Many of the best Dua Lipa songs start with an easily recordable concept – “Physical”, “Levitating”, “Cool” – and go out from there. Her music is smooth, pounding and appealingly frosty: industrial club pop that takes history into account and shows off the latest in polish and panache.
However, the numbers are very tightly wound. Lipa is a slightly regal singer who often sounds far away from the hissing and purring of her production, as if she were performing on the song and not along. Great dancefloor-oriented music often implies abandonment, but Lipa exudes control. She’s a pop superstar, but not quite a full pop personality.
Perhaps that’s why she came to Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night, like the other 20,000 in attendance, to sing along to Dua Lipa songs.
That, of course, is what many have been doing in recent years, especially the two since the release of Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia”, one of the first outstanding albums of the Covid era. It was for a while the soundtrack to our collective hallucination of the possibilities robbed by social isolation, a series of clinically ecstatic, decidedly inflexible anthems designed for megaclubs that wouldn’t reopen for months or more.
In many ways, Lipa, 26, is a pop superstar for lesser times. From Madonna to Katy Perry to Lady Gaga to Rihanna to Billie Eilish, the most successful figures in the last decades of pop music built worlds. They are as much philosophers of the body and aesthetics as of sound.
Lipa’s music, however, does not ask questions or suggest alternative interpretations. It’s—especially on songs like the lavish “New Rules” and “Electricity” (created with Mark Ronson and Diplo, working under the Chicago house music-calling name Silk City)—perhaps overly studious, though in the best way. Sometimes Lipa sounds like she’s making a dedicated analysis of early 1990s club pop, not so much a nostalgic as a historical reenactor.
But Lipa’s ambition is not academic, but aimed at dominance. And that takes more than locating recreations. This performance, part of her Future Nostalgia Tour, had the thrill of listening to Lipa songs on the radio – a great way to lose yourself when you have to keep your eyes on the road.
Given the huge popularity of Lipa’s music, the show was modest, a concept-less production that seriously undermined the stadium’s boundaries. A meager arrangement of balloons fell from the rafters during ‘One Kiss’. Lipa and her dancers seeped through a pro forma umbrella routine during “New Rules.” Later, a handful of orbs and stars dangled limp from the ceiling. During ‘We’re Good’, Lipa sat onstage singing, while an inflatable lobster floated nearby… menacing? Not quite that. More blurry. (The accompanying animation on the big screen at the back of the stage was a reminder of Perry’s brutality, which is generally not part of Lipa’s arsenal.)
Throughout the night, Lipa was flanked by up to 10 dancers and two roller skaters. She is a laborious dancer, choosing a choreography that emphasizes small, sharp movements while telegraphing a big sentiment: a power stamp to the end of the catwalk on ‘New Rules’, an extreme dose of hair on ‘Future Nostalgia’. ‘ waves. But rarely did the theater of the presentation match the drama of the songs themselves.
As for the songs, the arrangements were faithful and emphatic – filling the space that the events on stage didn’t. Lipa never sang more powerfully than the arsenal of backing vocalists and pre-recorded vocals that amplified her. On her albums, she sings with the occasional growl, but whenever those moments occurred here, she seemed to withdraw from the rigor. (Lipa’s dancers were given an extensive video introduction at the beginning of the show. At the end of the evening, she introduced her bandmates by name, but — emphatically? — not her backing singers.)
It wasn’t unpleasant – “Break My Heart” was upbeat, “Don’t Start Now” was spicy, “Cool” was ethereal. But these were closed loops, reinforcing feelings that had already been experienced more than starting points for growth. All in all, inhibition was more important than risk—a perfect recreation of a time when we were all inside, wondering if we’d ever be set free.