Thursday, January 18th, 2018

Charli XCX ft. Carly Rae Jepsen – Backseat

Charli, Carly Rae and PC Music? Nah, that’s not really in our wheelhouse.


Ryo Miyauchi: The humming synths and the ghost harmonies of “all alone” resemble the static heard when the radio dial is adjusted perfectly to pick up a feed from two FM channels. Both broadcasts play independent from another, each scene unique to the singer who sings them: Charli’s escape from hell via partying turns self-destructive while Carly Rae Jepsen’s LA hallucination finds two cold souls together in bed. And just when the two stories see eye to eye, this metallic black hole of a noise swallows them whole.

Austin Brown: It’s a never-ending source of fascination for me to watch artists like Charli and Carly navigate the pop industry, invested in the artistic potential of transcendent escapism but resistant (to varying degrees) to its dominant tropes and business practices. Lines on “Backseat” like Charli’s “I want it all, even if it’s fake” and Carly’s “I got a thirst for distraction I can’t take back” are declarative to this effect, as is the mushmouth muttered repetition of “all alone” in the chorus. In opening the Pop 2 mixtape, it serves as a mission statement of sorts for Charli. “Backseat” isn’t nearly as confrontational as Vroom Vroom, which eschewed melody entirely at points and suffered as a result, but it’s not full-on bubblegum either, warping Charli’s voice and discovering decay and regret in its more grating corners. One point off for letting Carly show her up in the lyrics department, but it’s not like she had a choice in that matter.

Anthony Easton: That this starts and ends with melodic noise, and that the subtle metal grinding throughout the rest of the track keeps asking the questions: how do we make pop, and what does the form of pop mean now, outside of the populist? It’s a lonely, almost toxic song, and that it is written and performed by two great pop performers who (with the exception of one or two singles) do not sell well, makes it a fascinating example of formalist expansion, a kind of pop for pop’s sake, which would all seem so academic, if it wasn’t so fantastic to listen to. 

Alfred Soto: They belong together: figures who inhabit pop, approximate stars, scoring the occasional hit. The haze through which this song emerges has the texture of L.A., its smog and the way pop stars, approximate and otherwise, create cogs in the machinery. Because they hesitate about going for the jugular, “Backseat” takes a back seat to even itself. This is why Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX remain approximate pop stars. 

Eleanor Graham: In How To Be A Woman, Caitlin Moran describes “How Soon Is Now” as the sound of The Smiths “speeding past us, light-decked and vast, like the Millennium Falcon.” “Backseat” is the daughter and heir of that big, spacey nothing-in-particular. Against the synthy void, light bounces off the industrial clanks and screeches, like a city collapsing in slow motion. The opening lines speak to the cinematic kind of glamour that acknowledges its own hollowness but revels in itself anyway, for a lack of anything else. The parties with strangers won’t help you figure it out, but you can look out the window in the backseat and imagine that the neon lights are falling on your face in exactly the way you want them to, imagine yourself as violet-coloured and monumental and extra-planetary as the chorus.

Leah Isobel: Given the overlap in Charli and Carly’s audiences and their similar places in the modern pop pantheon, it makes demographic sense that they’d collaborate eventually, though sonically their music isn’t all that similar; Charli is all neon-bright pop hook, while Carly is more of a singer-songwriter type. “Backseat” does an admirable job of blending their separate worlds into one as Charli integrates fully into her femmebot act and Carly tugs on the high notes with so much, um, emotion that she runs away with the song, at least until the final third explodes the whole thing in a haze of electronic shrapnel. The secret overlap that makes this all work is that both singers have an intimate knowledge of pop-as-machine, if from different angles. They sing to each other from across an impossible divide, the cyber girl and the real girl, able to comfort each other but not to heal. Pop 2 has bigger and better pop songs, but none sketch out the album’s psychodrama quite as thoroughly as this one.

Micha Cavaseno: Charli XCX’s fans insist that her brand of pop does more than the pop she constantly proves she’s incapable of writing consistently — not because she hasn’t tried, but because frankly people who aren’t captivated by the thought of Charli XCX don’t care. The same could apply to Carly Rae Jepsen, the apparent genius of the straight ahead anthem who can’t manage to convince so-called ‘stupid normies’ she’s even made a song since “Call Me Maybe.” “Backseat” sounds as uncomfortably unabashed as people who cannot separate their philias from their feelings, as the duo rapturously claw at the neon and chrome slidings like half-magpie half-harpies sounding less like a song and more like jarringly reductive fetish art for so many who’ve singed their corneas by refreshing their Tumblrs a few too many times, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe this is the fitting result for the hyperconnectivity of the ‘alt-pop’ stars who can’t succeed at bridging past the voracious net addicts who enshrine them as stars before they actually soar; their relationship becomes a specific kind of fan-service as tether, and in their desperate symbiosis do their damnedest to ensure that this isn’t just fantasy, but that it really matters.

Will Rivitz: A word to the wise: if a song is to arrive at a triumphant moment of climax most of the way through, it needs to merit that high. That is precisely what “Backseat” does, smokily snaking through neon rubble until it soars into the sky with its gorgeous trapdoor bass while the voices of Charli and Carly diffuse into the ether. It’s the most gorgeous pop song in a very long while, and it grows and glows so perfectly that every moment feels earned.

Sonia Yang: This is a perfect marriage of my perception of each of their thematic tropes; Jepsen’s dreamy pining undercut by Charli’s wryness. Even the music seems to echo this: smooth 80s-inspired production characteristic of the former’s songs marred just the right amount by darker, more dissonant synths from the latter’s work, almost in conjunction with when each vocalist makes her entrance. The true beauty is how distinct their voices sound even under layers of autotune; Jepsen floats and flutters while Charli errs sharp and sardonic. “Backseat” sparkles but isn’t saccharine, it’s melancholy but not weighty. And like a fever dream, it ends almost as quickly as it began.

Katherine St Asaph: Charli ft. Carly, singing about love and, better yet, the solipsistic swooning of getting lost in songs in cars at night alone — music-geek fanfic of such a high degree I’m shocked it wasn’t previously an Archive Of Our Own category. A. G. Cook still can’t quite shake the bratty/saccharine dichotomy through which PC Music tends to cast its singers, but “Backseat” is about as well-executed as it gets. It helps that Charli and Carly push their respective roles into the uncanny — the former’s voice has seldom been so robotically narcotized, the latter approaches Nicola Hitchcock levels of vocal shiver. Extra point for playing their respective accents on “half” off each other; I kinda hope it wasn’t planned.

Stephen Eisermann: This is the most compelling I’ve ever found Carly and it’s on a track she’s only featured on! The production does wonders for her normally nasally tone and the ethereal production and blend of these two lovely voices is entrancing. The lyrics touch on lost love and a wanting for more, nothing too out of ordinary for either artist, but here it feels especially poignant — probably due to the production. Plus, the addition of the synths and sparkles towards the end of the song are perfect — if one could ever turn Carly and Charli’s voices into sound effects, it would be that starry/sparkly sound. It’s all so… magical.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: PC Music-minded catharsis wherein processed vocals and attention-seeking production turn the humanness of the song into something uncanny, revealing something even more human about our desire to escape a reality that overwhelms us. “Backseat” reaches that blissful headspace in its final chaotic stretch, but it renders the rest of the song a slog in comparison. Even so, Carly’s vocals are too clean and (ineffectively) awkward for the track, distracting too much from achieving the same goals that define easyFun and A.G. Cook’s other tracks. “I want it all, even if it’s fake” sings Charli. I do too, but I’m not convinced they believe it. They’re in the back seat… shouldn’t they be taking the wheel?

Will Adams: I’ve made peace with the fact that Charli seemingly has no interest in making an actual album in favor of mixtapes that pour on the feature credits for maximum OMG (hi Carly). But I still can’t get past my recent revelation that her current aesthetic is really not far from that of her early mixtapes, only sullied by the PC Music touch: Auto-Tune purée, flat synths and hokey car screeches.

Hannah Jocelyn: Charli’s music leaking (down to her unfinished demos) has become something of an in-joke on Reddit and other sites. If someone told me this was one of the demos, I would believe them. There are some stirring melodies and some nice ear candy moments, but it sounds like AG Cook and co. put so much time into the vocals that they forgot to flesh out the backing track. As a result, not much elevates this above Charli’s previous kiss-offs (or Carly’s kiss offs.) The biggest letdown is the breakdown at 3:15; there was nothing to actually strip back in the first place, and the synth arpeggio feels like it was obtained from a P.C. Music Synth Presets folder. “Backseat” is still good enough, but frustrating in how close it is to being great.

Reader average: [8.87] (16 votes)

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5 Responses to “Charli XCX ft. Carly Rae Jepsen – Backseat”

  1. Maxwell:

    It makes me feel a little nervous in how you use gendered language to dismiss women performers, for example your use of the word harpy here.

  2. Who said I’m using Harpy with strictly negative associations? But duly noted.

  3. Well, Maxwell, you gave the song a very low score and said absolutely nothing positive about it. Though honestly it’s kind of hard to guess what you mean, since instead of actually talking about it you’re mostly making broad assumptions about people who like it. And some other assumptions as well, mainly that pop music has a duty to be populist and forming a niche is bad. As if somehow a group of like-minded people on the internet liking the same popstar is downright pathological and not actually sort of expected. I’m not against interrogating the reason people like something, but at this point it just feels like you’re throwing insults around and being mean.

    I’m reminded of an old Guardian article by Tom Ewing called “Can Pop Music Survive?” that approaches much of the same questions (via Nicola Roberts) but from a kinder, and frankly better, angle.

  4. meant to blurb this but couldn’t before the deadline figure out how i actually feel about the song, which is to say i couldn’t reconcile how much i actually like the song (actually a lot!) with how much less i ultimately still like it than pretty much any single track on true romance except maybe the brooke candy feature (also a lot). feels unfair to hold charli to my personal expectations, and yet!

  5. @Luca god i love that Ewing piece. That’s definitely what I modeled a lot of the point I tried to make in my blurb on—”semi-popular pop” as a distinctly contemporary phenomenon. Maxwell, I definitely don’t see how your blurb goes with your score, and I’d have loved to see some more explanation there.