House music: Dua Lipa’s architectural name drop, explained

The pop star’s latest album nods to the American architect John Lautner. Is it just a metaphor gone wrong, or does it create a world beyond the music?

Future Nostalgia, the latest album from Dua Lipa, is a labyrinth of references, from a nod to Blondie’s Rapture in Levitating’s rap – which also has a whiff of Tinie Tempah’s Pass Out – to appropriating the riff from INXS’s Need You Tonight on Break My Heart. Digging into the horn sample on Love Again turned into an exercise in postmodernity – it’s drawn from White Town’s Your Woman, which in fact samples Al Bowlly’s My Woman, which itself alludes to Chopin’s Funeral March (a composition that pops up in everything from Duke Ellington’s wah-wah era to the Star Wars score). The prominent sampling – more at home in hip-hop than pop – is combined with a disco-inspired sound that capitalises on pop’s constant duping and upcycling of its 60-year history.

But Lipa’s release goes one step further than intertextual pop references. Many reviews have noted that the album’s title is a nod to the 20th-century architect John Lautner, known for his role in developing the Googie style with buildings such as the Chemosphere, the Sheats-Goldstein residence and Silvertop. His work has been featured in a number of films, including the 1971 James Bond movie Diamonds Are Forever, and has inspired many iconic sets, including the car-themed diner in Pulp Fiction and Tony Stark’s mansion in the Iron Man series. Lautner is not the only architect of the period to have garnered a name drop in a pop song: Frank Lloyd Wright, of whom Lautner was a student, was memorialised by Simon and Garfunkel

The reference to Lautner is made all too clear in the opening lines of the title track:

You want a timeless song,

I wanna change the game,

Like modern architecture,

John Lautner coming your way.

The album has been criticised for favouring this obscure nod over a pop culture references. But as a scholar of comparative arts, interested in the way different art forms clash, complement and influence one another, my ears pricked up. How can an architectural reference shape the way we listen to a pop album? Was the namedrop a citation, to change the title from plagiarism to homage – or is there more to it? 

Lipa has stated that she originally planned to name the album Glass House. The Lautner reference makes sense as part of an extended metaphor, taking literal qualities of Lautner’s buildings and drawing out their idiomatic significance. ‘Can’t be a rolling stone if you live in a glass house,’ she sings later on the title track. It’s a play on the idiom ‘people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’, discouraging criticism of others for qualities you have yourself. In the context of the song’s defiant refrain announcing the arrival of a ‘female alpha’, it hints at the glass ceiling. Lipa’s idiomatic mashup of this and ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ indulges in some more musical nostalgia, not only referencing the septuagenarian rock band but also the songs that have drawn upon the latter idiom, such as Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone (which also extends the idiom’s eschewal of home), The Temptations’ Papa Was a Rolling Stone and the Muddy Waters song that inspired the band’s name. So – you can’t be a pop legend if you criticise others, or have those negative qualities, or don’t have a thick skin. Or something to that effect.

The twisting of these idioms is a microcosm for the musical practice of the album as designated by future nostalgia – a pastiche of moments in pop history made fresh. The lament ‘I would’ve/should’ve stayed at home’ that permeates the chorus has already taken on new meaning. By (perhaps inadvertently) encapsulating the unusual circumstances surrounding the album’s release – strictly enforced social distancing measures – the song is an artefact of the cultural moment that will, in time, be a reminder of 2020. 

By eliciting comparison with a more traditionally high brow form of art, Lipa makes a case for pop’s legitimacy as a form of art worthy of study – a combination of technical design and creative prowess – much as other developing media, such as fashion design, are full of references to canonical art forms. The most interesting effect of the reference from the perspective of multidisciplinary arts is its function as a visual cue that points towards an aesthetic world beyond the album. There are Lautner references in the music videos, from the holographic diamond in Physical that resembles Lautner’s Chemosphere to the interiors in Break My Heart that are a wink to Lautner’s aesthetic and its use in other pop culture touchstones. Using a pop album as the basis of an aesthetic beyond the music has become increasingly popular in recent years, including Beyonce’s Lemonade and Janelle Monae’s Dirty ComputerIt takes the concept album one step further, not only situating the songs in an overarching narrative but the album itself in its own experiential world. In other words, it’s easier to picture the town that Lipa’s album takes place in because we know what it’s buildings look like – a 60s’ vision of the future.

As one Lautner collaborator explains in the documentary Infinite Space, ‘he never built the same thing twice’. Maybe Lipa’s emulation of Lautner is as simple as that.