Charli XCX knows what your thirties feel like

Jenessa Williams unpacks the messy, contradictory brilliance of ‘BRAT’, Charli XCX’s most connecting mediation on womanhood.


Your thirties are a complicated age – especially on the internet. On one hand, we’re bombarded by images of trad wives who are swapping ‘girlboss’ feminism for softer, more subservient living, whilst at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got women advocating for the thrill of redefining themselves through independence; partying hard, exploring their sexuality, achieving late diagnosis of neurodiversity or rapidly trying to catch up on all the skincare and styling routines they couldn’t previously afford (but which the average 16-year-old is now apparently an expert in). 

There’s marriage and babies and down payments and found families, but then there’s also austerity, career instability, dating landscapes that resemble the trenches and plenty more unprecedented mishaps besides. With the millennial coming-of-age seeming so much more uncertain and disparate than the generation before, today’s Gen-Z seem pathologically terrified of the passing of time, unable to fathom a world where passionate music and culture fans still exist past the age of 28.

As someone who recently turned 31, I can confirm that it’s not all bad. It’s definitely true that you learn to care a bit less about what other people think, that your priorities reorientate in favour of doing what actually makes you happy. But alongside the triumphant feelings of finally ‘knowing’ oneself, there’s also the lingering insecurity around doing it ‘right’, making your time count and expending your energies in the right place. There’s the deeply millennial urge to document everything and be your own chronically-online brand, versus the post-pandemic desire to escape into the woods and never again be perceived. There’s the relief of settling down, going to bed before midnight and purchasing sturdy, modest 100% cotton clothing instead of fast fashion, versus the rebellious desire to prove your vitality by hitting the club, leaving the country or making short-sighted dating and financial decisions ‘for the plot’. 


It’s increasingly becoming more accepted for women to accept that they do not actually ‘want it all’, but what happens if you’re one of the ones who still kinda does?

I didn’t necessarily expect to find answers to these questions in a big dance record, but if there’s anything I know about my fellow Hertfordshirian Charli XCX, it’s that she’s arguably one of the most clued-up pop-cultural figures we have. For the first decade of her career, Charli was the Tumblr queen of alt-pop, flirting with the hit machine via tracks like ‘Fancy’, ‘I Love It’ and ‘Boom Clap’. But in helping to popularise hyperpop, she has also become one of the mainstream best informants on what is cool and influential, becoming, in turn, a little bit mainstream herself. 

Constantly dabbling at the fringes of being a “cult classic”, it was a thrill to watch her cosplay as a main pop girl for 2022’s ‘Crash’, complete with streamlined metaphor, imitable choreography and big brand deals. But having proven that she could conquer that end with no sweat, her sixth album instead aims to create a feeling of voicenote-intimacy, a kind of continuation of the pandemic-era ‘How I’m Feeling Now’ but with a more referential, name-checky sense of her own life and public standing. ‘BRAT’ is a celebration of her love of clammy club music, but it’s also an ode to the tumultuous nature of being alive and a woman, contemplating domesticity one moment but then wanting to just let loose and get really fucking wasted at another. A viral tweet from one fan has declared that millennial listeners are ‘too old’ to embrace its messy hedonism – what they’re missing is that at 32, Charli XCX is speaking directly to those in precisely her same stage of life, coating her chaos in a sickening and surprisingly-emotional hue.

Charli, an artist who has always been incredibly cool, comes off fantastically well when she’s bragging about herself, utilising the hyperbolic, memey language and cultural nods that she has come to understand so well. Something like ‘Von Dutch’ could only be made by someone who remembered how great BodyRox sounded at a school disco, or was enthralled by TMZ gossip even when they knew it wasn’t very kind. Even just last month, the satirical video for ‘360’, featuring Julia Fox, Chloë Sevigny, Hari Nef and Gabrriette, manages to be referential to the trashy, tabloid culture of the 00s, without fully excusing itself in the name of nostalgia.

Where the record gets most interesting though, is how it balances her nightlife euphoria with the comedown, the acceptance of the times in which she has felt less than her most confident self. We might not all be able to relate to the ‘famous but not quite’ element of ‘I might say something stupid’’s celebrity party, but who hasn’t snagged their tights on the lawn chair at a garden party that they probably didn’t need to wear tights to, or worried that they’re coming across cold and overly concerned in an environment where everyone else seems fizzy and light? Like ‘Girl, So Confusing’ and ‘Sympathy Is A Knife’, it paints an image of XCX that feels deeply honest and down-to-earth, insecure on both a social and professional level.

The latter track, ‘Sympathy Is A Knife’, has drawn plenty of attention due to rumours that it might be partially inspired by Taylor Swift. With lyrics like “Don’t wanna see her backstage at my boyfriend’s show / Fingers crossed behind my back / I hope they break up quick…Cause I couldn’t even be her if I tried”, there’s certainly a suggestion that there might have been some tension between the pair when they were both touring in support of their 1975 boyfriends, amplified by Swift’s release of a UK-exclusive version of ‘The Tortured Poet’s Department’ released just as it seemed that ‘Brat’ might be primed for a UK No.1.

Read differently, though, it doesn’t really matter who the song is about — it’s merely a comment on the competitive nature of womanhood under patriarchy, the kind of second-guessing that occurs in industries where women are made to feel that there is only one way to be a success. With its brash, skittering beat, ‘Sympathy Is A Knife’ plays like the theme song of the album’s artwork, initially mocked online for its simplicity but re-appraised in the face of Charli confirming via X that it was actually an attempt to resist the demands put on female artists to give everything away at once: “i think the constant demand for access to women’s bodies and faces in our album artwork is misogynistic and boring” [sic]. 

The pièce de résistance of the record might well be ‘I think about it all the time’; a low-key, garage-infused track that will speak to anybody who has felt the real or imagined tickings of their biological clock. In a happy relationship with George Daniel, XCX has spoken about her experience of visiting a friend who had recently had a baby, releasing that it sparked something in her own sense of self: “And I’m so scared I’m missin’ out on something / So, we had a conversation on the way home / Should I stop my birth control? / ‘Cause my career feels so small/In the existential scheme of it all”. Conversationally warm but sparse in production, it’s a stroke of near genius to sequence something so intimate next to the pure hedonism of ‘365’, bringing the record full circle in its dualistic themes. 

If the summer of 2023 was definitively about Barbie Pink, then 2024 is rapidly becoming defined by ‘BRAT’ Green – addictive in its ostentatiousness, affirming in it’s refusal to pander to flattering or binary emotions. Taken as a whole, ‘BRAT’ fights back against the idea that admitting to instances of jealousy or dislike instantly paints you as a bad feminist. But it’s also a record about friendships and community and finding the people who make you feel hot, in both a physical and emotional sense. The melancholy of the record feels quite profound, but it never distracts from the thrill of being an IT girl, the musical Mother who brings other misunderstood girls up with her (see Addison Rae), and the humble student who is still learning from those who led the way, dedicating ‘So I’ to SOPHIE, her inspirational collaborator with which XCX wishes she could have been even closer. You might be invited to ‘guess’ the colour of her underwear, but you’re also reassured that ‘everything is romantic’, if only you’re willing to give yourself grace for being where you’re at.

Over the years, XCX has become the kind of artist whom it is a pleasure to root for. She can do mainstream pop with the best of them, but there’s no need to run that race when the thing that satisfies you most is living life on the edge. The landscape feels so healthy for pop right now because it feels like there are ever-expanding ways to describe womanhood — Taylor, Chappel, Sabrina, Tyla, Beyoncé — that allow nearly all music fans to find a version that resonates with them at least some of the time. Through its biggest peaks and lowest lows, ‘BRAT’ is a reminder that your thirties, just like your twenties and forties and probably even fifties, are always going to be fraught with competitiveness and indecision. But why not have fun at the margins? For better or worse, Charli was right about one thing; no matter how old we are, we’re all just trying to live that life.