As pandemic deaths soared, the height of governmental lockdowns in late 2020 and early 2021 ushered the mental health crisis to the homes of people from Java, Indonesia, to Jackson, Michigan. The Japanese government even appointed a Minister for Loneliness to tackle soaring suicide rates. The Oxford English Dictionary chose not a single word for the benchmark “Word of the Year” distinction but rather highlighted the ways the pandemic altered our shared vocabularies. Fundamentally anti-social, counter-social, and isolating words like “circuit breaker,” “isolation,” “lockdown,” “shelter-in-place,” “Zoom,” “bubbles,” “face masks,” and “staycation” took a new prominent place in the common tongue.
I don’t have to tell you, or anyone, this. We isolated, wore masks obscuring our most fundamentally human feature, and lost loved ones whose funerals were delayed or non-existent. We didn’t see our friends outside of our bubbles, that is if we were lucky enough to have a bubble in the first place. I think it might have been the only instance in my lifetime where the entire world simultaneously shared a feeling: loneliness.
At the summit of this loneliness and less than a month after Japan’s creation of the Minister for Loneliness, the Kosovo Albanian British pop-superstar Dua Lipa released one of the happiest, funkiest, and fundamentally social albums that I can remember.
Future Nostalgia was a moment of unadulterated joy and connection in a season of depression and isolation. I am terrible at talking or writing about music, and I’m not sure I can describe why, but Dua Lipa seems to understand the fundamental law of the human face: to use the words of the French-Lithuianian Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, the first thing the face says is “do not kill me.” In a way that most stadium-level pop-stars do not, she understands the degree to which we are fundamentally social creatures ensnared in shared experiences, pleasures, memories, and pains.
In “Love Again,” one of her more popular radio yarns, she shows this with effortless style in a subject progression:
I never thought that I would find a way out
I never thought I’d hear my heart beat so loud
I can’t believe there’s something left in my chest anymore
Oh, goddamn, you got me in love again
(We’re in love, we’re in love)
(We’re in love, we’re in love, oh, oh)
It’s so simple, unspecific, and perhaps accidental, but the lyrics progress from first (“I” to second (“you”) to first-person plural (“we”)—creating an emotional and story movement that then does the same. To experience love, that deepest of human connections, is to move from an “I” to a “we.”
Dua Lipa is one of the most erotic artists in the pop-music industry. Let me explain.
In Greek, eros is not simply sexual arousal. According to one modern dictionary, it’s “the sum of life-preserving instincts that are manifested as impulses to gratify basic needs, as sublimated impulses, and as impulses to protect and preserve the body and mind.” It’s a love of creative impulse, certainly including sex but by no means being limited to it. Most importantly, eros has always struck me as the love that most crucially requires reciprocation to meet the standard of being love. The same doesn’t seem true for hesed (steadfast, of loving kindness), another biblical term for love. Hesed can be a one-way road. One party can “love” another unrequited. But not eros. That sort of love requires others. In this sense, I think Dua Lipa is one of the great erotic artists of the moment.
Even, perhaps especially, in her hornier bops like “Love is Religion,” Lipa displays her mastery over eros by meeting her subject material with descriptors of more substantial and spiritual gravity:
I can be your gold, I can be your delight
I can feed your soul, I can be your sacrifice
I can be forever, little touch of Heaven for life
Put your hands together and close your eyes
It’s a little cheesy lyrically, but that strikes me as the point. It’s not difficult to imagine Majnun (“The Madman” in Arabic) singing these lines to Layla, in the famous Arabic love story sometimes referred to as the “Muslim world’s Romeo and Juliet.” Given Lipa’s own background, I wouldn’t be surprised if Majnun’s excessively cheesy seductions and longings were part of her literary imagination. Regardless, the mysterious and abstract longing of the lover in “Love is Religion” carries the same cheesy eminence as Nizami Ganjavi’s Majnun.
An unreleased song (although an easily available song—illegally, I presume) titled “Secrets,” which appears to have been left off Future Nostalgia, captures this experience the best:
We don’t have to say that we’re lovers
Even though we’re touching each other
Can you keep it under the covers?
‘Cause I wanna keep it
Solo where nobody can chime in
This secret “fling” that doesn’t reach Lipa’s threshold for “love”—the ultimate antidote to loneliness—is described in the almost divinatory pandemic language of “Solo.” The couple feel enough, share enough, to create physical intimacy—but not enough to share in each other. The sexual partner here doesn’t seem to make it into Lipa’s bubble.
It was an irony, of course. The Kosovo Albanian singer received no prophecies about the pandemic, and her album was likely completed before most Westerners had ever heard of the city of “Wuhan.” It would have been the perfect album to sit on, like the major movie studios that waited for the return of large social gatherings. Despite being nearly ubiquitous, maybe it would have dominated the radio and clubs even more than it already has.
Instead, it was a moment of grace. A reminder that we are social creatures.
For this reason (and more), I’m thankful for Dua Lipa and her “HD glitz.”