Dua Lipa Takes Pleasure With ‘Radical Optimism’

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 ​​a personal mythology central to unpacking an album’s themes (it keeps me busy, after all), but she’s always found pop music’s immediacy and broad appeal essential to its enjoyment. Born in London to Kosovar Albanian parents, 28-year-old singer Dua Lipa seems to instinctively understand the utility of pop as an escapist fantasy. Lipa’s new album «Radical Optimism» doesn’t require listeners to know anything about Lipa, or her constellation of collaborators, or her cultural history, or her relationship to the past; he doesn’t need to know anything about anything, really, except how cathartic and ecstatic it can be to move your body with mindless abandon.

Lipa isn’t alone on this journey—Sabrina Carpenter, Tate McRae, and Troye Sivan work in similar modes—but she may be our most reliable performer of slick, 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 might be why she was tasked with opening the Grammy telecast this year, performing a medley of songs from «Radical Optimism.» It’s not heavy music that you enjoy the first time you hear it.

Over the past seven years, Lipa has grown as a dancer and performer—in the video for her first major single, 2017’s «New Rules,» she moved so loosely that she gave it to «Weekend at Bernie’s» at times—and while she’s now more magnetic and practiced, she’s still she exudes a kind of detached coolness, as if she could take it or leave it. Lipa has legions of devoted followers (especially on Instagram, where she’s often pictured looking hot and holding a book), but I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s why she hasn’t developed a frothing, hysterical fan community: there’s just something delightfully untouchable about her . Its seeming uselessness may seem aspirational to anyone in the agony of excessive emotion. «I don’t wanna stay till the lights come on / I just can’t relate to the words of this love song,» he sings on new song «French Exit.» On «Anything for Love,» a piano ballad that turns into a ripping synth-pop tune, she sings about how she’s prone to getting over it: «And I’m not interested in a love that gives up so easily / I want a love that gives me will hold.»

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Recently, technology has made the analysis of 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» feature drums, bass, keyboards, guitars and percussion; I know this mainly because I read the headlines. The instrumentation on the album is shiny and impenetrable, and the main attraction is Lipa, whose voice is strong and at times throaty. If poptimism—a critical philosophy that boils down to the idea that if something hits a broad target, it has intrinsic value—has taught us anything, it’s that doing the job 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 like Tame Impala. (Parker proved his mainstream bona fides in his twenties. 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 «Joanne» by Lady Gaga.) It helps give Lip’s record a warm, vaguely flashy ’70s feel—a little «Saturday Night Fever,» a little Quincy Jones, somewhere between Chic’s «Le Freak» and Michael Jackson’s «Don’t Stop Till You Get Enough.»

I can especially hear Parker’s influence on the chorus of the single «Houdini», just as the backing vocals multiply. (Also, I can literally hear him; he’s listed as a backing vocalist.) It’s one of my favorite moments on the album. «Maybe you can get the girl to change,» sings Lipa in a sharp, clear, more than a little doubtful voice. («Her ways!» adds Lipa.) If «Radical Optimism» has a central theme, it’s independence, or more precisely, an unwillingness to engage in the kind of romantic folly we’ve come up with cute names for (love bombing, gaslighting, ghosting). The idea is to come right or leave. Lipa has no time for fainting or obscurity (she once told Jimmy Kimmel that she regularly squeezes even the most mundane or enjoyable tasks into her daily schedule — showering, watching “Succession”) — and the opposite is possible at the Institute. – The guy can fix it. Why bother? He rolls his eyes well until a proper partner is found. “Are you someone who can go there? / Because I don’t wanna show you,» she sings on «Training Season,» a pulsating song about not having the patience to teach anyone how to treat her. This idea is also at the center of «Houdini»:

I come and go
Prove that you have the right to please me
Everyone knows
Catch me or I go Houdini

It’s possible my brain has simply been liquefied by modern life, but I hear a hint of rapper and teenage thug Bhada Bhabie in Lip’s slurred articulation of «catch me.» (In a 2016 episode of «Dr. Phil,» Bhad Bhabie — who was there to discuss her car-stealing habit — responded to audience laughter by quipping, «Cash me ousside, howbow dah?», a phrase that quickly went viral and later was remixed into a single.) The evocation of Houdini in this particular context also makes me laugh. I can’t stop picturing a small, squinty Hungarian wearing a turn-of-the-century swimsuit and chains, an image fundamentally at odds with Lipa, who is famously lithe and gorgeous. I think that’s 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, sophisticated but easy to feel, artfully rendered but focused on pleasure.

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In 2019, I interviewed Lipa for The New Yorker Festival. My father’s family is from the Balkans and I recently spent some time in the Cursed Mountains in northern Albania, near Pristina, the town where Lip’s parents lived before they left Kosovo for the UK (until 1998 the Kosovo Liberation Army and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia were at war .Lipa moved back to England by herself to pursue music. «I jump at the chance to tell people I’m from Kosovo,» she told me. «I’m really, really proud of my roots.»

Lipa said she was influenced by Britpop for «Radical Optimism». She names Oasis, Primal Scream and Massive Attack, although the presence of these artists (and Britpop in general) is much more spiritual than musical; she said 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 entangled with the idea of ​​asylum. Lípa is clear about how a good pop song can help a person lose themselves for a moment, briefly but really lighten up. Pop music—the catchy choruses, the repetitions, the propulsive beats—is like a mantra by design. Listen long enough and the contours of a busy day begin to blur. The problems seem smaller. Happiness feels closer, it is possible. When pop is practiced well, the end result is something like transcendence. ♦


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