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Charli XCX Addison Rae ‘Unlock It’ challenge
Charli XCX duets with TikToker Addison Rae for the ‘Unlock It’ challengeVia TikTok

We give thanks for the TikTok resurrection of Charli XCX’s ‘Unlock It’

The 2017 track has gone viral, with Addison Rae and 2.4 million others doing the ‘Unlock it’ TikTok dance craze – this is the future that the artist intimated, with an audience that finally gives her vision credence

There are watershed moments in queer popular culture, and then there is Charli XCX’s “Unlock It” somewhat bizarrely getting its second life and going viral on TikTok

The shape-shifting, propulsive banger served as the unadorned centrepiece for Charli’s Pop 2 mixtape. It features former K-pop rapper Jay Park and popstar Kim Petras. Upon its release in 2017, Charli said that the mixtape’s title of Pop 2 was meant to represent her concept brief: that this is what the future of pop music would sound like.

Log on to TikTok today, and you’ll see 2.4 million videos and counting for the “Unlock It challenge” – it’s set to a mash-up of Charli’s “Unlock It” with Tinashe’s 2016 tune “Superlove”, a remix originally done by Jeff Prior, a resident DJ at queer dance party CTRL. While Charli and Tinashe shared a sweet interaction as the mash-up blew up, just about everyone on the app is now shaking their hips and shooting guns up to the camera while Charli baby takes you on a rollercoaster ride in the fast lane. Gen Z super-influencers like Addison Rae (who Charli duetted with to dance side-by-side) and Charli D’Amelio, D-list celebrities who love to cash in on a viral trend, bored kids on a socially-distanced visit to grandmas. You’re ALL million dollar babes! Tripping on it like propane!

In a way, it’s ironic that Charli – an artist who has been labeled as the Next Big Thing on practically every album and single release for the past decade – is having a revisionist moment now, through the one contemporary social media platform that’s essential to help break up-and-coming artists. More and more, artists and producers are being frank about writing hooks that align with the app’s popular challenges, but you could say that Charli XCX was making music for TikTok before TikTok was even a thing. 

The video-sharing app is really the perfect vehicle for Charli’s vision for pop music: intelligent, but with a layer of artifice that’s very easy to take the piss out of – the chorus of “Unlock It” has the title repeated a total of 18 times. Bad for complex lyricism, good for simple to follow dance routines.

“Unlock It” plays to this very specific moment in pop culture brilliantly, proving that Pop 2’s brief of sounding like the future was eerily prescient – if by ‘the future’ you mean ‘in four years time’, of course. It’s a long game, but one Charli has been stoically playing. In the past decade, she’s proven to be one of our most reliable and chameleonic makers of bops. From 2013’s glitchy, alt-pop debut True Romance, she’s had a trajectory with peaks and troughs. There was her turn as the Top 40 star du jour thanks to features on two number one singles (Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and Iggy Azalea’ “Fancy”), resulting in Sucker, the bratty, 2014 pop-punk record that attempted to position Charli as a mainstream pop force. A touchstone for XCX superfans, but not the intended chart-stomper.

“This is the future that Pop 2 dreamt of, so it makes sense that both it and Charli would re-emerge now, into an online culture that finally understands them”

“Unlock It” was partly born out of these frustrations. Pop 2 was released alongside another mixtape – in lieu of a mythical, scrapped album that fans christened XCX World – and it saw Charli move further away from Top 40 sensibilities and into a realm of her own creation, augmented by contemporary music juggernauts from A.G. Cook to SOPHIE. In many ways, it’s the smartest move she’s ever made. Because, really, she was right: pop is not just entirely ruled by the charts anymore. The stratospheric rise of the hyperpop community is testament to that, as is the careers of burgeoning artists from Ashnikko to Erica Banks. Of course, they still play an integral part in the self-mythologising of an artists’ success – just look to Olivia Rodrigo and “Drivers License”. In this era, we truly see the power of the girls and the gays, the strength of a tweet-storm and rallying fandoms, and apps like TikTok. 

Pop music is less of a tangible thing now: it’s digital, malleable. It’s no wonder the multi-faceted and dynamically-thinking Charli triumphed with the seminal album of lockdown, how i’m feeling now, a record made entirely in quarantine and in collaboration with fans on productions and artwork. This is the future that Pop 2 dreamt of, so it makes sense that both it and Charli would re-emerge now, into an online culture that finally understands them.

That’s not to say that Pop 2 is going to become the modern-day Thriller, because that’s unlikely. According to the Official Charts Company, the mixtape has sold 9,500 copies through streaming and sales. Even if “Unlock It” does continue to pop off – at the time of writing, it’s been streamed in excess of 20 million times globally and has been added to the coveted spot of Spotify’s Viral Hits playlist – it seems less likely to give Charli another break at the mainstream, but rather a point to solidify her place as a cult figure of the internet generation.

And what does Miss XCX think of all this herself? Well, to look at her socials you’ll find her reacting to the news with genuine bemusement. “Genuinely, what is going on,” she said on an Instagram Story posted March 29. “Everyone is obsessed with ‘Unlock It’.” It’s easy to understand Charli’s confusion, but mostly she just seems relieved that her instincts were right.

It feels good to see Charli and Pop 2 winning, to have the last laugh in an era punctuated by artists in locked horns with labels or other forces, restricted in their creative craft, sound, and release schedules. As for what’s next? She’s angling for a renaissance for another fan favourite track, “Vroom Vroom”. Answering questions in a fan Q&A she said: “If ‘Vroom Vroom’ blew up on a global scale that would be insane because that song means so much to me and to the angels. It truly is an artistic masterpiece. I’m not even saying that for dramatic effect: it’s just fact.” We await the “Vroom Vroom” challenge.