When Dua Lipa played a two-night stand at L.A.’s Forum this past week, with her U.S. tour just a few dates away from coming to a close, there was a sheet-cake bearing her image backstage in the VIP Forum Club area, a custom that’s de rigueur for headliners coming through the storied arena. But in our minds, if nowhere else, we should be baking a “happy anniversary” cake commemorating the two-year mark for “Future Nostalgia.” Her sophomore release, which came out March 27, 2020, set an aspirational mood, if not the predominant one, for tough times then arriving and long to follow. Speaking of “sugarboos,” it induced the kind of dopamine rush that made so many of us — across states, nations and continents — feel like the girl with the most cake.
That Lipa is just now getting around to performing this music live feels like an ideal punctuation point to all but officially mark the end (knock on wood) of a quarantine era. It’s a symbolic reward, maybe, for doing good or doing what we had to do and limiting the discotheque to our living rooms for longer than we ever could have imagined socially possible. No one wanted or probably even now wants their album to be remembered as a “lockdown album,” least of all Lipa, who publicly wept on her Instagram back in mid-March of 2020 over whether to put out “Future Nostalgia” in the midst of a sudden global funk or not. But what was it John Lennon sang about God being “a concept by which we measure our pain”? In the end, Dua Lipa has been a concept by which we measure our pandemic.
When it comes down to history being written, there will really be two albums remembered as the quintessential quarantine albums: “Future Nostalgia” and Taylor Swift’s “Folklore” (with or without its worthy adjunct, “Evermore”). These two touchstone releases of 2020 barely seemed to exist in the same world, let alone genre, but they effectively captured a populace’s polarized reactions to the cessation of normal life as anyone knew it. The “Folklore” m.o. was to lockdown was something not to endure but to embrace — go inward, brooding a little, balladeering a little and, most importantly, using the extra alone time to get shit done. And the separate-but-equal “Nostalgia” aesthetic? Screw solitude — let’s embrace love and levity, and have a party in our heads till we can get in touch with our own bodies and each other’s again. Some of us might’ve even played these albums on alternate days, just to achieve balance in the Force.
“Future Nostalgia” would have been a great album no matter when it came out, of course… and with its purposeful mixture of late ’70s, ’80s and ’90s sounds, it could have come out almost any time in the last 25 or 30 years. At the time it was released, and it felt like a stone-cold pop classic, and two years of repeat listens have only confirmed that it wasn’t just a lockdown variant of Stockholm syndrome that made us feel that strongly in the moment. The first nine of the 11 tracks are an unbroken string of songs that were either phenomenal singles or should have been. Is it really possible “Pretty Please” or “Hallucinating” weren’t No. 1 smashes? That’s only because “Don’t Start Now” and “Levitating” sucked up all the oxygen in the room, or ran out the clock — pick your metaphor; nearly any “album track” on “Nostalgia” would have been a lesser singer’s single-of-a-lifetime. (It’s easiest to think of the last two numbers on the original release as bonus tracks; “Good in Bed” and “Boys Will Be Boys” aren’t any lesser, they just feel like they’re off a different, less disco-ey, cheekier album, like one of Lily Allen’s.)
One reason why “Future Nostalgia” was such a feel-good effort was because you could feel the group involved. It took a village of writers and producers to achieve this album done along with Lipa, and it’s the rare kitchen with that many cooks that feels utterly cohesive, miraculously, in its musical and lyrical goals. “Future Nostalgia” is the best dance-pop album of the century so far. And it’s interesting to consider whether that is in spite of or because of the fact that Lipa is a slightly more recessive personality, as the limelight goes, than Lady Gaga or Madonna, who straddle the line between dance music and a diva’s take on the confessional singer/songwriter tradition. She’s indisputably a “female alpha,” as she sings in the album’s title, but it’s by no means purely cult-of-personality stuff. “Future Nostalgia” is the very model of pop teamwork at its best, with every bit of phrasing and every deep bass lick feeling like it was ordained by a singular god rather than negotiated in a writers’ room.
There was something about that collaborative spirit that felt subliminally appealing during the pandemic. So it felt gratifying, in seeing Lipa’s show this week at the Forum, to see just how fully she, most of all, consciously realized that and wanted her tour to outrightly portray a kind of thrilling community spirit. It was evident right at the start, in the opening credits… yes, opening credits. A handful of other arena performers, like Kacey Musgraves, have started incorporating closing credits into their shows, which represents an act of generosity toward their teams. But Lipa used the big screen to give each of her 10 dancers as well as her singers and band members separate billing and a big visual look, as if they were the co-stars of a long-running network TV series. It felt promissory in a way that was completely delivered on — that what we were about to see was an ensemble piece, not just a superstar showcase.
Lipa does have a couple of moments in the performance that boil down to one-woman show: “We’re Good” (a bonus track from the deluxe “Nostalgia” edition), which, reflecting the underwater music video, had her sharing space with the one prop of the night, a giant lobster; and the penultimate “Future Nostalgia,” which took her away from the rest of the cast to let us focus a bit more squarely on the zebra-like stripes of her final outfit.
But otherwise, it was largely Lipa as part of a larger gang. That conception hasn’t come about because she hasn’t developed into a nearly phenomenal dancer on her own since her first tour — she has — but rather because God-dang, it’s fun to see nearly a dozen people moving around in a loose version of lock-step, or even lock-skip and lock-gallop, in time to the thick bottom end of neo-disco. (And wasn’t disco always the people’s medium, not a superstar’s?) After that opening credits sequence, the show opened properly with Lipa lined up alongside the 10 dancers in what almost looked like a rendering of a line of health-club treadmills, with a group-chant of “Let’s get physical!” that took the song out of the realm of carnality and into the pure, joyful community of a nightclub, or a spinning class, take your pick.
She really subsumed herself in the crowd in a mid-show segment that had the floating platform she would later levitate upon lower itself to become the roof of a rave party, in which she nearly disappeared among the others in the dark, just one more reveler in the club, for those 10 minutes or so. Look, you can’t exactly call Dua Lipa an Everywoman… not when she is modeling something as alien-seeming as a fluorescent yellow-green one-piece that has her boots impossibly sewn right into the costume (and matching long gloves out of a Bob Fosse Day-Glo dream). She’s not “just like us,” but the effect of the tour is to weirdly make us feel like we’re marching down that same catwalk, or levitating above it in sympathetic fluidity.
What felt for the better part of two years like the music of aspiration is now sound of liberation, as Lipa closes out her North American arena tour April 1 in Vancouver and moves on to liberate Europe. Hard times are not behind us (and clearly not behind the world), but as they recur, we may find ourselves reverting to the theme song of the young decade, and this generation’s “I Will Survive”: “Don’t Start Now.” That breakout single has a delightful little electronic cowbell sound that comes in four bars into the chorus, and for two years, some fans imagined what it might feel like to see Lipa actually shake her can in the flesh to that metallic sound effect. Sometimes dreams deferred do come true.