“You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game. Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way.”
Big talk from a pop star. Or maybe not. These words, the first Dua Lipa utters on her highly anticipated new album Future Nostalgia, reveal her starry-eyed intent: defining pop music for unprecedented times.
What does it mean for pop music to be important? The gloomy days when the genre was excluded from so-called “legitimate” criticism are long gone, but the idea that pop has a deeper cultural relevance still remains somewhat laughable to most.
If Carly Rae Jepsen’s EMOTION is quintessential bubblegum, “Future Nostalgia” is a THC lollipop, dreamy, ecstatic, ambitious. It drops at a confusing but vibrant time in our culture when the kids are participating in dance crazes again (albeit alone in their rooms). Right on the heels of Doja Cat’s disco-inspired Say So, Future Nostalgia strikes me as self-consciously designed to be both danceable and memeable. The punctuated chorus of “Break My Heart” is tailor-made for the comedic timing of a TikTok; the opening line of “Don’t Start Now” (“Did a full one-eighty, crazy…”) has already taken on an oft-reposted life of its own.
The psychedelic atmosphere of the record is palpable and constant. “Physical” sounds like a midnight tunnel that never ends; “Hallucinate” is a liminal space of its own, the feeling at the threshold of a dreamy high. On tracks like “Good In Bed,” Lipa proves she’s one of the only contemporary pop stars who can sing about a theme as ubiquitous as sex and still make it sound exciting. On “Pretty Please,” we hear the trademark syncopation of songwriter Julia Michaels, whose simple, visceral images make up the better parts of Selena Gomez’s latest release, “Rare.” Both Michaels and Lipa understand what others in pop forget: a song’s eroticism lies in its simplicity and restraint, its silences and punctuation, and in the slow, seductive wind-down of the pick-up to the chorus: “Put my mind at ease, pretty please.”
If “Future Nostalgia” is the brain of the album, “Love Again” is its tenacious heart. Out of a sea of Lana Del Rey-esque orchestral strings emerges the song’s darkly triumphant motif, a trumpet sample from White Town’s “Your Woman.” The beat kicks in, and there it is: the sound of the present moment, sad and glorious and unmistakable. What does now sound like? A party at a funeral. The strings swell, and I imagine Lipa as a brokenhearted widow tossing off her veil and joining the party. It’s hardly a surprise that, in 2020, falling in love would sound like a disco with sirens wailing in the background. She sings: “I can’t believe there’s something left in my chest anymore. But goddamn—you’ve got me in love again.” It’s at this point that I’m convinced by Lipa’s bold claim to the cutting edge of culture.
What does it mean to make pop music at this moment in history? It means, for one thing, to be doomed to irony. Like many of her peers under the age of 27 (Post Malone, Billie Eilish, and Ariana Grande, to name a few), Lipa makes music for people to sing along to while the world is ending. But the message of a song like “Love Again” isn’t just a cynical one, nor is it totally optimistic—it’s a bit of both. Though the lyrics are joyful, the melody is mournful, ominous, dark. Falling in love is a frivolous, foolish thing to do when the future is so uncertain. But it’s happening, and it’s not quite happy, but it’s better than feeling nothing. If we listen closely, that’s the message behind many young artists’ work these days. The best of them, like Dua Lipa, can make us dance to it.
The album’s one weakness is its closing track. On “Boys Will Be Boys,” Lipa abandons subtlety and style in the name of a would-be feminist anthem. The interstellar disco groove vanishes, replaced by the album’s most predictable chord progression and its most cliche lyrics (e.g. “And that was sarcasm, in case you needed it mansplained”). Ironically, the über-empowered arrogance, intelligence, and originality of the title track is nowhere to be found on “Boys Will Be Boys,” as Lipa clumsily attempts to explain what she has already so effectively shown us in the preceding ten tracks.
We are left to wonder what Lipa makes of her own attempt at conjuring the present. A better closing track would have included a wink—a lyrical acknowledgment of Lipa’s larger project, preferably still half-buried beneath layers of hypnotic ’80s synths. It’s the project at the heart of every pop career: to make music that both stands the test of time and holds a sonic monopoly on a whole period of the listener’s emotional life. What do you call a phenomenon like that? “Future Nostalgia is the name.”