Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Dua Lipa Devotes Herself to Pleasure with “Radical Optimism”

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Recently, some of the world’s biggest pop stars have been eschewing bangers in favor of a more postmodern, self-referential approach to the form. I don’t necessarily mind the idea of personal mythology being central to unpacking an album’s themes (it keeps me employed, after all), but the immediacy and the broad appeal of pop music have always felt crucial to its pleasure. The twenty-eight-year-old singer Dua Lipa, who was born in London to Kosovo Albanian parents, appears to instinctively understand the utility of pop as escapist fantasy. Lipa’s new album, “Radical Optimism,” does not require its listeners to know anything about Lipa, or her constellation of associates, or her cultural history, or her relationship to the past; it doesn’t require knowing anything about anything, really, except how cleansing and ecstatic it can feel to move your body with brainless abandon.

Lipa is not alone on this journey—Sabrina Carpenter, Tate McRae, and Troye Sivan are all working in similar modes—but she might be our most reliable performer of astute, frictionless pop. (Lipa, of course, owes a debt to her predecessors, including Kylie Minogue, Madonna, and Britney Spears.) She seems fully committed to pop as a genre with boundaries (short songs, big hooks, broadly adaptable lyrics). That could be why she was tasked with opening the Grammys telecast this year, performing a medley of tracks from “Radical Optimism.” This is not hard music to enjoy the first time you hear it.

During the past seven years, Lipa has grown as a dancer and a performer—in the video for her first big single, “New Rules,” from 2017, she moved in such a relaxed way that it was occasionally giving “Weekend at Bernie’s”—and, though she is more magnetic and practiced now, she still exudes a kind of detached coolness, as if she could take it or leave it. Lipa has legions of dedicated followers (particularly on Instagram, where she is often pictured looking hot and holding a book), but I have wondered, at times, if this is why she has not cultivated a frothing, hysterical fan community: there’s just something gloriously untouchable about her. Her apparent needlessness can seem aspirational to anyone in the throes of too much feeling. “I don’t wanna stay till the lights come on / I just can’t relate to the words of this love song,” she sings on “French Exit,” a new song. On “Anything for Love,” a piano ballad that transforms into a twitchy synth-pop tune, she sings about how prone she is to just getting over it already: “And I’m not interested in a love that gives up so easily / I want a love that’s set on keeping me.”

Lately, technology has made parsing the individual instrumental components of pop songs (especially pop songs intended for the dance floor, and augmented by various synthesizers, unnamed plug-ins, and effects) something of a farce. The tracks on “Radical Optimism” contain drums, bass, keyboards, guitars, and percussion; I know this mostly because I read the credits. The instrumentation on the album is a gleaming and impenetrable expanse, and the main attraction is Lipa, whose voice is strong and occasionally throaty. If poptimism—a critical philosophy that boils down to the idea that if something hits a wide target it’s inherently worthwhile—has taught us anything, it’s that doing this work well is incredibly difficult. Much of “Radical Optimism” was co-written by Lipa, Danny L Harle, Tobias Jesso, Jr., Caroline Ailin, and Kevin Parker, an Australian musician and producer who also makes dreamy, swirling psych-pop as Tame Impala. (Parker proved his mainstream bona fides in the twenty-tens. In 2016, Rihanna covered his song “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” on her album “Anti”; Parker also co-wrote and co-produced “Perfect Illusion,” the lead single from Lady Gaga’s “Joanne.”) He helps bring a warm and vaguely blitzed nineteen-seventies feel to Lipa’s record—a little bit “Saturday Night Fever,” a little bit Quincy Jones, somewhere between Chic’s “Le Freak” and Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.”

I particularly hear the influence of Parker on the chorus of the single “Houdini,” right as the backing vocals pipe up. (I also hear him literally; he’s listed as a background singer.) It’s one of my favorite moments on the album. “Maybe you can get a girl to change,” Lipa sings, her voice sharp, clear, more than a little doubting. (“Her ways!” Lipa adds.) If “Radical Optimism” has a central theme, it’s independence, or, more specifically, an unwillingness to engage in the sort of romantic tomfoolery we have devised cutesy names for (love bombing, gaslighting, ghosting). The idea is to come correct or go away. Lipa does not have time for pining or equivocation (she once told Jimmy Kimmel that she regularly slots even the most rote or pleasurable tasks—showering, watching “Succession”—into her daily schedule), and, constitutionally, she’s the opposite of a maybe-I-can-fix-him type. Why bother? She’s fine rolling her eyes until a proper partner comes along. “Are you somebody who can go there? / ’Cause I don’t wanna have to show ya,” she sings on “Training Season,” a pulsing song about not having the patience to teach someone how to treat her. That idea is at the center of “Houdini,” too:

I come and I go
Prove you got the right to please me
Everybody knows
Catch me or I go Houdini

It could be that my brain has simply been liquefied by modern life, but I hear a hint of the rapper and teen-age felon Bhad Bhabie in Lipa’s slurred articulation of “catch me.” (In 2016, on an episode of “Dr. Phil,” Bhad Bhabie—who was there to discuss her habit of stealing cars—reacted to the audience’s laughter by sneering “Cash me ousside, howbow dah?,” a catchphrase that quickly went viral and later got remixed into a single.) The evocation of Houdini in this particular context also makes me snicker. I can’t stop picturing a short, narrow-eyed Hungarian man wearing a turn-of-the-century bathing costume and chains, an image fundamentally at odds with Lipa, who is famously lithe and gorgeous. This, I think, is what ends up getting lost in more narratively ambitious pop music—a sense of playfulness, the idea that art can be important but also low stakes, sophisticated but easy to feel, artfully rendered but intent on delight.

In 2019, I interviewed Lipa for The New Yorker Festival. My father’s family is Balkan, and I had recently spent some time in the Accursed Mountains of northern Albania, not far from Pristina, the city where Lipa’s parents lived before they left Kosovo for the U.K. (By 1998, the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were at war; Lipa’s family returned home in 2008, after Kosovo declared independence.) I was curious how the conflict had shaped her. Lipa moved back to England on her own, at fifteen, to pursue a career in music. “I jump at the chance to tell people that I’m from Kosovo,” she told me. “I’m really, really proud of my roots.”

Lipa said that for “Radical Optimism” she was influenced by Britpop. She name-checked Oasis, Primal Scream, and Massive Attack, though the presence of those artists (and of Britpop more generally) is far more spiritual than musical; she told Variety that she was attracted to the sense of “real freedom” she felt in their work. For anyone who has witnessed or experienced grief on a large scale, freedom can sometimes be tangled up with the idea of asylum. Lipa has been clear about how a good pop song can help a person to get lost in a moment, to briefly but truly unburden herself. Pop music—the mesmeric choruses, the repetition, the propulsive beats—is mantra-like by design. Listen long enough and the contours of a difficult day start to blur. Problems seem smaller. Happiness feels closer, more possible. When pop is practiced well, the end result is something like transcendence. ♦

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