Five Years On, Charli XCX & SOPHIE’s ‘Vroom Vroom’ Still Sounds Like The Future

'Vroom Vroom' envisioned a future for pop that was so far beyond the horizon, it was difficult for many to see where Charli XCX and SOPHIE were going.

sophie charli xcx vroom vroom photo

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“I’m making beautiful party songs right now and this is just the start,” Charli XCX wrote in February 2016 announcing the release of the Vroom Vroom EP.

Produced entirely by enigmatic Scottish producer SOPHIE, it marked a new chapter in Charli’s career, one that was met simultaneously with confusion and excitement, as audiences attempted to wrap their heads around what they were hearing.

Industrial and sugary sweet, pop and underground — it was a project of juxtapositions. It envisioned a future for pop that was so far beyond the horizon, it was difficult for many to see where Charli and SOPHIE were going. Some critics were quick to write it off while Charli’s fanbase underwent a dramatic transformation. Here was a popstar coming off the back of her most commercially successful album Sucker, deliberately delivering a project that radio would never have touched.

Five years later, the attitudes towards it have drastically shifted. It’s not only an anthem for Charli’s core fanbase but a starting gun on a period of wild pop experimentation that has bent and reshaped the sounds of the genre.

When Charli declared “let’s ride,” few were willing to jump in the backseat. Now, she’d need a much bigger car.

Beep Beep, Let’s Ride

There has always been something distinctly rebellious about Charli’s music — whether it was expressed through the glitchy electronics of True Romance or the raucous punk attitude of Sucker, her sound has an unapologetic loudness.

The stakes, however, were higher than ever for Vroom Vroom’s release. She’d had a US number one with Iggy Azalea on ‘Fancy’ and nabbed her own hit with ‘Boom Clap’ attached to a major film The Fault In Our Stars. She was an unlikely mainstream popstar, but her chameleonic quality made it work — she could just as easily share the stage with Taylor Swift as she could headline a sweaty club night.

“All my life I’ve been waiting for a good time,” she sings on ‘Vroom Vroom’, shunning the mainstream pop aesthetic in favour of a squeaking and screaming beat. At the time, you could’ve viewed it as self-sabotage — a deliberate attempt to remove herself from the commercial pop world and the pressure that surrounds it. But it was Charli’s immediate chemistry with SOPHIE that drove her desire to drop the project more than anything.

Introduced to SOPHIE’s track ‘Lemonade’ by her boyfriend, Charli invited the producer to Sweden on a writing trip — and the sound of Vroom Vroom was born. On the EP, SOPHIE’s innovative, limitless production collides with Charli’s natural feel for pop melody. ‘Paradise’ searches for euphoria in British rave sounds, ‘Trophy’ declares a desire to be on top with aggressive, steely beats while ‘Secret (Shh)’ is wonky and detailed, complicated by the lyrical murkiness. Each song is a head rush of ideas, none more so than the title track, which moves from ice cold to sweaty in a heartbeat.

It was Charli’s immediate chemistry with SOPHIE that drove her desire to drop the project more than anything.

Charli’s most popular Twitter fan account XCX Updates remembers the confused reaction on the day the song was premiered: “People were like, why does she have dog barking in the song? Is the song supposed to sound like this? Is this real music? It sounds like four songs playing at once.”

The hardcore fanbase lapped it up but the love wasn’t universal. Unsurprisingly, it confused Charli’s label Atlantic who had no doubt been hoping for more commercial success. “Charli’s label had no idea what to do with ‘Vroom Vroom’. They did the music video but didn’t know how that related to fans, in their mind it was crazy,” frequent collaborator A.G. Cook told Enfnts Terribles.

Critics had no idea what to make of it either. Rolling Stone praised the experiment while Pitchfork savaged it with a 4.5 rating, with writer Laura Snapes calling it, “dead behind the eyes.”

Australian producer Lonelyspeck, who caught Charli’s attention during the recording of last year’s how i’m feeling now, told Music Junkee, “It’s almost like [Vroom Vroom] transgressed something that critics weren’t ready for, as though it wasn’t the move someone in Charli’s position was ‘supposed’ to make.”

It’s The Real Charli, Baby

Despite the resistance to Vroom Vroom, Charli persisted with the sound. “I felt like I finally found someone who could articulate my ideas sonically,” she told Vogue about working with SOPHIE. She further elaborated on the chemistry in the project: “Sometimes we get aggressive, sometimes we get beautiful.”

Following the EP sessions, Charli began work on her third album with SOPHIE alongside prolific pop producer Stargate. One song, ‘After The Afterparty’, saw the light of day but failed to set the charts alight. Instead of persisting with the album, Charli side-stepped the process by releasing two mixtapes in 2017 Number 1 Angel and Pop2, delving even further into the world that Vroom Vroom had created. This time, the entire PC Music crew was on board with SOPHIE producing alongside A.G. Cook, Danny L. Harle, and more.

Pop music has always borrowed from the underground — it’s how producers like Diplo and Hudson Mohawke gained mainstream notoriety — but rarely does it fuse with the underground and keep its edge. Charli’s pop music, however, is pointy, bold, shiny, and uncompromising.

It took time but by her second mixtape, Pop 2, critics were beginning to see the merit in Charli’s vision for the future. Pitchfork declared it the 40th best album of the decade, NME called her an “innovator, celebrator, and curator supreme,” while The Guardian said it “kick-ass hits from a parallel universe.” Two years after her Pitchfork review of Vroom Vroom, Snapes “publicly disavowed” it on Twitter.

Sydney producer Donatachi, who has been inspired by Charli and SOPHIE’s work in his own music, says Vroom Vroom was “simply ahead of its time.”

“I think there are a lot of people who don’t think pop can be as boundary-pushing as other genres and are quick to write it off as obnoxious and abrasive,” he told Music Junkee.

A regular popstar timeline would have had Charli churning out a Max Martin-produced banger in search of more chart glory at the time of Vroom Vroom. Instead, she dove headfirst into a new musical world and waited for others to catch up. And they did…or at least tried to.

SOPHIE and PC Music had already developed a cult following before Vroom Vroom but the discussion around it was divisive. The music was so foreign and cutting edge that audiences questioned whether it was a gimmick — or even a critique of pop music. Charli’s attachment to it gave the music a face. It was a sign that this new sound was leaning outside of its cult internet status and striving for a wider reach. Five years later, SOPHIE’s production credits included Madonna, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga — and the producer was creating an entirely new subgenre of pop: hyperpop.

The Dawn Of Hyperpop

Vroom Vroom was the starting gun on a new era for pop — an experimental liberation. Hyperpop, a term coined by a Spotify playlist that now has over 150,000 followers, has become the umbrella term to categorise music that features sticky pop melodies underpinned by ear-twisting beats. The likes of Donatachi, Slayyyter, 100 Gecs, Rico Nasty and Vince Staples all find themselves on the playlist alongside Charli and SOPHIE.

Hyperpop is “the sound of us all trying to catch up,” according to Donatachi. “Vroom Vroom created space for me and other artists to experiment with conventional pop and to work outside its constructs.”

Lonelyspeck agrees that it laid the groundwork for a whole new generation of artists. “[It] shaped the wildness of PC Music and ‘deconstructed club’ into Charli’s pop world in such a confident, uncompromising way,” Lonelyspeck says. “I think they established it as its own sound and shut down the people who dismiss it as a gimmick or some post-ironic statement.”

If you listen to the playlist right now you’ll hear a common appreciation for pop and innovation, but with wild variation — from the relentless strikes of 100 Gecs’ 800 dB cloud to the euphoric sugar rush of Namasenda’s ‘Wanted’.

Brooklyn producer Umru, who co-produced Charli’s 2019 track ‘Click’, believes grouping it all together seems “pointless” given how limitless the sound can be. “Even just within the tracklist of Vroom Vroom I’d say there’s such a broad range of sounds, of influences,” he tells Music Junkee.

He remembers, however, being particularly taken on first listen by how well the experimental could meld with pop sensibilities. “I [was] so amazed someone I knew of as such an experimental producer [SOPHIE] was working with Charli XCX who I had only heard of from the chart-topping ‘Fancy’ or ‘Boom Clap’, and just how well it worked, it was the perfect fit.”

The National Anthem Of XCX World

The influence of Vroom Vroom on music is one thing, but it’s impossible to ignore the impact it’s had on Charli’s fanbase. It has been adopted as the rowdy national anthem of XCX World and is proudly defended by all Charli’s ‘Angels’, as she calls them. At a Charli concert, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s the highest-selling single of all time as fans chant the words back with ear-shattering volume.

On the subreddit Popheads, ‘Vroom Vroom’ has been voted the best Charli song. For the record, It’s a decision that Music Junkee agrees with.

“It’s because of the energy and the atmosphere it creates when Charli performs it live or when you play it out loud,” XCX Updates answers when asked why it’s become the fan anthem.

On top of the energy, there’s a level of pride attached to the song as it marks the first time Charli truly found her sound and cultivated her hardcore fanbase. “Working with SOPHIE gave Charli all the things she’d been trying to find to make the music she always wanted to make,” says XCX Updates. “It was a key moment for her in her career to realise herself as a musician because she’d just found her sound and vision she’d been so desperately looking for.”

Living In SOPHIE’s Future Without SOPHIE

SOPHIE’s tragic passing makes this a somewhat bittersweet anniversary to mark. The producer was, in many ways, the compass for where music was headed. The fact that the Vroom Vroom project still sounds fresh is a testament to how singular and unique it was. It wasn’t timestamped — it was speeding ahead of everything else, taunting others to catch up.

Vroom Vroom’s influence will continue because it imagined a future that we haven’t truly reached yet. As Donatachi says SOPHIE’s music was unique because it never looked back, only forwards. “SOPHIE’s utopian ideals of looking to the future instead of being complacent with nostalgia is something that will always resonate with me,” he says.

Umru adds to that, noting we became fixated on what direction she was going to take us in next. “It was always exciting to know that SOPHIE was working on new music,” he says. “We were always living in anticipation of the next chance to hear a glimpse and it’s still so difficult to process such a source of light and inspiration being lost.”

Following Vroom Vroom, Charli and SOPHIE would only officially release a handful of songs together, but they had already set the blueprint for music that captured our pop appetite while challenging what our ears were acclimatized to. It set an expectation that the pair, together and separately, would always seek and offer us something new.

“I’d never heard music like that before. I’d never heard production like that,” Charli said of their first encounter. That set the standard for the rest of her career. When she moves forward, bitches know, they can’t catch Charli.

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. He also co-hosts the popular podcast Flopstars. Follow him on Twitter.