Dua Lipa and Charli XCX’s small, must-see set proved Glastonbury misjudged our big pop girls

The hottest ticket at Glastonbury this year is a sweaty bacchanal led by pop’s foremost scientist. Charli XCX, who has spent the last dozen years making scuzzy, confessional bangers about sex, cars, cheating and all things messy, arrives on the Tron-esque Levels stage in a puff of toxic green smoke – the colour of the lo-fi cover art for Brat, her just-released new album and this summer’s sound for anyone with a vaping habit and a history of self-loathing.

Dressed in a puffer jacket and a cream bodysuit and hidden behind dark sunglasses that don’t require you to look me in the eye, she spins through a DJ set that comes from Baby brother, modern dance-pop and club classics such as “Finally” by CeCe Peniston. Robin shows up. That also applies to Shygirl. There are lasers, shouting, keys, nonsense. Charli says hello to mean girls, party girls, girly girls. Everyone here is aware that a superstar is present.

Anecdotally, at least, little else at the festival on Friday buzzes with such A-list dynamism. You’re either with Charli or you’re a flop. Couldn’t get past the hastily erected barricades around Levels? You just didn’t try hard enough. To be honest, few could have predicted the pop explosion that Charli was about to unleash just weeks before the festival opened. Even fewer could have predicted that Dua Lipa, Friday’s Pyramid Stage headliner, would be a standout in a year dominated by brilliant, personal, ambitious pop. It’s no one’s fault, but it does speak to a Glastonbury that’s gotten the genre a little bit wrong this year.

Glastonbury’s relationship with pop music, and specifically the kind of pure, maximalist pop that’s largely for and beloved by girls and gays, is rarely discussed when it comes to the festival’s evolution over time. Historically, pop artists have felt so culturally and creatively important here that their artistry is unquestionable (think Kylie Minogue in 2019, or “Run the World (Girls)”-era Beyoncé in 2011). Or they’ve presented themselves with an undeniable and sometimes enigmatic cool, from the Sugababes in 2003 and their packed Friday set this year to Rita Ora in 2013 – British aid helps, too.

This has typically been the festival’s approach, and it’s generally gone down very well. Look at the pop acts that have played here over the last 25 years, and only Katy Perry in 2017 feels like a left-field choice – yes, she has incredible commercial weight, but there’s something about her catalogue that feels considerably more Radio 1 Big Weekend than Worthy Farm, right?

So why is this year’s pop at Glastonbury so strange? Judging by the sea of ​​people wanting to go to Levels at midnight on Friday, Charli is one of the biggest names here, her small set oozing highbrow chic. That’s kind of the point, after a number of previous DJ sets — in places like New York, Mexico and London’s Dalston Superstore — in support of the Baby brother release defined by their wild exclusivity and celebrity guests. But there should have been more of her, some time on the main stage to acknowledge that she is Britain’s most innovative and important modern pop star.

The mistake feels particularly egregious coming off a primetime Other Stage slot for Camila Cabello. The singer, who rose to fame in American sub-Little Mix girl band Fifth Harmony, has recently been rebranded as Charli’s evil twin: a corporatized collection of trashy party-girl aesthetics that feels like an uncomfortable and occasionally demeaning suit. Cabello’s new material isn’t as indebted to Charli as many had assumed – the double-take-inducing C, XOXO, rreleased on Friday, it alternates between hip-hop, hyperpop, ballads and ill-timed Drake collaborations — but it feels odd that she’s given such a big platform here, given the bland, commercial pop that defined her early fame.

Camila Cabello's comparisons to Charli XCX are greatly exaggerated (Geffen/Interscope via AP)

Camila Cabello’s comparisons to Charli XCX are grossly exaggerated (Geffen/Interscope via AP)

Pop’s ladies-in-waiting are also absent from Glastonbury this year. Where’s Chappell Roan? A gloriously flamboyant queer pop dramatist who’s blown up over the last six months thanks to a handful of sometimes years-old hits that instantly soar to stratospheric proportions. Few contemporary American artists feel more built into a laboratory for a Glastonbury slot. It’s easy to argue that Sabrina Carpenter should have landed a slot here this year, too – her brand of brash, euphemistic, purely fun boppery is one of the dominant sounds of the summer.

Sabrina Carpenter's sassy and euphemistic bops are the dominant sounds of this summer (Getty for Coachella)Sabrina Carpenter's sassy and euphemistic bops are the dominant sounds of this summer (Getty for Coachella)

Sabrina Carpenter’s sassy and euphemistic bops are this summer’s dominant sounds (Getty for Coachella)

At least there is a place for Rachel Chinouriri, one of the most exciting young British pop stars working today, but it would have been nice if she had more time than just lunchtime on the Other Stage on Sunday. After all, there’s clearly a huge audience for pop music here, as evidenced by the crowd turned away from Sugababes and the relatively sparse turnout for many on the Pyramid Stage on Friday — the gap between the suppressed mania of those heading to the “Push the Button ” hitmakers were watching and PJ Harvey’s muted reception on the main stage an hour later was baffling.

The elephant in the room, of course, is that Lipa — who should have been this year’s must-see headliner, alongside the reliable but unexciting Coldplay and the unfortunately better-recorded SZA — is in a creative slump at Glastonbury. Radical optimism, her May album failed, an overly anonymous summer collection that struggled to match the “psychedelic pop” sounds Lipa had hinted at in interviews before its release, and exposed some of her artistic limitations: great vibes but limited personality; vapor in an era that calls for something solid.

Dua Lipa's latest album struggled to match the 'psychedelic pop sound' she promised (Getty)Dua Lipa's latest album struggled to live up to the 'psychedelic pop sound' she promised (Getty)

Dua Lipa’s latest album struggled to match the ‘psychedlic pop sound’ she promised (Getty)

Her headline set on Friday was very good in every way, but was dominated by older hits, which is a sign of an artist who knows what has captured the zeitgeist and what hasn’t. In his review, The independentJazz Monroe wrote that her set’s Radical optimism cuts felt like “boring, almost defensive additions” compared to undeniable classics like “Physical” and “Don’t Start Now.”

Charli, meanwhile, had pure buzz on Friday night — big, attention-grabbing, tantalizing anticipation. It didn’t even matter that some of the biggest tracks on Brat was not played. Was I sad that we didn’t get the Lorde remix of “Girl, so confusing”, an absolutely transporting haze of diary-like melancholy and f***-it-let’s-party synths that is absolutely the best song of 2024 so far ? Naturally! But that wasn’t the vibe either: her set was about chaos, noise and body heat, and the sheer thrill of being a total, undeniable train wreck in the moment and worrying about the consequences later.

“I want you to be mean,” Charli pleads at one point, pronouncing the last word in her cut-glass British accent with the LA drawl. “I want you to be bitchy. I want you to be c***y.”

This was a set that spoke to the power of pop music when it is in the hands of a genius. Hopefully Glastonbury next year will give the genre the respect it deserves. And the right stages.

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