New album, new rules: Why Dua Lipa is the perfect pop star for self-isolation

The pop star wasn’t sure whether to release her album amid the global pandemic but its high-energy disco bangers are just the salve for being stuck indoors, says Kate Solomon

Thursday 26 March 2020 20:58
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Dua Lipa in album art for ‘Future Nostalgia’
Dua Lipa in album art for ‘Future Nostalgia’

It’s a strange time to be putting new music out into the world. When everyone is stuck at home endlessly refreshing sainsburys.co.uk in the hope of unlocking an earlier delivery date, you could just about make a case for The 1975’s yearning, searching pop, or the melodramatic soundscapes of Lana Del Rey. But an 11-track album of pure, unadulterated dancefloor bangers? Songs made for getting ready for the night out, singing on the way to the night out and then grinding to on the night out? Could Dua Lipa’s next album have come at a worse time?

Pity the ascendant pop star that has to hawk their wares when we’d all rather be hiding under our covers watching Netflix. Dua Lipa herself seemed conflicted. In an uncharacteristically weepy Instagram Live session this week, she announced that she was bringing the release of Future Nostalgia forward by a week, after the album had leaked on the internet. She talked about how unsure she felt about whether to release anything at all during this time of suffering. But she eventually concluded: “I think the thing we need the most at the moment is music, and we need joy and we need to be trying to see the light. I hope it makes you smile and I hope it makes you dance and I hope I make you proud.”

Dua Lipa was right to trust her instinct: we do need joy. Future Nostalgia’s shot of musical adrenaline is the perfect salve for these pretty weird times. “Every beat is elastic, every note and sample bold and shiny,” wrote The Independent’s critic Helen Brown in her five-star review. “Future Nostalgia is 37 minutes of pure sonic spandex.” It’s also a reminder of why Dua Lipa is the pop star we so desperately need right now.

For starters, she is reliably consistent. Cast your mind back to “the before time”, the outdoor years, when you could buy reasonably priced hand sanitiser, and Dua Lipa burst into the top 10 all guns blazing with the pristine single “Be the One”. That was in 2015. Then, in 2016, she followed it with the definitely warmer “Hotter Than Hell”. A debut album, the much-delayed Dua Lipa, followed in 2017, spawning yet more impeccable pop music, not least the sparse but fang-toothed break-up banger “New Rules” (her first No 1) and its viral video of pastel-garbed girl squad chain brushing each others’ hair.

Fast-forward to Future Nostalgia and there’s not a dud on it. If you’ve heard any of the singles so far then you already know the kind of retrofuturistic energy they’re bringing – disco realness by way of Eighties neon-lit science-fiction and pristine pop production – as if to remind us all that what we’re living through right now will one day be a rose-tinted memory. (Remember that time we could only leave the house for one walk a day? That sort of thing.)

Then there’s Lipa’s extraordinary knack for scooping up the last gasp of big pop trends and making them sound fresh all over again. Just look at her way with what’s known as tropical house. When “Be the One” arrived with its plinky-plonky Caribbean undertow and “Hotter Than Hell” added yet more steel pan riffs, Lipa’s husky vocal striding through the middle, the charts had already long been awash with syncopated beats and steel pan riffs (thanks Drake). And yet the skill of Lipa’s singles was to couple those tropes with something wholly unexpected, like the stadium drums on “Hotter Than Hell” or the dreamy harmonies and droning synths of “Be the One”. Her lyrics too, were relatable and snappy, like texts from a friend. Take, for example, “New Rules”; impeccable break-up guidance, concluding with: “If you’re under him, you ain’t gettin’ over him”.

What’s also unusual about Dua Lipa is that, even in 2020, when pop stars give so much of themselves in 72-hour live streams (Katy Perry) and Netflix documentaries (Taylor Swift), she remains unknowable. In interviews her answers are always polite but potted. She says things like, “I’m the kind of person that, if I love something, I’ll say yes, even when I have no time, and the darkest eye bags!”, as if she’s been thumbing through old issues of J17. For someone who uses her social media to lambast the patriarchy, urges her followers to vote Labour and calls for fans to, yes, stay at home, she rarely gives much of herself away. She seems likeable and charming, but she plays second fiddle to the songs themselves, her personality a canvas onto which we can project our vision of what she should or could be.

“I know you’re dying trying to figure me out, my name’s on the tip of your tongue,” Lipa sings on the album’s opening track. But I’m not sure that we truly need to. Why do we need to know what she’s really about to know the songs she’s singing are making us feel better? With Taylor Swift, the songs are clues to a character we think we’ve cracked but with Dua Lipa, she is the vessel and the songs are the main event. Our reality under lockdown is pretty limited; rather than delve into ourselves or Dua Lipa’s self, wouldn’t we rather escape into the glittering pop disco in our minds?

It’s almost impossible to listen to Future Nostalgia without feeling the urge to chair-rave from your home office. It makes me hopeful for the world we’re going to emerge out into: hopefully, a long, hot summer of getting sweaty in clubs with our favourite people, gyrating wildly, kissing with abandon, screaming lines like “Baby keep on dancing like you ain’t got a choice” as if social distancing was an ancient relic of the past. Songs like “Levitating”, all handclaps, roller-disco rhythms and raucous group vocals, feel weightless. Hallucinate, meanwhile, is a claustrophobic love song about being so into your partner you get high off their pheromones – something to bear in mind when you’re asking yours to put the toilet seat down, again, over the next few weeks.

I honestly didn’t think a pure pop record could lighten the antsy feeling of being hemmed in that we’re all currently experiencing. But it turns out that, for me at least, it’s exactly what I needed. I thought I’d find it frustrating; that it would be a reminder of all the things I can’t do right now. And yet Future Nostalgia lives up to its name with the promise of future good times and maybe even a brief nostalgia for those weeks we were all trapped inside, battling the online shop.

Future Nostalgia is out now

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