Entertainment

'Future Nostalgia': How Dua Lipa Soundtracked the UK's First Lockdown

Music critics discuss the first British pop album that resonated in 2020 for the most unexpected reasons.
December 14, 2020, 9:00am
'Future Nostalgia': How Dua Lipa Soundtracked the UK's First Lockdown
Future Nostalgia album cover.

VICE UK staffers Hannah Ewens, Emma Garland and Lauren O’Neill discuss Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’, the first big Lockdown Album of 2020, released on the 27th of March, with music critic Stephanie Phillips.

STEPHANIE PHILLIPS: Compared to the uncertainty of the new world we were facing, Future Nostalgia was a welcome burst of light relief with songs about those classic disco tropes of heartbreak, love, and survival.

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LAUREN O’NEILL: Exactly. The only productive thing I’ve done during either lockdown period is “learn” to “run”, so my enduring memory of Future Nostalgia is of listening to it on a run. It is a great running album. Very rhythmic. Makes you feel like you’re in a film about cocaine and gangsters instead of doing desperate, hamster-wheel laps around the nearest park because you literally can’t go anywhere else.

HANNAH EWENS: Similarly to you, Lauren, it reminds me of going on walks around Alexandra Palace, pretending I’m getting my heart-rate up to anything like “Hallucinate”’s 124 BPM. I distinctly remember wondering how it would be received as such an upbeat, sexy, party album considering everyone was inside and facing casual, fun realities like redundancy, viral infections and potentially months of zero sex. See also: imagining whether Dua and her team were stressing about it seeming like an inappropriate drop; how other pop artists and the wider industry would be observing closely to take the temperature of public opinion and mood for their own rollouts. This year there were so many re-scheduled albums it was impossible to keep up.

SP: I knew vaguely of Dua Lipa before through her ear-worm breakup anthem “New Rules” but she feels like a different kind of star now. It seems like in Future Nostalgia Dua Lipa has a newfound confidence in herself as a popstar and has leaned into the artist 2020 needs; a high energy, all glitter and glam, pop machine. She’s following a Kylie Minogue model of becoming a tongue in cheek, camp icon.

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EMMA GARLAND: Dua Lipa is a fun-first pop star, which I appreciate. Towards the end of the 2010s the fever finally broke on ‘poptimism’, which saw critics and music writers come at commercial releases through the lens of like ‘what does this tell us about our godforsaken reality’ ahead of anything else, largely because so many of the releases had overt political marketing to begin with, and I think Dua Lipa’s rise with “New Rules” in 2017 marked a turning of the tide towards frivolity. Future Nostalgia doubles down on that aspect of her appeal. Her self-titled had a few ballads and stripped-back tracks, lots of solo acoustic guitar and warm piano moments that reminded me of the chunks of Justin Bieber albums that most people skip over, but this is a full on party album. 

LO: As far as I recall, Future Nostalgia was the first album that made us realise that 2020 really would be a lost year. It was, in other words, the first record of 2020 where people en masse were posting tweets like “Wish I was doing poppers to this x” about it. 

SP: Exactly – the most popular releases in the first half of 2020 resonated because they gave us all a release in some way. Much like Lady Gaga’s Chromatica and Charli XCX’s How I’m Feeling Now, Future Nostalgia was laden with COVID distracting bangers to keep us pumped and bring the club to us.

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EG: In the UK it definitely fit within this narrative of ‘lockdown albums’ – Future Nostalgia, how i’m feeling now and SAWAYAMA all dropped in quick succession, and the cumulative effect was this watershed moment for British women in pop – but for me its impact was short-lived by comparison and the appeal faded with time. Overall I think Future Nostalgia will rightly be considered one of the best albums of 2020, but we probably won’t see it ranked very highly if at all on any ‘best of the decade’ type lists in the future.

SP: Some of the standout moments on the album are where she leans most heavily into the disco and house themes she’s referencing from. The 80s nostalgia of “Physical” is particularly well executed and welcomes the Fonda-esque work out video that Lipa made to accompany the song. The theme of being empowered on the dancefloor runs through the album, including on the title track’s bolshy spoken word declaration of her own importance, “You want a timeless song / I wanna change the game”.

LO: My favourite song on the record is “Hallucinate,” which positively perspires with the same contained, gently pulsating heat as Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love.” 

EG: I don’t think it’s controversial to say the sound of this album is fairly derivative. That is also why it works, because it feels so recognisable and satisfying, like always buying the same chocolate bar you know hits the spot. But while Lady Gaga imprinted her unmistakable Gaga-ness on Chromatica, Future Nostalgia could have been released by any number of pop starlets, which is one of the reasons I struggle to feel passionately about it. There are some true bangers – “Physical” was a solid single choice, “Future Nostalgia”, “Hallucinate” and “Levitating” are all great, and getting DaBaby involved for a version was a sick move – and there’s a real flirtiness about her that I love. You can feel a lot of that Daft Punk, Pharrell, Bruno Mars-era of chart-dominating funk in the mid-2010s here, especially on the opener. For an album titled Future Nostalgia I almost wonder if it would have felt more definitive if it came out a few years ago.

HE: A favourite for me, besides the singles, was “Good In Bed”, which I think taps into what you’re saying, Emma, about the recognisable chocolate bar sound. The jaunty piano and sassy female ‘hey!’ backing vocals felt to me like the British mid-to-late 00s pop we – and to a certain extent Dua too –were listening to as teenagers. Even her cocky relationship commentary directed at someone reminded me a tiny bit of Kate Nash or Lily Allen, telling men they’re rude or crap in bed, but in this case, quite the opposite. I want to remember this album for the lyrical beauty of “good pipe in the moonlight” rather than that rogue feminist closer “Boys Will Be Boys”, a track that might be the stinker of the year. 

LO: There are quite a lot of songs on this record that are still generically malleable enough to fit the description of “Love Island montage-core,” but taken as an album from front to back, Future Nostalgia really coheres from song-to-song, which I don’t actually think is always true of pop records these days.

EG: For me Dua Lipa is essentially the Parks and Rec of pop music; every component that makes her good, someone else does more decisively. Future Nostalgia is a solid pop album – Grammy-nominated, no less – but my appreciation of it is a bit clinical. So far she’s yet to release anything that really gets me in my feelings. It would be cool to see her step up and ‘own’ this sound, the way Lana Del Rey (a former one trick pony) did with Norman Fucking Rockwell. I think her best is yet to come.

SP: Following Future Nostalgia, Dua Lipa has definitely established herself as a vital name in British pop. I hope she leans even more towards the outlandish as she goes on. She took a while to get on her feet, as expected when finding your voice within the pop industry machine, but now she seems ready to become a star that could influence others as she continues to rise. The album’s open adoration for early house and disco will hopefully lead to more references from the genre in the pop and shine a spotlight on the queer people of colour and women who were originally at the centre of the movement.

@hannahrosewens, @emmaggarland, @hiyalauren and @stephanopolus