voracious hunger for more—more ass–shaking, more hair whipping, more memes. Drowned out by the sound of diehard fans, Charli sets the concert’s quickening pace. 

The concert’s first quarter was a concoction of fan–favorites. She slid seamlessly into “Click,” rapping with a satirical energy, a hunched posture, and rapid hand gestures. Here the indulgence associated with Charli’s career was on fully display, encasing the audience in a space where you can pop poppers—a Charli favorite—and cry without judgement. As she sped through her first costume change into a puffer jacket, black shorts, and performed “Vroom Vroom,” the crowd hit its stride. 

Photo: Mona Lee Charli XCX at Union Transfer

Perhaps that’s because Charli makes crowded songs. They’re sprinkled with clubby influences, outrageous lyrics, and hints of anxiety. Nothing exemplified this more than her performance of “Gone,” a collaboration with Christine and the Queens. One minute the fledgling pop princess is grooving with a deliberate ease; the next, she’s crouched on the floor, cocooned in the noise she’s created. It feels performative, hitting each layered emotion before hopscotching to the next.

At some point Charli shed the jacket, revealing a simplistic black bra. This marks the next level of the concert, where she was both her most vulnerable and best. “Cross You Out,” a dramatic slow jam, melted into “Warm.” Charli spun on stage like a sparkly top, letting the audience harmonize with the same awestruck tone of the Haim sisters. It was almost as though she was both wholly present and romantically removed, letting the audience control the show.

Photo: Mona Lee Charli XCX at Union Transfer

During “February 2017,” she was introspective, jumping around with a vacant smirk plastered on her face. In the midst of “Thoughts,” she was blunt and dramatic, punctuating each admission with the vibrato of a seasoned performer. During “White Mercedes” and “Official,” she was cutesy and soft–spoken, swaying with the blush of a schoolgirl with a crush.

And then she was back to the Charli we worship. “Make it a meme,” she repeated, brandishing a leftover sword from Dorian Electra’s set. Presumably, it will become one, as will the drag queens who battled for dominance during an over–the–top performance of “Shake It.” Bringing out a bundle of Philly’s fiercest queens, Charli rapped as each outperformed the next with well–timed death drops. It’s moments like these that remind us of who Charli really is underneath the butterfly clips and futurism: a collaborator who feels equally comfortable in the wings of the stage as in the center.

Photo: Mona Lee Charli XCX at Union Transfer

Ultimately, a Charli XCX concert brims with self–awareness, reaching the punchline of any joke you can make about it first. It’s deliciously campy, full of nods to both online culture and divas of yesteryear while charting a future where pop is indulgent, a potpourri of everything our parents told us to avoid—sex, drugs, and drama.

The final songs of the show blurred together, each imbued with the frenetic energy of a rave. “Unlock It” and “I Got It” hit the same vibe, with a repetitive chorus that allowed members of the audience to dance the way they did in their childhood bedrooms, all uncontrollable limbs and laughter. “Track 10” set the backdrop for a parsed down “Blame it On Your Love,” which verged on the disjointed beauty of a Yaeji remix.  And finally, “1999” completed the set, making the encore feel almost purposeful. After teasing the audience with pantomimed emotion and internet fodder, Charli gave us what we really wanted—a party, no bells and whistles.  


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