No stone is to be left unturned in forging profitable, material connections with one’s fans
Well, it’s happened. Ahead of her 2022 album CRASH, Charli XCX has tweeted that her next merchandise line will include a small black douche, stamped with her signature. This is a time for deep soul-searching among everyone who helped us get to this point, and questions need to be asked. Questions like: why? How much will it cost? When this object is retrieved from the rubble of our society, what will it tell future civilisations about how we lived then?
Any civilisation decoding the significance of this, the first pop star douche, might derive clues from the annals of stan history. On the face of it, this item is little more than a self-referential escalation in Charli XCX’s deranged game of provocation with her own stans. In a series of 2019 meet-and-greets (remember those?), a Birmingham fan handed Charli a blue douche, which she airily signed to viral cacophony. Elsewhere on that tour, she was asked to pose with a fan and a small vial of his late mother’s ashes, which she did.
It felt then like the alt-pop gay icon of the moment was going through a sort of hazing ritual, her bond with her queer fans stress-tested through over-intimate encounters with the sacred and the profane. All she is doing here, you could find, is selling that derangement back at us, pushing forward in the conviction that there is nothing pop music cannot market back at you. Indeed, her whole album campaign has pivoted around a self-aware sense that the whole industry is a game, in which she’s accepted her part.
The historians of the future might, however, deem this object utterly quotidian. They might give it a cursory squeeze and put it away in a sealed box that contains Demi Lovato’s bespoke sex toy, Lady Gaga’s Chromatica jockstrap, and Meghan Trainor’s strap-on. (The last one isn’t real, yet). This stuff is sort of everywhere now. Once upon a time, Madonna’s Sex book caused a national stir as the star took a foray into the pornographic. Sex in pop still seemed to shock in 2015, when SOPHIE’s debut EP was launched with a heavily insinuative, knobbly “silicon product” which was labelled “skin safe”. But a few short years later, intimacy and sex just seem part of the deal for pop stars.
This sex shop-pop star merch industrial complex is only downstream from a wider societal trend. Sex toys and aids are entering the mainstream market. They are starting to look like items you could reasonably pick up at an Oliver Bonas, and marketing execs are leading with lines about ‘sexual wellness going more mainstream and becoming a component in the holistic view of health and wellness’, as if masturbation were just another mindfulness technique.
Moreover, there is nothing qualitatively new about pop stars slapping their name on stuff to pay the rent. Music is a costly industry, and in an age where streaming dominates and touring has still not refound its feet, this expansion feels especially pointed. It’s not uncommon for stars to be surprisingly broke at their peak due to extravagant touring costs (Lady Gaga), poor management practices (Rihanna), or simply the appallingly low returns to artists in the streaming era.
Back when Tulisa raised her forearm to the camera on Saturday night X Factor and showed you her ‘Female Boss’ tattoo with a wink, that wink was at least partly saying, “Go and buy my perfume at Superdrug”. Dua Lipa, the UK’s biggest actual pop star, seems to be getting into the cool-literary-girl newsletter market, and Rihanna is now at least as much a cosmetics magnate as she is a performer. Put all these things together, and it’s unsurprising how popstars have slowly entered the world of sex. No stone is to be left unturned in forging profitable, material connections with one’s fans: not even if it means there’s three of you in the bedroom.
This all may have come as a shock to pop fans of years not too far past. That Charli XCX, a top-tier pop star, if one whose glossy sound and vision admittedly light up the club more than it does the charts, can now comfortably run seriously adult-focused merch as part of her album campaign. It’s a far cry from when teenagers and children dictated the pop music market, and older queer people mostly got in on the act vicariously, with tongue firmly in cheek. The popstars Charli XCX cites as influences were more likely to flog lollipops and Pepsi than sexual hygiene props.
What’s changed? It seems that we increasingly have pop stars for adults, who are held to make proper pop and market to that age group. That ossification of conventional genre becomes ever stranger to young people whose eclectic listening habits traverse YouTube rappers, K-pop, and the erratic ebb and flow of whatever catches fire on TikTok. In its own way, this little douche speaks to ‘pop’ evolving into just another niche genre, ever-receding from its original status as the biggest game in town, into something more like ‘big choruses and glamour for dedicated rooms of stans in their 20s’.
In this new corner of pop, exemplified by artists like Charli, Rina Sawayama, Kim Petras and Slayyyter, popstardom is less to do with top 40 appeal, and more to do with a fixation with the banger and an aesthetic appeal to shimmer and shine. This can make for better gigs, closer-knit fandoms, and pop songs which deal more explicitly with the reality of adult life, rather than that vague PG fantasy marketed in Max Martin songs of old. But given how reliant the pop star has traditionally been on extravagant video and expensive-sounding production, one wonders how the pop stars of the future can muster that same capacity to thrill, in a niche genre that increasingly resembles metal or Christian rock, more than it does the all-encompassing popstardom of people like Lil Nas X or Olivia Rodrigo. This is the challenge facing someone like Charli XCX, and there is no better woman to rise to it. Do your bit and preorder a douche today.