In mid-March, the pop music world went into collective retreat. Tentpole festivals from Coachella to Bonnaroo were postponed; stadium tours were scrapped. Major artists, like Lady Gaga and Sam Smith, shelved their albums rather than risk appearing tone-deaf in an era of isolation and illness.
But one artist did just the opposite, choosing to rush out an album before its scheduled release: Dua Lipa. In an Instagram Live on March 23, the 24-year-old British pop star explained her decision: “I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing,” she said, through tears. “But the thing we need most at the moment is music; we need joy, and we need to be trying to see the light in all these situations.” While the relentlessly upbeat dance record Future Nostalgia might have seemed tonally discordant with the times, Lipa hoped it could manifest into existence a brighter world.
The gambit paid off. The album has been rapturously received by fans and critics—and even without the traditional marketing muscle of her label Warner Records, shot to number one in her home country of the U.K. and eight other countries, as well as #4 in the U.S. on the Billboard 200. In the week of the album’s release, Lipa snagged the title of the most streamed female artist on Spotify.
In the weeks since, Lipa has become one of the most prominent faces of pop culture in our virtual, global, socially distant existence. She’s become the stuff of service-oriented memes, cautioning us with her prescient lyrics, “Don’t show up/ Don’t come out”; she’s on Instagram Live, baking cakes, playing Uno and answering fan questions, her unguarded candor disarming the steely high glamour with which she presented during the first phase of her career.
And in quasi-live performances on The Late Late Show with James Corden and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, Lipa has set the tone for a new wave of audio-visual creativity forged under unprecedented constraints, embracing the lo-fi aesthetic of the moment while exploding its previously narrow confines. Her constant presence and ever-evolving output has provided some semblance of normalcy for many—and also reinforced the crucial role that pop music can play in times of crisis. “It’s always more interesting to get out of my comfort zone; to make it as crazy as possible,” Lipa tells TIME. “If it doesn’t turn out, then fine—but at least we tried.”
2020 was supposed to be a pivotal year for Lipa, who was hoping to build on the success of her self-titled debut album, which netted her a 2019 Grammy Award for Best New Artist and more than 3 billion YouTube views (the majority of them thanks to the relentless global smash “New Rules”). Her year was mapped out to a tee: She would perform on Saturday Night Live on March 28, release her highly anticipated second album Future Nostalgia on April 3, and then embark on an 85-date arena global tour. “2020 sounded like such a magical number,” she says. “I thought I’d be listening to the record out in bars and clubs, and performing all over the world.”
But when coronavirus began spreading across the globe in the weeks before her scheduled album release, Lipa was thrown into what she calls an “emotional rollercoaster.” Most other major artists were choosing to postpone their albums. On a personal level, her musical collaborator Andrew Watt, who co-wrote and co-produced her upcoming single “Break My Heart,” had contracted the virus and fallen ill. Her London apartment had flooded, forcing her into quarantine in an Airbnb—and on March 23, the album leaked online, two weeks early.
“I was thinking of maybe moving the album, putting it out at a later time when things weren’t feeling so heavy,” she says. “But when I was playing devil’s advocate with myself, I kept going back to the fact that I made this record to get away from any anxieties and pressures of making a second record—to just have fun and dance.”
When Lipa released the disco-influenced album on March 27, it was met with glowing reviews and online adoration. Fans gravitated in particular to two songs that, while written and recorded before the pandemic, seemed to be eerily apt blueprints for social distancing: In “Don’t Start Now,” Lipa commands an ex-flame to stay in rather than chasing after her, and in “Break My Heart,” she laments, “I should have stayed at home / ‘Cause I was doing better alone.” The two sets of lyrics were soon inserted into memes and PSAs. Vulture, and others online, dubbed Lipa the “Queen of Quarantine.”
‘We’re going to need quite a few green screens’
While fans gave the album a strong start, the promotional avenues typically used to sustain its momentum—from talk show performances to billboards—had all but vanished. In the first week, Lipa went all in on Instagram Live streams, seemingly logging on every day from a new corner of her Airbnb to chat with Miley Cyrus, dance to her record or explain specific lyrics to her 43 million followers.
But Lipa was entering a crowded field. Instagram Live was flooded with bored celebrities at home, spinning DJ sets, cooking, chatting with their friends. Many more had taken to playing acoustic living room shows, which seemed to increase by the dozens daily. While Lipa wanted to perform her new songs, she and her team didn’t see much opportunity in this musical format, which was mostly characterized by dimly lit iPhone camerawork, acoustic guitar picking, glitchy vocal acrobatics and awkward monologues.
“I didn’t want us to feel like we had to put on a simple performance just because we’re working from home,” she says.
As Lipa and her team threw around ideas, they also realized that going in the opposite direction—toward the spectacle and maximalism that had characterized Lipa’s recent live sets, like the 34-woman dance routine on the MTV EMAs or roller derby on the Voice finale—could also backfire. “The performances we have not enjoyed recently are the ones that sounded really, really professional—a rich person in their expensive house with a really expensive microphone,” William Bowerman, Lipa’s musical director, tells TIME. “There’s no joy or togetherness in them.”
Eventually, Lipa and her team landed on a hybrid aesthetic, imbuing the blocky, chaotic, communal charm of Zoom with precise compositional dynamism. For her first quarantine performance—of “Don’t Start Now” on The Late Late Show—11 dancers and band members, each in their own grainy square, grooved and twirled around Lipa as she sang through her laptop. Liberated from the obligation to dance or carry the whole performance, she stuck out her tongue and made faces, as if only surrounded by her friends.
The end result possessed a strange duality: it called attention to each member’s isolation while also conjuring the kineticism of tight-knit physical community. The video quickly racked up a million streams on YouTube.
“Don’t Start Now” was proof that quarantine performances didn’t have to be uniform—a minor but welcome reassurance to music fans looking at a potentially long road before experiencing live performances in physical venues. It was also only the beginning of Lipa’s experimentation with form. “As soon as we had done the Zoom thing on Corden, we were done with it,” Bowerman says.
Lipa, brainstorming ideas for a performance of “Break My Heart” on The Tonight Show, recalled a segment on Zane Lowe’s MTV2 show Gonzo in which Lowe interviewed the White Stripes in front of a flickering green screen. “I loved the feel of it: super lo-fi but with so much movement,” she says. “I sent it to William and was like, ‘How do I do this, but make everyone appear in the background?’ He was like, ‘Okay, we’re going to need quite a few green screens.’”
Bowerman and tour director Pete Abbott sent green screens to 12 performers, who unwrapped and installed them with some guidance from a video team. A stylist gave hair and makeup tips through WhatsApp; a choreographer guided the six dancers, dressed in complementary color-blocked outfits, through euphoric movements. Eventually, three video editors stitched it all together, so that the dancers’ fuzzy silhouettes flitted in and out like ghosts, and a seated Lipa raced through a whirlwind of now-foreign settings, including crowded city streets, subway cars and Fallon’s ritzy Tonight Show set.
“She’s literally in her living room and still gave us visuals, choreo and vocals!! Literally who is doing it like her??” wrote one YouTube commenter.
But the video, while carefully composed, was also gratifyingly imperfect. “If you watch one of the singers, you can see her house through her legs because the green screen hasn’t quite worked,” Bowerman says. “We wanted to get that DIY feeling that’s so enjoyable about all this.”
A new wave of creativity in remote performances
The second wave of quarantine performances looks a bit different, with other artists moving beyond the unplugged one-shot aesthetic. Rita Ora’s performance of “How to Be Lonely” on the Tonight Show was edited choppily to resemble a film roll. On Global Citizen’s Together at Home, the members of the K-pop group SuperM drifted across the screen in their own Facetime-style thumbnails while lifting weights and building model boats. On the same show, a performance of John Legend’s new song “Bigger Love” used some clever sleight-of-hand editing to build a romantic narrative around two quarantined dancing couples.
“People are going to copy Dua,” Bowerman, who also works with Calvin Harris, Sean Paul and Jason Derulo, says. “She’s always leading the way.”
Sure enough, other pop stars have begun to reemerge, now that it’s clear that listeners are eager for major releases. Charli XCX is recording an album in quarantine; Lady Gaga led the Global Citizen event; Kelly Clarkson jumped into the fray with a new single, “I Dare You.”
When these three and many others make their full return, Lipa’s output will already look different than it does now. She’s currently at work preparing her next performance: a crowdsourced version of “Break My Heart,” for which she’s sent out a callout to fans asking for their own renditions of the song. “It’s a performance that I honestly haven’t been offered to do yet,” she says, laughing.
On Thursday, she led a star-studded rendition of the Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These” to benefit BBC’s Children in Need and Comic Relief. And every day, Lipa says she’s constantly sending new ideas to her team: she hopes to do a remote studio session with a producer, create an animated music video and send out personal zines to fans. “She sometimes wants to do something and I go, ‘really?’ And she’s always right. She’s always ahead of us,” Bowerman says.
Lipa’s second album rollout couldn’t have been more different from what she had planned. But the circumstances have pushed her to improvise—and in the process, become another kind of artist and public figure. “There’s so much we can come up with,” she says. “Maybe it’s our duty to make things a little easier for people at home.”