I first listened to Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia, the best album of this still-young year, on a day when everyone was scared to breathe.
This week, at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, a semi-trailer truck was rolled into the guts of the building. It’s a white rectangle, the refrigerated kind that pull up on city sidewalks and unload produce, fish, or meats. At Elmhurst, the truck’s cool interior was used to hold the overflow of dead bodies — 13 people had died in 24 hours.
Elmhurst’s killer has struck around the United States and to all ends of the Earth: Italy, Spain, China, and Korea. It’s called the novel coronavirus — a microscopic molecular bundle of fat and proteins that resemble a nightmare dish of sour gummy worms snaking their bodies through couscous.
Coronavirus blows up human lungs, drowning them with fluid and suffocating them until they reach respiratory failure. It passes when humans cough, hanging in the air waiting to sneak into uninfected lungs and throats. Doctors say you can do things like washing your hands every time you touch something new to stop the spread of the virus. They also say to keep at least a distance of 6 feet — an entire me, basically — between you and another human.
My hands smell like soapy lemons all the time, and the skin between my fingers is rough. I haven’t seen my friends in three weeks because I’m afraid to breathe in the air around them. Because if I get sick, scientists have said that there aren’t enough ventilators — expensive machines that let drowning lungs rest — to keep me alive if my lungs fail. Meanwhile, in the face of the refrigerator trucks keeping bodies cool at Elmhurst, the sitting president of the United States said that New York City is lying about its need of ventilators.
I had asthma as a kid. I know what shallow breaths feel like. If I do get sick, I’ll need a ventilator that may not exist. So my hands smell like lemons, and the skin between fingers is rough, and I’m afraid to breathe.
Everyone’s afraid to breathe.
The pandemic’s human toll has stopped the economy in its tracks and turned the entertainment industry into purgatory. Movie theaters have shut down, and studios have pushed would-be billion-dollar blockbusters into an indefinite holding pattern. Broadway shut down. Television still chugs on, but people are finding comfort less in new content, more in reruns and shows that existed long before coronavirus took hold. Even Lady Gaga, arguably the biggest pop star in the world, postponed her album.
Art is an escape in times like these, and access to much of it has been sealed shut.
But the electropop star Dua Lipa did the opposite: She opened up her music to the world. After being leaked early, Dua Lipa actually pushed the release of her swaying, disco-inspired new album up a week. And Future Nostalgia is a record that is exactly what I needed.
Future Nostalgia is a defiant, splendid dance-pop escape
Dancing in the middle of despair — that’s an act of defiance.
Dua Lipa announced herself on the pop scene with the release of her eponymous album in 2017 and a guest spot on Martin Garrix’s inescapable emo-EDM hit “Scared to Be Lonely.” Her songs overflowed with the beat drops and choppy riffs found in many of the Billboard hits that summer. But Lipa’s voice stands out among them, sounding like an homage to singers decades long ago. It’s molasses thick, faded like it’s been found in an attic, and highly polished.
Think Amy Winehouse with a gloss of fellow brit Dusty Springfield. Lipa’s splendid 2017 covers of Etta James’s “I’d Rather Go Blind” and Winehouse’s “Tears Dry on Their Own” sound almost too effortless, too clean, so good that they might border on soulless in any lesser artist’s hands. Voices like Winehouse, James, and Springfield have entire lives of struggle, pain, and triumph laced into them. Lipa, who was around 22 when she recorded those covers, can sound like she’s singing with cheat codes.
On Future Nostalgia, those vocals have found their uncanny match in disco-drenched synths. “Don’t Start Now,” the thumping lead-off single with an elevated pulse, is an effortlessly catchy hit. “Did the heartbreak change me? May-be,” Lipa croons, a simple, coy phrasing that hides how much the song is about tenacity and survival.
Another single, “Physical,” is more commanding, a flash of sonic neon. It could easily double as a blood-pumping video game tune that plays before your party faces off against the final boss. Fans of these songs should relish the wobbly sass of “Levitating” and the starship laser-beam spectacle that is the 120-bpm “Hallucinate.” Down-tempo bops like “Cool” and “Good in Bed” seem like they were beamed in from Black Mirror’s San Junipero.
But it’s “Love Again” that’s the standout. The tune incorporates a sample from White Town’s erotic, offbeat 1997 torchbearer of a hit “Your Woman,” using it as a slingshot in the intro and then weaving it back again and again as a hypnotic disco march.
Lipa pays lyrical homage to White Town too, singing of a love that’s roped her back in after heartbreak. She’s been here before. She knows how it’s going to turn out. But there’s a chance things could be different, and better, this time.
“Show me that heaven’s right here, baby. Touch me, so I know I’m not crazy,” she pleads — it’s not joy or butterflies but reluctance wrapped in a velvet voice. “Used to be afraid of love and what it might do. But goddamn, you got me in love again.”
This album is what made me feel okay to breathe again
My affection and fidelity to Dua Lipa and this assured album of the year is intertwined with my exhaustion from relentless fear.
Not just fear for my own health but for that of the people I love. I want to stop thinking about what happens if my nephews, a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old, come down with a cough, and how their parents, my brother and my sister-in-law, do everything to protect them from the virus before ever considering their own risk. I’m tired of worrying about my aging parents and my brothers, and being scared for my sister who’s due to give birth at a hospital, or a makeshift one if New York City’s are too overcrowded, in June.
My friends, who I haven’t seen in weeks, have told me they all love this album. But we can’t enjoy it together because they’re worried about getting sick, too — one of my best friends just tested positive this past week. They worry about their families. I don’t sleep anymore because the refrigeration truck hasn’t had reason to leave Elmhurst Hospital. And if it’s not there, it’ll inevitably be somewhere else when I wake up.
Future Nostalgia’s ability to let me close my eyes, get lost in the rhythm, and imagine another version of me, another version of us, where we just dance the night away without this plague, is a gift. In that world, this virus doesn’t exist, and all of my friends are there in the flesh, sweaty, smiling, yelling over the beat about our terrible decisions, about guys, and about how we have to stay for one more song. And we’re happy.
“I hope it makes you smile, and I hope it makes you dance. I hope I make you proud,” Lipa said in a teary video announcement about releasing her album early and the timing of releasing new music during this godforsaken pandemic.
She delivered an album that, if you let it, provides a release from a world that’s strangled, struggling. Isn’t that the power of art — to let us get lost in its pockets and create our own stories? I believe so. And in this world, if just for a moment, this art says it’s okay to just breathe.