Queer Paranoia at the Dua Lipa Concert

Kurt David

I vaguely knew about Dua Lipa before I saw her in concert: pop star, Albanian, that hit single with Da Baby. Mostly I’d come to associate her with my friend Isaiah. He’d listened to Future Nostalgia on repeat as he drove around Columbus in the pandemic’s bleak winter, canvassing for a progressive congressional candidate. The campaign was doomed, his spirits were low. As he hauled himself from one neighborhood to the next, delivering request-forms for mail-in ballots, he latched onto Dua’s album, memorizing every word and belting his favorite tracks.

Isaiah is dangly-earring queer, so his obsession checked out, and when someone on Grindr mentioned Dua was playing a show that Saturday, I texted him right away. “Ahaha I hope you don’t hate me for this,” Isaiah said not an hour later, after booking us tickets. “Lol no I’m psyched!!” I wrote back. “THIS IS THE STUFF OF LIFE,” by which I meant $80-nosebleed seats to see a new friend’s patron saint of pop. The concert drew closer, I gorged myself on Dua’s music, and man after man on Grindr told me he had tickets, too. “Hehe,” one said, “I think all us gays are gonna be there.” I sent Isaiah screenshots, on which he mused, “Seeing all of your hookups from the past 6 months at the Dua Lipa concert: a poem.”

Curiously, this is not that poem.

Isaiah invited his friend from the campaign, Achinthya, to join us. The three of us left our car at Tuttle Park and walked across the bridge, glitter streaked around our eyes. “OK, so we have gay men, college gorls, and unwilling boyfriends,” Achinthya said, sizing up the crowd: sequined jumpsuits, bare midriffs, baseball caps. We waited in line for the metal detectors behind a gay best friend and his knot of women. “Bitch, you know I love Trolls,” he sassed one of them, mock-stumbling forward and flipping his imaginary hair. We climbed up to the terrace. We took one selfie with masks on, then one with them off. We grooved to Caroline Polachek, mesmerized by the strobe lights of her opening act. She sang about Bunny, a “rider,” which conjured for me a white rabbit behind the wheel of a Prius, one paw fiddling with the radio, whiskers twitching with the beat.

Polachek’s set ended. In the intermission, I took stock of the straight couple next to me. The man wore tiny rectangular glasses. An accountant by day, I imagined, who could rattle off the stats of not a few baseball players. He looked bored. He was on his phone, zooming in and out, in and out, on what looked like a grainy childhood photograph—his or someone else’s, I’m not sure. He occasionally showed his partner, and she responded with interest. They must be here for Dua, I figured.

And then five men in their late-twenties, early-thirties filed into the row behind us. Beards, beer bellies. Ill-fitting jeans and a Casear’s Palace tee under an unbuttoned plaid shirt. I’d bet most of them graduated from Ohio State, proud patriots of Buckeye nation. They held their IPAs on widely spread legs, buying each other rounds and tossing them back. They called each other “dude” with deep, self-assured voices. I studied the university’s athletic banners hung up around the stadium and wondered if these men were embroiled in some sort of elaborate mix-up.

I wasn’t just confused, though. I was afraid. I made a serious effort not to eavesdrop as I chatted with Isaiah and Achinthya, worried that some slur, right-wing rant, or off-color joke would ruin my night. It worked. I caught only the first half of their sentences: “Dude, what pissed me off was…” and “Listen, that…” But I was so on edge that I went grim, autofilling violent threats I’d heard similar boys and men make over the years. 

I tried to parse my fear. Did I think these men had come to a Dua Lipa concert ironically, ready to jeer at her many gay fans and make crude passes at women? Or that they were doing opposition research? No, I guess not. I found it hard to believe a bunch of former frat bros or present-day incels would waste so much time and money either on a lark or on espionage. But then where were their girlfriends, their fiancées, their wives? Was it somehow possible that I’d misread them—that they were, in fact, gay? I chose not to rope Isaiah or Achynthia into my spiral. I was waist-high in stereotypes, it was unflattering.

The stadium went dark. The accountant to my left whistled with two fingers. The men behind us chanted “Dua” so loud I pictured the quiver of their Adam’s apples, their neck veins bulging. I worked up a new theory: Dua Lipa was their sex fantasy, and they were here to oggle her. OK, I reasoned, that’s kind of funny. After all, we weren’t at a strip club. We were so far from Dua—who came out in neon yellow singing “Physical”—that we could really only see her on the jumbo screen. As she performed “New Rules” and the men all sang along (“And if you’re under him, you ain’t gettin’ over him”), I finally turned to Achynthia and Isaiah. “What the fuck is happening?” I shouted. Achynthia knew exactly what I meant. “You think they’re making fun of us, right?” she said. “I’m embarrassed!” Isaiah shook his head at us. “Dua Lipa,” he said, opening his eyes and arms wide, “is for everybody.”

I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t get there. On her heart-shaped stage, Dua fulminated against booty calls from ex-boyfriends. Her dancers swung transparent umbrellas around, two of them pirouetting on rollerblades. None of it, not even her volcanic beauty, felt intended for the type of men around me, men notorious for such fragile masculinity that companies market them soap shaped like hand grenades. So I stayed on queer alert. I heard one man say, “I will be so pissed if she…,” but again missed the rest. And then, finally, a complete sentence: “Come on, we have to figure out how to become one of those dancers.” I could not make heads or tails of it. I could turn up nothing insidious about wanting to be one of Dua Lipa’s back-up dancers.

A third of the way through the concert, the men were screaming, “I need your hands on me / sweet relief / pretty please,” so in the words of Dua herself, I did a full 180. These men had no ulterior motives. They loved Dua Lipa and her music, certainly much more than I did. I made a note on my phone to look up Eve K. Sedgwick’s critique of paranoia later. No longer worried I was the butt of the men’s joke, I started to enjoy myself, too, dancing and singing along with them. When the music for “One Kiss” started to play, the accountant raised the roof. During a slow song, Dua asked everyone to wave their phone lights around, and a guy behind me said, “Alright, fuck it,” before taking his out. Achynthia heard one of them repeating, “I am unwell, I am unwell,” like a mantra to breathe through his overwhelm.

By now I was straining to hear the men, transcribing every word I could. I dared them to slip up, to step out of their sheep’s polos and bare their wolf’s teeth. No luck. Unsurprisingly, they did find Dua Lipa sexy, and said as much, but often with a gentle awe: “She’s so hot, man.” At the end of the concert, some of them repeated “my wife” in what I think was a Borat voice—and then it was the ethics of Borat’s comedy that bugged me, not their projection of marital bliss with Dua. If I had a dollar for every high schooler who claimed Timothée Chalamet or Lil Uzi Vert as her husband, I could have covered all our Dua tickets. Besides, the men weren’t even lewd. I heard the same guy who’d “be so pissed if…” say later, “Dude, dude, you don’t understand, that right there is my song,” and I realized that’s probably what would have pissed him off: had Dua not played “Hallucinate,” his sleeper favorite off the album. I was grateful she didn’t let him down.

I was also bitter. These straight men were shameless fans of Dua Lipa, whose song “Good in Bed” salutes “all that good pipe in the moonlight.” They tossed around Dua’s “he” pronouns without ever feeling the pressure to add “no homo.” I felt encroached on. All those years I spent in the closet, I never felt so comfortable in my own skin. And then when I did come out, I was desperate for love songs by men about men. I was shit out of luck; identifying with women was the best I could do. But my queer baggage had nothing to do with the five men in the row behind me. On the contrary, didn’t they embody a kind of masculinity without patriarchy that I want to believe in? Here was a performance of butchness that didn’t teeter into violence. Butchness which—as a queer man myself, another he/him—I aim for in my own way: chest hair poking out of a denim jumpsuit, backwards baseball cap with matte lipstick. Butchness to which, like it or not, many of us are sexually attracted: my boyfriend’s rough hands in bed, a stranger’s bass that lifts the hair off our arms. Butchness towards which others are pulled in gender transition, friends of mine on T eager to grow in their beards and spread their legs a little wider. To deny these men Dua Lipa, wasn’t I replicating what had kept me closeted for so long: the delimiting of what a man could and couldn’t be? So much, I suppose, for my queerness.

The next day, I brewed tea, put on Dua, and reread Sedgwick. “Just because you have enemies,” she writes in a chapter of Touching Feeling, “doesn’t mean you have to be paranoid.” I didn’t have to be, but I was. I assumed I knew who these men were well past the point of them having proved me wrong. Even so, I’m not naive. I know that survival on the margins requires a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a quick scan of every room or street for possible enemies and allies. Fear is healthy when oppression plays out systematically and interpersonally to deadly effect every day. But Sedgwick insists that “to practice other than paranoid forms of knowing does not, in itself, entail a denial of the reality or gravity of enmity or oppression.” And seeing these grown men lose their cool over Dua Lipa made me wonder: What do I lose in a paranoid reading of every room?

In my personal life, not much. One of my best friends is a straight man, and I have been to several at-least-mostly-hetero weddings. I don’t mourn the relative absence of straight masculinity in my life, partially foreclosed on by my paranoia. I don’t experience it as an absence at all. As much as I want to trouble stereotypes here, I doubt I would have had easy chemistry with the Dua bros. The same goes for the Dua gays, actually, whom, if I’m honest, I’d also unfairly sketched: “Love Wins” t-shirts, bridesmaid trips to Disney World, a brittle allegiance to the party of Clinton and Buttigieg.

But I should widen my scope. I should also acknowledge my limitations. I assumed the men’s gender identity and sexual orientation. I also assumed their race: white, like me. Paranoia of straight men, of course, cuts across other identities, and unequally. For example, a paranoid reading of straight white men—statistically most likely to carry a gun—can keep people safe, if siloed. A paranoid reading of straight Black men, on the other hand, routinely gets them brutalized or killed. So please do not misunderstand me: my paranoid reading of these men is not imbricated in a thicket of systems that disadvantage men, specifically white men. No such systems exist. But I do think it robbed them, in some small way, of their dignity.

I worry about this professionally. I’m a teacher, and at the start of my career, I feared my straight white male students before I even met them. It was a knee-jerk prejudice, a trauma response from my experience at an all-boys school. But that doesn’t excuse it. My paranoia ran counter to my job: to see the humanity in each of my students and to move them toward a fuller experience of their own and others’ inherent worth. Fortunately I grew out of it. At the end of every year, at least one boy would write me a letter grateful he’d had “a homosexual teacher,” though he’d been “unsure about it at first.” I witnessed more and more masc students dole out hugs unselfconsciously, come out as bi, and speak out against sexual violence. We all taught each other various ways to be men.

Still, I worry politically. I’m partial to the climate movement’s slogan “to change everything, we need everyone,” and I fear my paranoid shorthand has short-circuited my theory of change: a rebellious, multiracial coalition of the working class. I shouldn’t reject, reflexively, the men who might join me on the picket line or in the streets. It’s counterproductive, a bad habit whose divisiveness serves the ruling elite.

Has this veered dangerously toward #notallmen? I hope not. As I understand it, #notallmen redirects legitimate feminist rage with a strawman argument. In this case, the men at the Dua concert gave me no reason to mistrust them. So I return to Sedgwick, who points us toward the possibility of a more “reparative reading” that’s “no less acute than a paranoid position, no less realistic, no less attached to a project of survival.” I had the choice to either a) fear these men paranoiacally based on what I know about patriarchy or b) afford them grace and see them as persons, not their identities’ least common denominator. To allow myself the “experience of surprise,” which is not only delightful but which also carves out necessary “room to realize that the future may be different from the present,” that history can be however revolutionary we dream of making it. I regret my choice, even if I understand it. Even if, out of self-preservation, I don’t know that I’ll stop making it anytime soon.

Anyway, I miss the music, and the concert’s not over yet. Dua pandered to her queer fans during “Cold Heart,” an Elton John collaboration. Her dancers clumped together on stage and unfurled two Pride-forward flags. Again, I listened for the men. A little quiet. And then—don’t quote me on this, I was almost certainly hearing what I wanted to hear by now—one said, “I’m a gay man now,” his tone surprised and wistful. I interpreted it as a clumsy attempt at allyship, like Le Monde’s September 12headline “Nous sommes tous américains.” For three minutes and twenty-three seconds, he considered himself one of us. Dua sang, “I’m not the man they think I am at home,” the men sang with her, and I got emotional. Not at the Pride flags, but at these men, at myself—at the way I had misread them.

Every time Dua left the stage, the men shouted “COSTUME CHANGE!” the way they might elsewhere shout “TOUCHDOWN!” After “Levitating,” when Dua floated around the stadium on a high-wire platform, the lights came up before the encore. “I’m no expert,” a man said gravely, “but I’m not changing outfits for one song.” He was right: Dua ended the night in her glimmering black bodysuit with “Don’t Start Now.” The men went wild for another hit about heartbreak at the hands of an uncaring ex-boyfriend, and we all shimmied in the stands.

On our way out, Isaiah and Achynthia both bought knockoff t-shirts. We filmed ourselves streaming across the bridge, humming Dua melodies. We rolled the windows down and turned the music up. Back at Isaiah’s, we microwaved samosas and talked about our men. “Who were they?” Achynthia marveled. They were young dads, I’m trying to imagine, whose wives had talked them into an overdue guys’ night out. After the concert, a nearby bar. Old stories told and retold. When they got home, buzzed, they threw their keys on the counter. Loaded the dishwasher, wiped down the countertops, put a few toys away. They kissed their kids on the forehead before stripping to their boxer shorts and slipping into bed, careful not to disturb their sleeping women, drool pooling on their pillows. “My wife,” they each whispered, before finally turning on their sides and falling asleep themselves, where they dreamt all night of Dua Lipa and of dancing on her stage.