Frivolous question for you: What in the damn hell will be the Song of Summer 2020? What will—what should—it sound like? How can a frivolous pop song capture the vibe of [gestures wildly] all this? Is a pop song obligated to even try? Or is it better to just cancel the whole concept this year? Should we—will we—cancel summer?
The great news is that Future Nostalgia, the second album from tart English pop star Dua Lipa, serves up, like, 10 viable Song of Summer candidates. The terrible news is that given the harrowing circumstances of this record’s release last Friday—a global pandemic that has left much of the world sheltered in place and (frivolously) robbed pop music of much of its communal nature, from concerts to windows-down car stereos—she might have no viable competition other than herself.
Stars from Lady Gaga to Haim to the 1975 have delayed their imminent 2020 albums, given their near-total and government-mandated inability to promote them. What is alarming, and at least a little delightful, is that Future Nostalgia is deep and varied and weird and splendid enough that Dua Lipa appears to have somehow prepared for this, and is ready to do battle by herself, against various stupendous versions of herself. It is quite useful, in this era of social distancing, to contain multitudes, if only to keep oneself company.
The very phrase “future nostalgia” lands quite differently on April 1 versus March 1. And yet here we are, and (6 feet away, minimum) there she is, kicking off this album with the title track, a filthy and fizzy synth-pop strut—doot-doot, go the two deceptively gentle keyboard hits around which the whole world suddenly revolves—with a swagger worthy of Prince, or if that’s too much, then Prince’s finest work on behalf of Morris Day and the Time. The opening lines, which she chants with bubblegum-smacking fembot aplomb:
You want a timeless song
I wanna change the game
Like modern architecture
John Lautner coming your way
Cool! Weird! Architecture! Let’s Google some houses! “No matter what you do, I’m gonna get it without ya” she taunts in a lithe falsetto on the chorus. “I know you ain’t used to a female alpha.” The song’s bridge is a simple thing—the chord changes, basically—and yet it hits me with hurricane force every time, the ease of the swagger (“You can’t get with this / If you ain’t built for this”), the brazenness of the relative subtlety. She makes it look easy; she makes clear that making it look easy is very, very hard.
Dua Lipa broke out via her self-titled 2017 debut, a slow-burn international pop overthrow whose most memorable singles stoked a sort of lovelorn dance-instructor rage, as on the crap-boyfriend exit strategy “New Rules” or the self-explanatory “IDGAF.” But her full range, emotionally and musically, ran the modern-pop-star gamut, from maximalist glee to minimalist pathos, from the brassy insouciance of Pink to the stately grandeur of Adele. As abetted by big-shot writers and producers from Jeff Bhasker to Stuart Price to the Monsters & Strangerz, Future Nostalgia has a vibrant neo-disco foundation, with bubble-funk bass lines and brash orchestral stabs and lethal boom-kick beats that hit hard at both their sparest (see “Cool”) and also their lushest. (“Love Again” samples White Town’s oddball ’90s hit “Your Woman” and lets the orchestra run wild.)
As a vocalist, Dua Lipa specializes in near-rapped tumbles of syllables that spill directly into blunt and boisterous choruses wherein every word quadruples in impact: “I got you! / Moonlight! / You’re my! / Starlight!” She is bawdy and playful enough that the absolute worst-case-scenario thing you can say about any one of her songs is that it sounds like absolutely best-case-scenario Meghan Trainor. (“Good in Bed” is extra silly and bawdy, with a chorus that rhymes “Bad bad bad bad bad” with “mad mad mad mad mad.”) “Physical,” meanwhile, is a flagrant sort of goth Jazzercise, like Olivia Newton-John via the Chromatics, with an extended video that best captures what is both objectively goofy and awfully intimidating about her whole persona.
In describing these songs to Apple Music, she returns a few times to the phrase “dance crying,” and that contradiction is vivid enough here (arguably the lustiest track is called “Break My Heart”) that it ceases to be a contradiction at all. It’s not that this record is flawless in the classic sense: The extremely earnest antimisogyny closing anthem “Boys Will Be Boys” is clunky by design, the better to convey its earnestness. (“If you’re offended by this song,” the bridge asserts, “You’re clearly doing something wrong.”) But in a brisk 37 minutes, the whole of Future Nostalgia conjures up its own fantastic infinite-repeat universe, sneakily profound in its devotion to pure escapism. Which, sure, makes this record theoretically perfect for a prolonged international crisis in which even heavily compromised escapism (e.g., Tiger King) is tough to come by.
Is Dua Lipa, in all her relentless excellence, the right pop star for this relentlessly awful moment? That can’t possibly be the right question. It is folly to expect any pop music by anybody to Speak To These Times in any meaningful way anytime soon. And anyway, Speaking To These Times is very explicitly not Dua Lipa’s job: It’s her job to channel lust and triumph and ecstasy even—and maybe even especially—at her most heartbroken. The tragedy of Future Nostalgia is that right now you can’t share in that ecstasy, in person, with anybody not already living with you. Her yearning becomes your yearning to share, communally, in her yearning. The question is whether that sense of tragedy will linger even after normalcy—quote-unquote, and God willing—is restored.
Actually, there are exactly two pieces of pop music so far that have effectively engaged with our current predicament. The first is this very tuneful cry for help from Tierra Whack. The second comes to us from, why not, the Backstreet Boys.
As part of the Elton John–hosted iHeart Living Room Concert for America that aired on Fox Sunday night, the fellas performed “I Want It That Way” whilst cooped up in their respective (palatial) houses, flaunting their various children and/or pinball machines, and the result had a wistful poignance to it, delivered with more self-awareness than some other recent celebrity high jinks we could mention. Dua Lipa has gotten in on this act, too: This week, at James Corden’s behest, she and her band did a video-conferencing version of Future Nostalgia single “Don’t Start Now.”
Watch this a couple times and you’ll warm up to it: In its strident effervescence, the song, certainly, is durable enough to transcend the absurdity of these circumstances, the necessity of that enforced physical distance. But there’s an unavoidable melancholy to it, too. From Dua Lipa’s perspective, this is all straightforwardly horrible timing in terms of putting out an album, but for the rest of us, with an increasingly barren new-release schedule and an increasingly grim international outlook in every possible sense, Future Nostalgia will have to be enough. To her infinite credit, it might actually be enough. But what I know for sure is that whatever the Song of Summer 2020 turns out to be, if we even bother to crown one at all, it’ll be the song we most wish we could all sing together, in person, to one other.