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.