Charli XCX Wants To Fuck With The Music Industry’s Male Gaze

Charli talks feminism, the music industry and Dr. Luke with Junkee.

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The first time I get a glimpse of Charli XCX’s new video ‘Boys’, it’s over a slightly shaky FaceTime connection.

It’s a week out from the song’s release, and such is the level of secrecy around the clip that her label have had to FaceTime me to show me just a minute of it — even they don’t have the final copy yet. But even a minute of the video is enough to know that the artist born Charlotte Aitchison has pulled off something brilliant.

The concept is relatively straightforward: subvert the dominant tropes of sexualising women in pop music videos by simply replacing them with men. Simple yes, but also a quietly powerful statement.

For the role of “the men”, Charli has enlisted the help of seemingly every major male musician on the planet, including Diplo, Joe Jonas, Flume, Mark Ronson, Stormzy, Mac DeMarco, Wiz Khalifa, Ty Dolla $ign, Charlie Puth, Vance Joy, Kaytranada, Chromeo, Jack Antonoff, G-Eazy and Will.I.Am.

Then there’s actors and sports stars like Riz Ahmed and Tom Daley, and YouTubers like Connor Franta. Between them, they cuddle puppies, have pillow fights, sensually eat pancakes, dance half naked with champagne — basically everything that is usually deemed the role of women in music videos.

A few hours after my minute-long glimpse of the clip, I spoke to Charli about the video, the industry and why Kesha is such an important role model.

Where did the idea for ‘Boys’ video come from, and how did the clip actually come together?

I was just listening to the song and it was the immediate idea that popped into my head. I knew that I wanted to direct it and I knew exactly how I wanted to do it. It was a very instant idea for me.

It was just fun to make, although it took quite a long time. We started shooting it in April and we finished it only about a week ago. So it’s been a long process but I’ve really enjoyed it.

How did you manage to get everyone in the film clip? How did the filming itself come together?

I knew a lot of the guys already so I basically just harassed them for months and hit them up and and said, “Please do this video.” Some people were super chill and really easy and for some people it took longer, but everyone was down.

I actually joined a really funny dating app that I knew some people were on so that I could get to them, which is kind of crazy. Most of the time I was just hitting people up and I’m really happy that the guys said yes. No one was a diva.

You’ve got Diplo in there cuddling puppies. He’s pretty notorious for using women as props onstage and in his videos, kind of like you’ve used the boys here. Was it intentional to have him in there to make it extra subversive?

Obviously the whole idea behind my video was to avert the male gaze. However… I know Diplo and I know that he’s someone who’s really respectful to women. I’ve known him for a while and I’ve been to a lot of his shows and I’ve been there whilst he’s been DJing and partying with his dancers, and I’ve never felt that there’s been any kind of creepy or weird vibe there. I think his dancers are really cool, and I think they’re all amazing dancers.

“I know Diplo and I know that he’s someone who’s really respectful to women…I’ve never felt that there’s been any kind of creepy or weird vibe.”

I think they’re naturally sexy women who are very in control of their own bodies and their own decisions on what they make. I really don’t feel like he’s a culprit of using women as props.

I just personally just don’t see that from him. This video was not me just trying to trick guys who I feel like have done things that are wrong. That’s definitely not where I’m coming from.

All the guys are in this video because they have a sense of humour and because they understood the concept. I told them about the whole idea of averting male gaze and they were all really into it and reacted really positively to it. And you know what, Diplo was actually one of the first people that we shot. We shot that scene in my house and it was really fun. He’s a really cool dude who’s down for it. It was really cool to shoot him.

Photo via Charli XCX Facebook

It’s fair to say that this clip is a wider commentary on the male gaze of the industry?

Totally. But I just have to be clear, it’s not me digging at any of these particular people. I don’t feel like anyone in the video has done any wrong. But yes.

You can read into that deep or as little as you want, but obviously I made a conscious decision to not be in the video and to have all the guys doing the sexy things that girls are normally doing — which I think they enjoyed.

It’s funny, isn’t it, because it’s such a simple idea of not having yourself in a video. But in the pop world, it’s almost revolutionary for a female pop star to not be the centre of her videos.

Exactly. I mean generally I just don’t like doing videos either, so it was much more fun for me to be behind the camera than in front of it [laughs]. So it was a nice get out for me as well.

I’ve watched your BBC documentary a few times over the last year. There were a few totally cringeworthy parts that stuck out to me in particular: when the male interviewer comments on your bra, and also when they keep referring to the band as an “all female band.” Does that still happen to you, and do you think it’s becoming gradually more unacceptable to do stuff like that?

Yeah, I definitely feel it is becoming more unacceptable to do that. I think that’s because females in the pop space are talking more and more about how angry that kind of thing makes them. And obviously that’s really positive.

But yeah sometimes it still does happen. But I’m at a point where now… you know it takes a lot of energy to dwell on those things all the time. So while it was really important for me to make that documentary, it’s not something that I want to define and consume me.

“It is frustrating to be asked a question like, ‘Oh, you have an all female band. What’s that like?'”

Feminism has obviously been a hot topic for the past few years, which I think is really great — because it brings awareness of the subject to a much younger audience. Especially when huge artists like Taylor Swift or Beyonce are speaking about that. The more it’s spoken about, the better, obviously.

It is frustrating to be asked a question like, “Oh, you have an all female band. What’s that like?” But it’s also equally as frustrating to be asked, “What’s it like to be a woman in the music industry,” because… it just doesn’t matter. I’m just in an industry where there are women and there are men and I’m a musician and that’s how I like to be defined, rather than a female musician. Do you know what I mean?

It’s kind of a catch-22, but definitely an interesting topic.

Photo via Charli XCX Facebook page

For sure. It’s hard to talk about it from this side too. Because as an interviewer, you don’t want to ask that question of “What is it like to be woman in the music industry”. So it’s very important to talk about, but it’s hard to bring it up in a way that’s not reductive. You’re right, it is a catch-22.

I completely agree. Obviously, it can only be good for people to read these answers and understand that experience. I totally get where you’re coming from.

Going back a bit, I know you’ve talked about your track ‘Sucker’ being written at a time when you were feeling quite cynical about the industry and the pop machine. Do you still feel that way?

No, not really. I feel really happy at the moment, and I’m just lucky to be making music and to be writing and performing. Of course, there are bad sides to the industry, but there are bad sides to every aspect of life. I think the more you dwell on the negatives then the more unhappy that you get. I’m really just in a place where I’m just trying to do things I love and work with people I care about, you know?

There’s a lyric in ‘Sucker’ about “Dr. Luke loving your stuff”. He’s obviously been at the centre of a huge discussion about sex and power and male domination in the industry. How have you felt watching that all play out over the last few years?

Obviously it’s very unsettling. That line in ‘Sucker’ is a very sarcastic line. People would say to me, “Well done, Luke loves your stuff,” as if it was a big achievement, which obviously it’s very nice when anyone likes your stuff, but it’s just because of his role in music — and I was expected to be really thankful for that, which frustrated me at the time.

“I think [Kesha] is a really strong and important role model for young girls…it’s been really amazing the way she’s handled herself.”

But now, obviously it’s really unsettling and I feel really inspired by Kesha, that she’s been so vocal about her whole journey. I think she’s a really strong and important role model for young girls. I think it’s been really amazing the way that she’s handled herself and the fact that now she’s making music again and making the music that she wants, I think it’s really inspiring.

Speaking of your forthcoming album, I read that you had basically completed it but then decided to shelve it to focus on some other projects. Why did you make that decision to let it sit for a while?

I didn’t really make a decision to shelve it, it’s more that it’s just not the time for me to put an album out yet. It’s fine. I just spent a week in the countryside writing, doing my thing.

I think we’re at a point where albums aren’t the be-all and end-all of music. I think before, the album was the culmination of your work and the way that you judged someone on what kind of an artist they are. I think now just because with streaming and the nature that people digest music, it’s not really like that anymore. Of course an album is important, but there are so many other aspects to an artist that can define who they are.

You’re a prodigious songwriter for other artists as well. Is there a different process for when you’re writing for someone as opposed to when you’re writing songs for yourself?

No. I always write the song that I want to write, and sometimes that ends up with me and other times it ends up with someone else. It’s not a different process. I feel like I just write how I write. I think people like my style of writing, so I just try and do me, you know?

Jules LeFevre is Staff Writer at Music Junkee and inthemix. She is on Twitter.

Charli XCX hits Bali’s Potato Head Beach Club for Sunny Side Up festival next month. Find out more here.