Dua Lipa Brings Her Lockdown Anthems to the Arena

Many of the best Dua Lipa songs start with an easily absorbable concept — “Physical,” “Levitating,” “Cool” — and emanate outward from there. Her music is fleet, stomping and appealingly icy: industrial-grade club-pop that’s mindful of history while flaunting the latest in polish and panache.

The songs are very tightly wound, though. Lipa is a lightly regal singer who often sounds removed from the hiss and purr of her production, as if she’s performing to the track and not with it. Great dance-floor-oriented music often connotes abandon, but Lipa exudes control. She’s a pop superstar, but not quite a full pop personality.

Maybe that’s why on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, she, like the other 20,000 or so people in attendance, came to sing along to Dua Lipa songs.

That is, naturally, what many have been doing for the past few years, especially the two since the release of Lipa’s “Future Nostalgia,” one of the first excellent albums of the Covid era. It was, for a little while, the soundtrack of our collective hallucination about the possibilities that had been wrested away by social isolation, a set of clinically ecstatic, pointedly unbendable anthems designed for megaclubs that wouldn’t reopen for months or more.

In many ways, Lipa, 26, is a pop superstar for diminished times. From Madonna to Katy Perry to Lady Gaga to Rihanna to Billie Eilish, the most successful figures in the last few decades of pop music built worlds. They are philosophers of the body and aesthetics as much as sound.

Lipa’s music doesn’t ask questions, though, or suggest alternate interpretations. It is — especially on songs like the buoyant “New Rules” and “Electricity” (made with Mark Ronson and Diplo, working under the Chicago house music-evoking name Silk City) — perhaps overly studious, though in the best way. At times, Lipa sounds like she’s doing devoted analysis of the club-pop of the early 1990s, not a nostalgist so much as a historical re-enactor.

But Lipa’s ambition isn’t academic-scaled, it’s domination-focused. And that requires something more than pinpoint recreations. This performance, part of her Future Nostalgia Tour, had the thrill of listening to Lipa songs on the radio — a wonderful way to lose yourself when you have to keep your eyes on the road.

Given the sheer popularity of Lipa’s music, the show was modest, a concept-less, box-checking production that severely underplayed Lipa’s stadium-size goals. A meager arrangement of balloons dropped from the rafters during “One Kiss.” Lipa and her dancers oozed through a pro forma umbrella routine during “New Rules.” Later, a handful of orbs and stars limply dangled from the ceiling. During “We’re Good,” Lipa sat on the stage singing, while nearby, an inflatable lobster hovered … menacingly? Not quite that. More woozily. (The accompanying animation on the big screen at the back of the stage recalled Perry’s cheekiness, which is not generally part of Lipa’s arsenal.)

Throughout the night, Lipa was flanked by up to 10 dancers and two roller skaters. She is a labored dancer, choosing choreography that emphasizes small, tart movements while telegraphing big sentiment: a power stomp out to the end of the runway on “New Rules,” an extreme dose of hair whipping on “Future Nostalgia.” 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 — they filled the space that the happenings onstage did not. Lipa never sang more forcefully than the arsenal of backup singers and prerecorded vocals that were bolstering her. On her albums, she sings with an occasional growl, but whenever those moments arose here, she appeared to pull back from the rigor. (Lipa’s dancers were given an elaborate video introduction at the beginning of the show. At the end of the night, she introduced her band members by name, but — pointedly? — not her backup singers.)

It was not unpleasant — “Break My Heart” was cheerful, “Don’t Start Now” was punchy, “Cool” was ethereal. But these were closed loops, reinforcement of feelings already experienced more than jumping-off points for growth. All in all, inhibition outweighed risk — a perfect recreation of a time when we were all inside, wondering if we’d ever be set free.

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