Drunk phone calls, doomed attempts at a platonic relationship, the feeling of being trapped in a cycle of unrelenting pars. Whom among us has not been there? Even Dua Lipa – who has a face so perfect it looks like it was rendered by a graphic designer – has been there. Her breakout single "New Rules" tells a painfully familiar tale, in a wonderfully digestible way. Its success has been wide-reaching: everyone from Skepta to your mum has been blasting it. The uptempo, tropical house vibe allowed it to sneak up on everyone during the summer, while its air of melancholy appeals to us as the air turns colder and we wrap ourselves in various pieces of synthetic fluff.
This sadness distinguishes "New Rules" from the plethora of other songs in the 'yaas female empowerment' Spotify playlist that woman from your gym secretly loves. From Christina Aguilera's "Stronger" to Little Mix's "Shout Out To My Ex", there is a whole world of music that celebrates the failed relationship as a character-building experience, and interprets heartbreak with unbridled optimism. Often, this is exactly what we need. These songs provide us with emotional coping methods that we probably would not be able to provide for ourselves.
But "New Rules" is different: it's a song about what we can provide for ourselves. It maintains a neutral perspective, finding empowerment not in optimism, but pragmatism. The sense of sadness imbued in the vocal, combined with the energising backing track, is representative of the fact that most of us feel more than one feeling at the same time, most of the time. And, unlike many breakup anthems, "New Rules" does not commend the fuckboy for making you a better person. In fact, it doesn’t even address him. All we know about him is that he’s made Dua Lipa sad, and she’s finding a way to deal with it.
Lost or unrequited love is obviously a common theme in music, including opera. Puccini’s Madame Butterfly sees a woman waiting for years for her lost husband, only to discover he has a new wife. In Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Tatyana is friendzoned by the protagonist and he tells her that she shouldn’t be so open with her feelings (thanks for the tip). And then, written some two centuries prior, there’s Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Here, Dido, the Queen of Carthage, falls in love with the Trojan hero Aeneas. She thinks he loves her too, but – quelle surprise – he fucks off to sea and leaves her on her own, because he has to complete his quest (read: focus on his career). Dido consequently sings one of the most famous arias in Western classical music: “When I am laid in earth”, or "Dido's Lament".
“New Rules” reminds me of the lament firstly because of its melancholy undertone. It’s less pronounced than in the aria, but definitely there – particularly when Dua Lipa wistfully sings “my love”, a line in the verses that’s slightly incongruous with the stomping down-to-earthness of the rest of the track. Both “New Rules” and “Dido’s Lament” are in a minor key, which is a common and traditional method of conveying sadness. There’s also a parallel, though, in that they are both founded on an acceptance of what’s happened, and present a way of dealing with it. The coping methods of Dua Lipa and Dido are, admittedly, different. While Dido sings to the audience to “remember me, but forget my fate” and subsequently commits suicide, Dua Lipa scribbles catchy mantras in her notebook (I like to imagine that she uses a fluffy-ended pen) and shares them with the world. But what neither of them do to cope is wallow, or thank their abandoner for the person he’s made them.
While Dido addresses her lover Aeneas (and the audience), Dua Lipa seems to address herself as she writes down her rules. In an age where the self is presented as more important than anything else, this feels poignant. To hear a pop star taking care of themselves by setting rules is a new phenomenon. We’re used to pop music that gushes with emotion, sentimentality, naughtiness, impulse – but this is a track about desire that's controllable, about love that Dua Lipa needs to end, and (to use an old cliché) about head prevailing over heart. It narrates a cold-blooded, painful, practical journey of finding your own way. Of course, while we know that, within the narrative, Dua is talking to herself, the second person imperative – “One: don’t pick up the phone”; “Two: don’t let him in; Three: don’t be his friend” etc – ostensibly addresses us. The combination of the advocating of self-care and having a pop star counsel us into not making decisions that are bad for us is quite a powerful one.
The theme of supportiveness is continued in the music video (below), as is the sense of conflicting emotions. The opening shot pans to a hotel named, in neon, ‘The Confidante’. The scene is of a group of women, whose roles and identities seem to be fluid and free-flowing between each other. There’s a sleepover vibe. One of the women accompanying Dua Lipa wipes out a heart she draws in the condensation on the bathroom mirror. They synchronise their movements. “Don’t let him in, you have to kick him out again” is choreographed with Dua Lipa opening the door, and being marched backwards into the room by another woman, who appears to be addressing her.
At the third repetition of the pre-chorus and chorus (“One: don’t pick up the phone…”), the choreography is also loosely repeated for the third time. But this time, roles are reversed: Dua Lipa stops her friend picking up the phone, and marches another backwards into the room. She’s regained power and control. She’s in a position to help others.
The dancers could be interpreted as being an extension of the self, the inner support network that allows Dua Lipa to implement the rules she's created. Or, they could be a real support network, a group of friends on duty to help her stick to her guns. Probably, it’s a combination of the two. But whatever the intention, the message is clear: it's not just that women support women. Women understand each other deeply. We feel each other's pain.
Although Dua Lipa's story is on a different level from the trauma faced by survivors of sexual assault and harassment, it's an appropriate song to have playing in the background of the #metoo movement. The women in the video are close-knit and supportive and viscerally feel the experiences of the others. When they brush each other’s hair in single file, there is a profound sense of calm supportiveness. The alternation in the lyrics between first person and second person (from “But my love, he doesn't love me, so I tell myself, I tell myself” to “You know he’s only calling cos he’s drunk and alone”) feels like the process that so many women are going through: recounting their story in their head, telling their story to others, counselling themselves, and counselling their friends. It's refreshing to have this process shown to us in a format as emotionally charged, yet gentle, as pop music. It’s even more refreshing when the music offers us a way of overcoming the experience without having to feel grateful for it.
Chanting the mantra gives Dua Lipa strength. This is apparent in the music video: her expressions change, her movements become more assertive, and, having been moping in a hotel room, she ends up outside in the sunshine. She goes from a Dido-esque tragic heroine, draping herself over furniture and floating barefoot down corridors, to assertive and sassy, handing out sage advice to her friends, and literally walking on water (I’m sure this is also an Important Metaphor™). We watch her solve her problems by sticking to her own rules. This pragmatism is empowering, and driven by an assertive tempo and powerful beat. But her call for "my love" retains its sadness. Before we can move on from anything, we have to acknowledge the pain. Women are healing collectively, and as individuals. Dua Lipa reminds us that sometimes something as simple and practical as a mantra can help us find strength from within.
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