She’s one of the fastest-rising pop stars and is intent on using her voice for more than music – Dua Lipa is determined to dance, but also stand for something.
Over the past 12 months, a post-modern revolution has been afoot. Driven by YouTube, Instagram, and, most of all, video social media apps TikTok and Dubsmash, there has been an unstoppable wave of young people putting their own spin on mixtape/playlist culture. The example we’re specifically talking about is a highly addictive dance routine created by 19-year-old Filipino-Australian TikToker Hannah Balanay, to the tune of Dua Lipa’s latest anthem of independence, “Don’t Start Now.” The #DuaLipaChallenge, as it’s known, is one of the biggest viral dances on the platform. The song itself features in at least four million TikTok videos – and it’s less than eight months old.
“What dance?!” exclaims Lipa, when she learns of the phenomenon. Having created her own TikTok account days before, she’s been so on the move that she’s been oblivious to the internet-fuelled frenzy around her song. “I need to see this!” exclaims the 24-year-old pop star. “This is incredible – I can’t believe it. They’re all so good,” she says, laughing as she flicks through them. Unlike the negativity found on Twitter and Instagram, the online tribes of (mostly female) creators dancing in their bedrooms with friends on TikTok encompass everything Lipa’s music stands for: community, freedom, empowerment, acceptance, creativity, and sentimentality. “It’s important to me to show unity between women,” she says. “We should be seeing more girls, more diversity, more togetherness. For so long, people have pitted women being against each other. That’s not how it should be.” Lipa not only makes music for celebrating your girl gang, her entire creative output is based on it.
Born in London to Kosovo-Albanian parents, and raised in Kosovo for four years, until she moved back to the UK alone at 15 to pursue singing, Lipa’s girlfriends became her family and are still among the most important people in her life. If you look at the
videos of her major hits “Blow Your Mind (Mwah),” “IDGAF,” and “New Rules,” you’ll notice two things: the elegant and vibrantly stylized visuals set to an overture of feminism and how Lipa is constantly surrounded by a diverse army of women. “When I was creating the videos, it was almost like, ‘Well, obviously this is what I’m going to do.’ Because that’s where I feel most comfortable. When I’m supported or surrounded by other girls, it’s empowering” she says. “New Rules,” from her 2017 debut eponymous album, which has had more than two billion views on YouTube, was the result of stumbling upon a winning formula. “I created a video around my reality and my friends. It came across as strong female empowerment, which I’m so proud of and happy about. I continued with that because I love how it made other women feel, and how it makes my friends and sister feel. I never knew it was going to do what it did,” she continues. “It completely changed my life.”
A universal leveler between celebrity and fans is social media. For Lipa, it’s where she’s learned the names and faces of her supporters. It’s where shrine accounts dedicated to sharing the many pap shots of her also live – particularly since she began dating Anwar Hadid, singer and younger brother to Bella and Gigi last year. But Lipa admits the love/hate relationship has become asymmetrical and describes social media as a breeding ground for anxiety. “I grew up with social media; it’s always been fun,” she says. “But it became difficult, especially on Twitter, towards the end of my first album campaign. The more fun things I had to do, or the bigger things got, there would be more opinions and negativity… I didn’t feel supported.”
Lipa admits that without a social media detox, her second album, Future Nostalgia, wouldn’t have happened. “I probably would’ve gone into a vicious cycle of trying to recreate the same thing,” she shrugs. During her detox, the singer undertook her own research, as seen in a talk she did for the Cambridge Union in November 2019. “I looked at the impact social media has on women and what is expected of us, and the differences between male and female artists,” she explains. “We need to figure out a way to be kinder to ourselves and each other, instead of bring each other down… I’m not even saying, like, Oh, I want people to be nicer to me, I think we should be creating safer environments in general for everyone. Words affect people. We’re losing touch with empathy, compassion, and kindness.”
As an artist, Lipa is incandescent, but she also captures the essence of how it feels to be a young woman in a post-#MeToo era by canvassing sexuality, intelligence, power, vulnerability, and playfulness. And naturally, Future Nostalgia reflects this. “Don’t Start Now” is an effervescent power bop about how she’s “so moved on it’s scary” from a terrible breakup – something that Lipa is well versed in, if her oeuvre and admission about writing from experience, is anything to go by. The final stamp, “Boys Will Be Boys,” is much more poignant and written by Lipa as a conversation starter. “It’s about the growing pains of what it’s like to be a girl,” she says. “For me, that was walking home from school and putting keys through my knuckles. So much of the human experience for women revolves around men; how they make us feel, whether that is good or bad.” She adds, “Girls have to go through so much. You cover up yourself to avoid confrontation from men, avoid sexual harassment, people throwing words or catcalling. We change our ways to fit somebody else’s lifestyle. It’s sad.” Though not always comfortable with her role model status, Lipa wants the song to be taken as a guiding light for her young fans. “I want them to be able to listen to it and pose questions, and figure out a way to change that feeling so we don’t have to go through the same thing for so many generations.”
It’s a well-worn cliché in music journalism to talk of a new album being “the artist at their most honest,” but compared to her hit debut, Future Nostalgia is indeed more considered, artistic, and authentic. It feels familiar, yet not. Furthermore, it slaps – this album is a nonstop disco, with Lipa flexing her musicology muscle, revealing her as a postmodern pop artist intrinsically wrapped in the now. “I had to shut off the craziness,” she says. “I went into the studio with my friends and decided that all I wanted to do was make music that made me happy and made me dance. I want to have fun.”
While the accolades are certain to continue pouring in, Lipa is ambitious, focused, and has aspirations beyond the associated superlatives of fame (though an Album of the Year Grammy nomination is up there). “I want to do this for as long as I can and still feel hungry,” she says. “But I would love to sign artists at some point, support young girls in the industry. That’s a big dream of mine.” In 2016, Lipa set up the Sunny Hill Foundation in Prishtina, Kosovo with her father, a charity to support an oft-forgotten generation of young people in her homeland. “We’re opening an arts and innovation center this year. We’ve got three young artists in Kosovo scholarships to attend art school in Los Angeles,” she says. “Music’s my first love but I want to keep pushing with this kind of stuff, and give kids a leg-up.”
As one of the few British female artists in the top echelon of the charts at the moment, Lipa is a self-appointed spokesperson for young women in the UK and takes advantage of every public speaking event to champion equality in creative industries. At the base level of what she does, Lipa, with her creative autonomy and empathetic, genuine attitude, is transforming the role of a modern-day pop star, and making it look effortless. “I think it’s important to do things that you believe in,” she says. “Being a part of this feminist wave in music without even initially thinking about it is something I’m so proud of, because of the impact it has.”
When quizzed on how she sees pop culture’s role changing with the current state of the world, particularly among young people, Lipa offers, “For me, everything that’s happening in the world at the moment can be hard to digest at times. With this album, I wanted to try to get away from the current climate.” She makes the point, after all, that music harnesses the power of escapism. “I wanted to make it a bit easier for me to get out of bed and not think about the negative things that are going on all the time. The most important thing is to be authentic. That’s what makes it relatable. You never know what the next thing is that could unite people,” she says with a shrug. “What is amazing is that more artists are speaking up about important things. That is the most you can really hope for from pop culture.”
Originally published on Vogue.com.au
Photography Charles Dennington
Style Jillian Davison