Dua Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia” is a Not Horrible Pop Album

My ignorance of chart-topping pop music is such that I had no idea who Dua Lipa was until about a week ago, when her new album Future Nostalgia was released to rave reviews. I decided to give it a shot, partly to keep myself up to date on what the children are listening to in sort of an undercover journalist way, and also due to boredom. I mean, what else am I going to do right now, read a book?

It turns out that Future Nostalgia is a pleasant surprise: a chart-topping pop album that doesn’t fill me with anger and resentment towards the youths, with their Instagrams, Tik Toks, and generally uncivilized taste and manner. It instantly vaults Lipa squarely into contention for my coveted “least worst pop star” title, currently held by Billie Eilish. It partly succeeds for me because of its lack of pretension — it’s great to hear a pop album that knows what it is and isn’t really trying to do anything other than get some catchy jams stuck in your head.

One reason I tend to resist the recent trend towards “poptimism” is that I find it embarrassing to hear critics wax poetic about pop music that is clearly designed for kids. They don’t feel like they can enjoy music mindlessly, so they search for deep meaning in these assembly-line produced songs, because if they just said “these songs are good and catchy,” they wouldn’t have a job. Future Nostalgia requires no analysis or critique beyond that, though — these songs aren’t designed to be anything more than airy pop confections. While other pop artists like Lana Del Rey have sought to “make a statement” in their music, overestimating their own ability and embarrassingly overreaching, Future Nostalgia at all times delivers exactly what it promises.

There is no intellectual value to this music whatsoever, but I don’t see how anyone can listen to it and not get at least one song stuck in their head. “Hallucinate” is the track that got me, with its upbeat disco sound and earworm chorus. “Break My Heart” and “Love Again” are also stuck in my head, though that is partially due to their “borrowing” of classic hooks (from INXS’s “Need You Tonight” and White Town’s “Your Woman” respectively), which feels to me like cheating.

It occurred to me listening to those songs that the cheating was kind of the point. Every pop trick and shortcut to make you addicted to a song is used on this album, and it’s devilishly effective. While Dua Lipa is the face of this project, and I don’t want to underestimate her input, it definitely feels like the work of smoothly operating pop machinery, and I wasn’t surprised to see roughly 1000 different writers and producers credited in its making. Lipa is a more low-key personality who is content to blend into the slick productions, which makes it feel cohesive and also refreshing compared to the more aggressive personal branding of most pop stars. There is no ego on this album, just an endless parade of pop hooks from the past and future.

When and How Will Sports Come Back?

With the country mostly shut down due to coronavirus, it’s been nearly two weeks since the last live sporting event in the U.S. There isn’t a clear end in sight for this period of social distancing, which was recently extended to April 30th, and I expect it to go on potentially much longer as the virus continues to make its way through various areas. The future of sports in this environment feels unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time, there is a collective need for distraction and entertainment, and historically sports have served as a strong unifier and a way to rally the country. This is a big reason why I expect sports to be one of the first normal things to come back, likely in June or July, though it will have to be in a vastly different form than we’ve seen before.

Until there is a vaccine, widespread herd immunity, or some unforeseen mitigation of the virus threat, I do not expect sporting events to be played in front of crowds. This will make for a weird viewing experience, but it also opens the door for creative solutions: without a live crowd, the actual location where you’re playing the game is irrelevant. This is the key to my proposed solution, which will sound insane — but these are insane times, and a weird, unprecedented problem like this will likely have weird, out-of-the-box solutions. The concept of “social distancing” would have sounded crazy weeks ago, but now seems like the obvious correct thing to do.

A league that wants to play games could theoretically quarantine all of their players, test them (we’ve already seen how accessible testing is for NBA players), and then isolate them in a location that is not as susceptible to the virus — something like a small town in rural Montana, but there is room to go crazy here if you want to ship players to the Yukon. This is a possible solution for the NBA, which still wants to finish its season, and really only needs a traditional basketball court to play. The two conferences could quarantine in a local hotel or something, then play games all day at a random gym, with the Western Conference taking one day, then resting the next while the Eastern Conference plays. Assuming thorough testing, this is not that far-fetched of an idea, and it could potentially give Americans hours of live basketball to watch each day while stuck indoors.

Sports leagues are heavily incentivized to come back, and whoever jumps first in this game of chicken has potential to reap serious rewards — they can establish a narrative of helping the country “bounce back” while also generating attention to their games, which could lead to iconic moments that are replayed forever (think Mike Piazza’s home run after September 11). I assume every league in season right now is thinking of these sorts of drastic measures to get games in, simply because the benefits are so significant. With that said, here are the three leagues I think are most likely to jump into the pool first:

MLB: Commissioner Rob Manfred is a desperate man who has been doing anything he can to get more eyeballs on the game and try to win new fans. Baseball being the first sport to return would be a perfect opportunity for that, and it will be in the summer which is strongly associated with the sport. MLB can also credibly argue that they play the safest game, as it is typically outdoors with much less intense physical contact than basketball, hockey, or soccer.

The biggest issue I see with MLB is finding enough fields and being able to get the games (which take forever) in while quarantining the large rosters. I am skeptical about teams traveling around and playing in their home parks while this is going on. It’s possible there is a complex in the right location with enough fields to play the needed 15 games, which could obviously be staggered throughout the day. Even if there is, baseball teams often jettison players back and forth from the minor leagues, and it’s hard to envision a situation that supports a full major league and minor league slate. This would likely necessitate larger rosters (which have already been discussed), but a lack of minor league games still would have a ripple effect on the trade market and the development of young players. If MLB can figure out a solution to those complex issues, they have a strong chance of being the first sport to come back.

WNBA: Their draft is still on as scheduled and we’re approaching when the season would start anyways. The WNBA has a few things going for it: it has the fewest players of any league, it only needs simple basketball courts (as discussed earlier), and it’s the league with the most to gain from being the first league back. They’ve needed a shot in the arm for popularity and more exposure to the sport forever, and I think the country will be so sports-starved that even those skeptical of women’s sports will tune in. When they do, they might be surprised by how much they like it.

The only complicating factor here is that WNBA players are very socially conscious — I’m not sure if that would manifest in them not wanting to participate or in them desiring to get on the court and give the country a distraction. There are also still some old gender roles issues at play with many players who are mothers and may be more reluctant to leave their families during these heightened, stressful times, especially since they’re not making millions like their male counterparts. However, the WNBA always deals with players sitting out seasons even when things are going fine, so I’m not sure if that’s a dealbreaker, and in the end, my hunch is that athletes will want to play and compete if assured of their safety. This is a sleeper pick and might be my favorite right now.

MLS: This is another rising sports league that would love to get some attention, and also benefits from being outdoors and playing on a basic field. I honestly don’t follow the league enough to know its social dynamics or what the commissioners are thinking, but they will clearly have one of the stronger incentives to get back on the field as soon as possible.

Those three strike me as the most likely right now, but almost any projection is clouded with uncertainty. The NBA has a problem where if it wants to return for its playoffs, they would be playing through their typical offseason. It’s possible the league will still finish its season and then permanently change the start of their regular season to Christmas — something that has already been discussed by owners so they compete less with football. The NHL season feels like a lost cause to me, as getting rink space for every team seems difficult, and I think even the start of their next season might be an issue. If none of these leagues return in the summer (which would shock me), the NFL will have months to prepare a solution and I think will find some way to play empty arena games for its season, even if it means shipping the players to Antarctica.

Any return by one of these leagues will require planning, some creative thinking, and an acceptance of some level of risk. However, I think the rewards are too great, and the demand is too large, for every league to just sit out this entire pandemic. How all of this happens is one of the things I’m most curious about, and I expect around May or June we’ll see the ideas start to roll out and some semblance of normalcy will be returned to our lives.

Wrestling Without Fans is the Last Entertainment Standing

Part of why wrestling is a somewhat in-demand TV product right now is that it has new content every single week no matter what. There is never an off-season and the whole business has a deeply engrained “the show must go on” mentality — WWE often touts how it has had a new episode every week for the last 20+ years. This is why, even during a global pandemic that has shuttered sporting events across the globe, wrestling keeps on happening in its cockroach-like way. In the last couple weeks, both WWE and AEW ran shows without an audience for the first time, with limited personnel on hand. The results have been weird, to say the least.

Wrestling’s lifeblood is the crowd reactions, and most of my posts have centered on how the art form is so heavily based on manipulating the audience and getting them invested in matches. One of the reasons I watch is for those really heated emotional moments on either end of the spectrum, whether it’s the entire crowd hating Brock Lesnar or rejoicing when he gets beaten. Needless to say, without a live audience, those moments don’t exist. So what’s left?

As it turns out, there have been obvious downsides, but also some surprising revelations from this experiment. To start with the negatives, the matches are tough to get into without a crowd reacting at specific spots. AEW’s first show without fans seemed to solve this issue by having wrestlers serve as a de facto audience, rooting on the good guys or bad guys based on their alignment, which led to a show with much more energy than WWE’s approach that had empty chairs in the background at their Performance Center and a clear apocalyptic vibe. But due to the CDC recommendations on crowd gatherings, that was nixed last night, so now both shows are running with as few people around the ring as possible.

AEW’s matches have suffered less, because they tend to be more focused on athleticism and back-and-forth action than WWE’s, which are typically about advancing a story and engaging the crowd in a battle of good against evil. With so many hours of TV to fill and with not a ton of people on hand, WWE has been using their extensive back catalogue of old pay-per-view matches to fill time and pace the shows a bit, seemingly recognizing that the no-crowd matches weren’t particularly fun to watch. Both shows have tried to find creative ways to mimic a crowd. AEW had a backstage room with wrestlers cheering for others, while WWE has put various people on guest commentary and had them cheering for specific wrestlers and advancing a story. These are decent band-aid attempts given the restrictions, but nothing that really comes close to matching the feeling of a live crowd being into a match.

This hasn’t all been negatives, though. In fact, one part of the show has actually improved. WWE has let loose their best promo people in these weeks and they’ve thrived without having an obnoxious crowd interrupting them or trying to make the show about themselves. As a huge fan of promos, this period has been a goldmine for me: wrestlers like Bray Wyatt, Edge, and Becky Lynch have cut some of their better promos, because the quiet setting lends an intimacy and intensity to the proceedings that isn’t there typically. Instead of playing to a crowd, these confrontations are just between the wrestlers, and it makes them feel more like real-world conflicts. I noticed even non-wrestling-fans on Twitter were observing that no-audience wrestling resembled some kind of bizarre stripped-down theater production.

WWE has the advantage of currently building up to WrestleMania, their big stadium spectacle that will now take place in an empty arena. AEW has less of a clear direction (and just doesn’t emphasize promos as much as WWE), so they haven’t been as successful in this regard. I also have felt since the beginning that AEW’s boisterous crowds have covered up a lot of the show’s flaws — when an audience is cheering wildly, it has a psychological effect on many where they convince themselves it’s great, and a lot of fans are so happy for a major league non-WWE show that they cheer for everything.

I really felt this in the final segment of AEW’s last show, which involved Broken Matt Hardy, a ridiculous, campy character that caught on with wrestling fans because of its over-the-top wackiness. Hardy signed with WWE a few years ago, they never “got” the character, so now he’s jumped ship to bring it back and show off his brilliant creative mind. His first promo, with no audience, felt like the worst segment in the history of wrestling to me — it was like watching really bad children’s theater. Without fans going wild for Hardy and cheering for his outlandish character, shouting his catch phrases, the curtain was pulled back and I realized this is an idiotic gimmick that already feels stale. In the moment, I hated this segment more than anything, but I can’t even tell if it’s a fair assessment because of the lack of fans. My guess is a lot of stuff I have loved in wrestling would not seem nearly as good if it had played to an empty arena.

These shows feel like they’re on borrowed time: both have been operating in Florida, which is going to enforce a stay-at-home order, and obviously if a wrestler tests positive for Covid-19 it all likely stops. WWE has recorded a bunch of their shows in advance through Wrestlemania, at which point we will probably enter the first wrestling hiatus in forever. When the wrestling stops, that’s when you know things are going really bad.