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Charli XCX And The Dead Boy

Notes on the singer’s subversive ‘Kimmel’ performance with A.G. Cook

Aside from the boy passed out behind her, Charli XCX walks the stage alone. Everything is covered in a plush layer of white fur — the walls, the microphone, her clothes, the bed where the boy lies perfectly still, tilted up so the audience can see him. Even the confetti that falls halfway through her first song, “After the Afterparty,” looks like fur.

The British pop singer’s recent performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! squeezes out of the conventions of the late-show stage. Instead of mimicking a nightclub, Charli’s set resembles a bedroom, the private space where the party (or after-party) ends up. And she has no interest in cultivating the illusion of live backing instrumentals. There’s no band onstage, and her producer, A.G. Cook, is the man lying down, playing dead.

In more traditional late-night television performances, session musicians — usually men — play architecture to the animating presence of a pop singer. The lights typically lend the billed singer a focused glow, while her backup band melts into the stage’s blues and purples. A line is drawn between the musicians, who are making music with concrete manual gestures, and the singer, whose instrument is also the body onto which the audience’s gaze falls. The men do the hard work, and the women effuse an embodied talent.

Charli on Kimmel confounds that binary. The man who would otherwise be pushing buttons stage right, dancing in subtle communion with the star’s performance, is instead physically present but empty of agency. He does not move. What’s more, Charli ignores him. The only time she deigns to look at him is when she’s stepping over his body as if over a puddle. He does not even get to be an object in the capsule narrative of the two-song performance; he is background noise, set dressing in dorky glasses.

There’s little that’s more disempowered than a corporeal presence completely blank of motion or intent. Cook’s rag-doll appearance in Charli’s world flips the dead-girl trope that saturates music videos, fashion spreads, and Nicolas Winding Refn movies. To feature a male dancer or model in the role would be fun enough; to bring a producer onstage just so he can go limp for the duration of the songs he produced interrogates agency in pop music more thoroughly. Charli is here for a good time, but only the kind she’s written for herself.