It’s telling to see these announcements couched in terms of emotion (“feels”) and morality (“right”). When the isolation regime first descended on many parts of America a few weeks ago, I wrote about how the crisis might change the way people hear music for a time. Songs about touch and closeness might become viscerally yuckier; exuberant sing-alongs can ruin the fragile calm of self-quarantine. Moreover, the activities music is so often used for have been snipped away. Bars, concerts, and festivals are obviously out—but so are commutes, gym routines, and offices in which background noise needed to be drowned out. Sure enough, early reports indicate that the use of services such as Spotify has fallen during social isolation, especially when it comes to pop.
Yet Lipa made a smart bet. Sweaty, sexy, silly dance songs have, in some ways, become crucial to the emerging aesthetic of isolation. Future Nostalgia is making a strong play for charts worldwide while inspiring dance videos and appreciative reviews. What’s fascinating is that Lipa hasn’t so much given fans an escape from the crisis as given them something oddly apt for it. One song’s refrain is “I should have stayed at home, ‘cuz I was doing better alone.” Another’s: “Don’t show up / don’t come out.” These tunes have been compared to the CDC guidelines; med students have turned them into PSAs; the title “Quarantine Queen” has started following Lipa around. The songs were recorded before the crisis, of course. But something in them is proving useful. Art such as hers, social isolation is making clear, has never just been for going out. It’s been for thriving in solitude.
Lipa is not the only pop artist connecting right now. “The city’s cold and empty / no one’s around to judge me,” yelps Abel Tesfaye on the first No. 1 song of the coronavirus era. With desperate lyrics about withdrawal, lack of touch, and barren streets, the Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights” has now ended the reign of Roddy Ricch’s “The Box” at the top of the Billboard Hot 100. The sound of the Weeknd’s smash is not as morose as its accidentally timely themes might suggest. Rather, it surges on magma-orange synths and punk drumming. It sounds like a lost track from the Top Gun soundtrack, or something you’d hear in a 1987 step class.
Indeed, “Blinding Lights” owes much of its popularity to Richard Simmons imitations. In a hugely replicated TikTok meme set to the song, trios of friends jog into the frame and go full aerobics-core by grinning and jazz-hands-ing into the camera. The trend began in early March, and as the coronavirus crisis has worn on, it has taken on special meaning. Teens cooped up at home have taught their parents the choreography. Nurses in masks have turned in sterling renditions of it. The dancers in these videos may not stand a full six feet away from one another, but they do stand apart in a way that feels made for social-distance aesthetics. More important, with jackal smiles and twitchy foot movements, the performers’ energy seems to clash with their banal backdrops. It’s the perfect meme for a nation of people bouncing off the walls.
This era has already seen many a songwriter try to capture the stir-crazy mood in a more literal way. “Bored in the house, and I’m in the house bored” natters the rapper Curtis Roach on a hit TikTok jingle. Another emcee, Tierra Whack, put on a wig and recorded a loopy new tune called “Stuck.” Cardi B screaming about the coronavirus over a trap beat has become inescapable online. These tracks are refreshing, but one almost hopes that they not outlive their novelty factor. They don’t really provide anything but humorous validation for what we all know to be true—that isolation is a drag.