Why Charli XCX And Carly Rae Jepsen Chase Cult Success, Instead Of The Charts
They haven't had a chart-topping hit in years, but their careers are the strongest they've ever been.
“I’m kind of a chart flop recently but honestly lol if u think i care,” tweeted Charli XCX recently. It was a stunning admission for a pop artist to make just a month out from the release of her third album Charli, but you couldn’t doubt the sincerity of it.
By traditional pop standards, Charli hasn’t had a global hit since 2014. Instead, she’s concerned herself with making some of the best music of her career. It’s a story echoed in Carly Rae Jepsen, who has failed to match the heights of her 2012 global number one ‘Call Me Maybe’, but has gone on to become one the decades most beloved and respected pop artists.
Since the megahits stopped, they’ve become visionaries of the pop sphere, without ever having to compete with the Taylor Swifts and Katy Perrys of the scene.
The ‘one hit wonder’ tag can be a lead balloon for an artist; it can build a career and then completely overshadow it. Or at least, it used to. Charli and Jepsen have bucked the trend — despite being unable to match the heights of their biggest hits on the charts, they have used the lack of mainstream pressure to build unique, dedicated fanbases.
They’re not irrelevant, nostalgic pop stars — they’re cult heroes making some of the most exciting music of their careers. And it’s no accident.
When The Hits Dry Up
A hit can be a blessing and a curse for a pop artist. When ‘Boom Clap’ and ‘Fancy’ both cracked the US top 10 in 2014, it looked as if Charli was locked in as the next big pop star. Instead, it led to a creatively confusing time for the artist.
The album that followed was Sucker — a somewhat conflicted record that paired pure pop with bratty, fast-moving punk. It felt as if she was both playing towards and rebelling against mainstream pop. Despite a top 10 record in the UK with ‘Doing It’ and some US chart love with ‘Break The Rules’, the album ultimately tanked, failing to reach the top 10 in any major music market.
“It was definitely a confusing experience, after ‘Fancy’, when things didn’t really go my way,” Charli admitted to The Guardian.
Jepsen, meanwhile, had the unenviable task of following up a global number one record in ‘Call Me Maybe’. Kiss, the succeeding album, gained some recognition, and produced another hit with the Owl City-featuring ‘Good Time’. It found a home in the top 10 of the charts in the US, UK and here in Australia, but it was ultimately her last major hit.
The follow-up E•MO•TION stunted her commercial growth. Despite nabbing Tom Hanks and Justin Bieber for the visual of lead-single ‘I Really Like You‘, it failed to repeat the success of ‘Call Me Maybe’, limping into the US top 40.
So…How Did That Happen?
While Jepsen’s label was clearly hanging out for a hit, it seemed it wasn’t Jepsen’s primary interest. Once the expectation of ‘I Really Like You’ had passed she rolled out E•MO•TION. It was a punchy injection of pure pop, swapping in alternative producers like Dev Hynes and Rostam Batmanglij over hitmakers like Max Martin.
Jepsen quickly became a commercial underdog and a critical darling, gracing the pages of typically pop-shy publications Pitchfork and Stereogum. Douglas Vasquez, the person behind her biggest Twitter fansite Carly Rae Jepsen Brazil, tells Music Junkee it made her “an indie icon” despite being a “commercial ‘flop’”.
E•MO•TION was a punchy injection of pure pop, swapping in alternative producers like Dev Hynes and Rostam Batmanglij over hitmakers like Max Martin.
Charli also followed up Sucker with a hard left turn. She hooked up with experimental pop producer SOPHIE for the Vroom Vroom EP, a project she described as “an assault” to The Fader.
“She didn’t have a proper fanbase until ‘Vroom Vroom’ really,” says Charli’s biggest Twitter fanpage XCX Updates. The true ‘Angels’ gravitated to the experimentation. If you go to a Charli show now as a casual fan, you’d be forgiven for thinking ‘Vroom Vroom’ was her biggest song judging by the crowd’s reaction.
Despite this new experimental side, Charli aimed for a third album that straddled a line between the mainstream and the underground. She worked on material with Stargate and SOPHIE but it was shelved after a series of leaks and label delays. Instead, she freestyled with a duo of mixtapes in 2017 Number 1 Angel and Pop 2.
“You get Charli in her true form with 100 percent artistic freedom and no record company interference,” says XCX Updates of the latter.
Pop 2 also birthed a new kind of Charli show. In between support slots for Taylor Swift’s reputation tour where she was playing the ‘hits’, she was throwing club nights that were essentially raves for XCX die-hards. ‘Boom Clap’ and ‘Fancy’ were stripped from the setlist, making way for weirder moments like ‘I Got It’.
“If [Charli] was still making songs for the charts she wouldn’t be making the music we all love and this amazing inclusive community she has created wouldn’t exist,” XCX Updates says.
The same goes for Jepsen. Her fourth album Dedicated marks the first time she’s truly been able to take her eye of the charts. It’s a slick, disco-leaning record that feels like her freest yet. Unlike Charli, she hasn’t deleted her biggest hit from her show — but fans scream louder for ‘Runaway With Me’ than ‘Call Me Maybe’.
Vasquez believes the lack of hits has been beneficial for her music. “Not having that pressure gave her the freedom she needed at the studio to make the music she always wanted,” he says.
So What Does The Fanbase Look Like Now?
Both artists have embraced their status as cult artists. Charli dips into the mainstream occasionally with radio-friendly features, but the singles from her latest album show she’s not interested in any boundaries being placed upon her music. She’s now, “so unbothered by top 40 success,” as she told The Guardian.
While Charli’s fans embrace the weird, Jepsen’s fans are all about pure-pop — think early Madonna or Cyndi Lauper in her prime. “I think a lot of music can shy away and almost want to be a little too cool,” Jepsen once told GQ this year.
On her most recent tour, she performs under a disco ball in glitter-laden outfits, playing up the drama by over-exerting phrases with a giddy playfulness. She’s also invited drag queens up on-stage with her during ‘Cut To The Feeling’, embracing her position as a queer icon. You don’t simply decide to become an icon, you’re awarded that status by the community and they have welcomed Jepsen warmly.
The queer community has a history of supporting pop stars long after their chart reign ends. Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany, for example, are still packing out festival stages. It’s not nostalgia with Jepsen though, it’s a yearning for emotive, pure pop. Jepsen described her status as “a gift” on Jessie Ware’s podcast Table Manners.
“The LGBTQ community has shaped who I am as an artist today,” Charli, who has also become an icon, told Billboard. A lot of her club show antics are inspired by the community from drag appearances to playful advocations of poppers.
“Charli wouldn’t be the artist that she is today without them,” says XCX Updates, noting that Pop 2, in particular, “engaged a lot of people from the LGBTQ+ community.” That project featured high-profile queer figures like Pabllo Vittar, Kim Petras, Mykki Blanco, and more.
Why Hasn’t This Happened Before?
While Charli and Carly have been able to navigate the muddy, post-hit pop world, it hasn’t always been like this. Looking through pop’s one-hit wonders of the 2000s, it’s difficult to find one other artist that has been able to do what they have done.
If we’re to cherry pick a few notable ‘00s hitmakers – Sandi Thom’s ‘I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair)’ was the highest selling single in Australia in 2006. Thom actually hasn’t stopped releasing music since — her last album dropped last year — although you’d be forgiven for not knowing that, she’s all but vanished from the music landscape.
The same goes for Leona Lewis, who became an international superstar with ‘Bleeding Love’ but has failed to find a dedicated fanbase since. The Ting Tings also struck hard with their joyous and rebellious hit ‘That’s Not My Name’ in 2007, but they failed to keep the momentum going beyond their debut album We Started Nothing.
Part of crushing the one-hit wonder tag is continuing to release great music but there are also new forces at play. Internet stan culture has flourished with fans now cultivating in subreddits and Twitter threads. It’s easier to find your niche pop community even if they’re not flying high on the charts.
With these fans comes the creation of memes which have boosted both Charli and Jepsen’s profiles. Charli’s ‘Vroom Vroom’ has become a meme sensation, soundtracking pink motorcycle content across platforms, particularly TikTok. Back in the days of Vine, Jepsen’s ‘Run Away With Me’ spread thanks to its horn-howling intro. Following that, a Tumblr user petitioned to give Jepsen a sword for no other reason other than that they liked her and “she should have one”. It went viral and was validated when Jepsen eventually accepted a blow-up sword on stage.
Stan culture can be hard for those on the outer to understand, but these fanbases thrive off their own content. XCX Updates describes the Charli fanbase as “wild, iconic, sassy and trolly”. These kinds of stans are a relatively new addition to music, something that certainly wasn’t around when Thom was attempting to prolong her popularity.
In the past, repeated chart failures saw artists labelled as a flop. For Jepsen and Charli, however, their flop status has been embraced; it’s given them freedom to experiment and explore within their music, and find a wildly dedicated fanbase at the same time.
As XCX Updates says of Charli’s fans, “everyone is into futuristic shit only.” It seems the mainstream has fallen behind, not the other way around.
Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter.