“I like it better when we’re intertwined,” Dua Lipa sings in her song “Cool,” maybe speaking for all of us who are doing Thanksgiving weekend and pretty much every other weekend of 2020 unentangled from most human beings. Her performance of that and a host of other songs from her two albums Friday in “Studio 2054,” a pay-per-view event, felt like a happy dispatch from another galaxy, where dancing and dopamine both still occur, and joy is a thing of the present, not past or future nostalgia.
Not much was revealed about the content of the streamed event ahead of time, other than a growing guest list, some of whom were recent collaborators on remixes or side duets (Miley Cyrus, the Blessed Madonna), some of whom were not (Kylie Minogue, Elton John), and the promise that it would be elaborate. But would it be an FX-filled spectacle, a la the recent state-of-the-art livestream from Billie Eilish that was performed on one tiny set but used high technology to give every number a different, often animated setting?
Lipa was having none of that. Her Black Friday show had exactly zero special effects, other than the ones that were arrived at in-camera, as it were, taking place in a few different connected spaces of the multipurpose Printworks venue in London. If anything, the show tried to throw off a low-tech vibe, especially at the beginning, with a determined initial intent to look like something that could have been done in the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, in keeping with the motifs Lipa goes back to with the sounds of her Grammy-nominated “Future Nostalgia” album.
(How throwback did it ultimately get? Two words: roller disco.)
When the broadcast opened with the recent album’s statement-of-purpose title song, and for a couple of numbers after that, it was actually going out in the old-school 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio, all the better to approximate something that looked a little like it was out of the classic “Soul Train” or “Solid Gold” era. With lots of garishly colorful neon in the set and large cubist structures hanging overhead, the nearest analog, so to speak, to what Lipa and company were doing might be how the band Muse similarly went for an ’80s vibe when they were designing and touring the “Simulation Theory” album a couple of years ago, albeit without Lipa’s distinct discotheque emphasis.
After the first costume-change interlude, the visual scheme lost its squareness went widescreen, without any great fanfare. But what stayed consistent throughout these and other changes was having the dancers (10 primary performers and another 10 additional dancers) alternate back and forth between choreography and the lack of it. When they first appeared for the opening “Future Nostalgia,” they almost appeared as if they might have been “Soul Train” kids taken in right off the street to boogie with Dua, revealing their pro status only as subsequent numbers brought everyone into tight formation. But even later in the show, everyone would break tight ranks for extended stretches in what appeared to be just a normal night out at a dimly lit dance club. Even the most impressive and formal dancing had a friendly, relaxed quality to it that felt more about drawing the viewer in as a participant than dazzling us with impossible feats of prowess.
(Side note: It wasn’t all an homage to the styles of decades past — there was one late moment of mass booty rumbling among Lipa and her female dancers that jerked, or twerked, us back into the present day.)
The opening act had Lipa, in a glitzy mini-gown, not just apparently singing live but interacting with an actual band, including a bona fide guitar solo during “Levitating,” and the phenomenal bass lines from the recent album possibly being played on something other than a MIDI, too. An interlude led into FKA Twigs working the pole and singing (as opposed to just the former during her recent Grammys guest shot with Usher) at some length before finally being joined by Lipa, now in more of a leotard for act 2. A mini-set on a secondary nightclub set began with a fist-pumping “Physical,” ended with the career-establisher “New Rules” and in-between had Lipa jumping into the DJ booth to jam alongside a designed spinner, the Blessed Madonna (who did the lion’s share of work on the singer’s recent remix album).
The guest cameos soon got underway, and the answer to how all these celebs would make their way to London soon became clear: some would, some would not. Lipa went into her elegant-bordello-like “dressing room” and kicked everyone out so that she could watch herself and Miley duet on “Prisoner” on an analog black-and-white TV… with a mutual coziness between the two stars that can only be described as somewhere between slumber-party chic and outrightly non-heteronormative. Next up was a more elaborate collab, “Una Día (One Day),” which had Lipa singing in the flesh but J Balvin, Bad Bunny and Tainy piped in remotely via the groove tube. Finally, thanks no doubt to being a “local” by virtue of her Belgium base, Angèle showed up right in Dua’s faux dressing room for “Fever,” with a level of familiarity just a little less steamy than what Lipa shared with Cyrus.
Then things moved over to a very-dark-disco set where who should be awaiting Lipa’s arrival than an even closer neighbor, the London-based Kylie Minogue, joining the host from behind (and occasionally on top of) the DJ’s mixing board for her own “Real Groove” and Lipa’s “Electricity.” UK icon (and Australian expat) Minogue is apparently not holding it against Lipa that she came out of the gate in 2020 with a neo-disco concept before Kylie got around to making a concept album out of it herself with “Disco.” Seeing these dancefloor-revivalist birds of a feather flock together had to be a special kick in merry olde England, but it was a highlight over here, too.
Then things got weird: While Lipa disappeared from the screen for a few minutes, her cast of dancers stood motionless watching a piped-in video of Elton John singing a mostly solo “Rocket Man” on a big screen, like rapt cult members awaiting instructions from Big Daddy. Since there was no interaction with the star, what this had to do with the rest of the show was anyone’s guess, although three minutes of Elton singing “Rocket Man,” even as a disembodied, spectral presence, can never be counted as a bad thing. And it did make “Studio 2054” feel a little bit more like a traditional holiday variety show.
Lipa’s time spent in her real dressing room was not in vain, as she returned for the finale of “Hallucinate” and the year’s show-stopper, “Don’t Start Now.” in a bedazzled bodysuit that did finally make it seem as if special effects weren’t off the table. Strict formation again gave way to full-title boogie and free-range hoofing, ending with a Lipa who had previously not had much to say letting out an exultant “Yeahhhhhh!” as the camera panned far out to reveal its overhead tracking and the vastness of the space. A celebratory expletive might also have been heard in the fadeout.
Affirmative exultations and exhalations may have been shared by the audience (which tuned in in waves, as streaming start times were staggered to accommodate fans in time zones around the world). Lipa might not have had to do much besides stand there and sing the bulk of “Future Nostalgia,” which is maybe the most purely enjoyable album of 2020, to make “Studio 5054” worth the relatively economical $11.99 cost of early-bird admission. But, as seen on Lipa’s recent American Music Awards contribution, she and her team have already mastered the jubilance that can come from a long tracking shot that has Lipa and a bare handful of dancers marching toward the camera in time to a four-on-the-floor beat. The creative team (including director Liz Clare, choreographers Charm La’Donna and Alex Clark, and producers Ceremony London) clearly relished the chance to make Lipa the star of something that was undeniably a hairtrigger-tight extravaganza but also felt a little down-home, like a friendly party you could step into without being held back at the velvet rope.
The only drawback? The PPV status mandating that pay-per-viewers could only watch it in a 24-hour window, not put it on continuous loop until the pandemic is over. But at least it served as an espresso-style wakeup charge after a day and a half’s worth of turkey coma in America, however much more we might be needing it when life is returning to Zoom-business as usual next week. Thanks, Dua, for the dopa-twine.