What do you want from a pop star? Personally, I don’t want anything too ambitious. I want bright melodic hooks that edge into melancholy, spiky basslines that drill into my brain, and uncomplicated lyrics that speak frankly of love and longing — preferably delivered by a gorgeous female firing a metric ton of attitude straight at the camera. I want aural drama I can dance to, with my mind switched off and my senses saturated, basic and universal feelings pulsing through me to the beat. Or, as Wordsworth might have put it, I want the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion, recollected if not in tranquillity then in a studio with lots of synths the day after a horrible break-up.
I am, therefore, probably not the ideal candidate for Dua Lipa’s podcast venture At Your Service, nor her accompanying free newsletter Service 95 — both given glowing profiles in the Sunday Times last weekend. Back in the Sixties and Seventies, French philosophers such as Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault were fond of saying that an understanding of an author’s biography or intentions are largely irrelevant to artistic appreciation. This may be patent nonsense when it comes to novels, but it surely works for pop songs — probably because they aren’t art at all and were never supposed to be.
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I don’t care about the actual personality of a star, whether she writes her own music, what her inspiration was, whether she is clever or funny, what traumas lie in her past, how extensive her charitable work is, or what her views are on social justice. I may have well-known feminist tendencies, but in pop musical terms I’m more of a commitment-phobe who just wants to be able to enjoy a pleasantly undemanding high from a beautiful female for three minutes without having to listen to her talk afterwards.
Based on these limited requirements, I have loved Lipa for a good while now. Her early hit New Rules is a classic of the kick-him-to-the-curb genre, and the accompanying video tribute to the consolations of sisterhood is stylish and witty as hell. Her most recent album Future Nostalgia is, as the kids say, an absolute banger — full of gratifyingly impersonal dance-pop and electronic, delivered in a smoky, amber voice and with her characteristic blank-faced insolence. She looks like a goddess, and her songs tend to stick to the only things that matter in the world of pop: sex, love, heartache, and picking yourself up again afterwards. In other words, she should be perfect, except that now I’ve listened to five episodes of At Your Service and read several articles from Service 95 and everything is ruined.
For it turns out that, all this time, Lipa — 15th for worldwide listens on Spotify this month — has been leading a double life. Apparently not satisfied with the daily grind of making apocalyptically tasteless outfits look superhot for Instagram, she has also been commissioning articles for her newsletter on the Russian kleptocracy, compiling lists of which art museums to visit in Japan, enthusing about her favourite novels, and learning Spanish so she can discuss the symbolism in Almodóvar films with the director himself. Other podcast guests have included Nobel Peace prize winner Nadia Murad on sexual slavery, Monica Lewinsky on social media influence, Russell Brand on himself, and film-maker Greta Gerwig, who at one point in her interview reads out a lengthy quotation from Joan Didion. In short, Dua Lipa is a very dark horse.
Though these revelations about the star have come as a bit of a shock to me, looking back I now see the signs were there. After all, a song lyric of hers includes the line: “You want a timeless song, I wanna change the game/ Like modern architecture, John Lautner coming your way”. Indeed, now that I am forced to contemplate Lipa’s actual personality and history, I find the worst of all outcomes: an interesting, fully-dimensional person with a fascinating backstory.
Her family are from Kosovo, and originally Muslim. One of her grandfathers was the Head of the Kosovo Institute of History (improbably pictured here having lunch in the Sixties with the future grandfather of another dazzling British-Albanian pop sensation, Rita Ora). Lipa herself was born in London in 1995 after her parents moved there fleeing the war, but by 2008 and following Kosovan independence they moved back to Albania. Two years later, she returned to London aged 15, living without family, and trying to break into the music business while doing GCSEs (her mother reportedly used to fly over for parent evenings). She left school with four A-levels and a management deal. Personality-wise, she seems clever, grounded, philanthropically-minded, and very well-organised. (At one point on the podcast, she reports that “every part of my day is planned to the minute”.) She also exhibits a strong Albanian nationalist streak, unafraid to wade into the minefield of Balkan politics, and talking proudly of her grandfather’s refusal to rewrite Kosovan history to suit Serbian rulers.
Given her musical talent, supernatural good looks, and the fact she’s only 27, all of this Renaissance Woman stuff would be completely unbearable if perfectly executed. Luckily, though, it has some endearing flaws. On the podcast, Lipa’s vocally-fried Parliament Hill drawl, coupled with her endless positivity and enthusiastic talk of what “inspires” and “speaks to her”, gets a bit much after a while (sample exclamation: “I love Joan Didion!”). Her newsletter, meanwhile — mostly composed of writing she has commissioned from others — may aspire to be “the ultimate cultural concierge”, but in practice is more like a weird smorgasbord of clashing content and a treasure trove of inadvertent comedy.
I assume the newsletter’s actual audience must be young Lipa fans the world over. When you subscribe, you get a choice of languages, and there is the odd explanatory aside as if for schoolchildren (for instance: “Until 1991, Russia was ruled by communists; there was almost no private property and everything valuable belonged to the state.”). But otherwise, there is very little attempt to cater to audience expectations. The dominant idiom is that of the blandly judgemental world of luxury women’s magazines, with a distinct whiff of back-of-the-plane-seat travel mag thrown in.
As with women’s magazine writing generally, the main underlying premise seems to be to educate readers about whichever social norms are currently hot. In a po-faced tone, nearly every sentence implicitly tells you what a young girl should think, do, admire, buy, or overcome her presumed prejudices to accept. (“Kodo Nishimura loves makeup, nice clothes, and serving the Buddhist community as a monk at the temple where he grew up”). Lipa does her bit by supplying endless top-five lists: her five favourite skincare products, sex books, vitamins, things to do in Tirana, or “pieces of pop culture presenting norm-defying views on womanhood”.
Predictably, there is quite a lot of American social justice-style guilt-tripping here, much of it blatantly at odds with the specifics of Lipa’s cultural allure in practice. Down with fatphobia, impossible beauty standards, and rape culture; up with wellness, self-care, sex toys made out of ocean-bound plastic, and making the outdoors inclusive for drag queens. Other highlights involve learning how creative designer-types spend their days (“I begin working from the moment I wake up, but I take breaks throughout the day so I can have a long bath, make lunch and walk my whippet, Merlin”); and finding out about the “The Restaurateur With Bipolar Disorder Serving A Mood-Altering Menu” (“When dining, guests are asked to fill out a form about how they are currently feeling. Understanding the guest’s current emotional state allows Rafael to prepare and personalise a menu tailored to each diner.”).
Occasionally though, something anarchically opinionated slips through: a jarringly forthright anti-Russian piece on the relevance of the Ukraine war for Georgia, for instance, or an argument for a more proactive response to the monkeypox outbreak among gay and bisexual men. There’s an article arguing for the legalisation of all drugs in Mexico, and another suggesting that Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi has become an international scapegoat. Yes, of course, the underlying politics throughout is liberal individualist self-realisation to-the-max. This is utterly unsurprising for a young woman with roots in a post-communist country, and for whom capitalism has so unambiguously worked. But there’s also an honourable attempt here to encourage an international outlook in a young fanbase. Rather than getting sniffy about the specifics, perhaps we should think more positively — as Lipa herself would no doubt encourage us to do — and see the benefit of this project as encouraging outward-looking habits of mind in an insular world.
As for me, though, I fear my enjoyment of the music is definitively over. I’ll never be able to hear Lipa in quite the same lobotomised way again. Henceforth, I’m switching my allegiance to Rita Ora, still pleasingly one-dimensional in my mind, equally gorgeous, and responsible for this little bit of pop heaven among other things. Worryingly, I see Ora has been interviewed for Louis Theroux’s new BBC series, on iPlayer at the moment. I haven’t watched and I’m not going to. If it turns out she is writing a play, founding a charitable trust, or learning Sanskrit in her spare time, please don’t tell me — I don’t want to know.
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