Harley Weir
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Harry Styles didn’t just become a rock star – he always was one

Let’s stop pretending that boy bands and rock bands are direct opposites.

Harry Styles has undergone a radical transformation. Say goodbye to the manufactured, sweet-cheeked pop baby of yore, and say hello to the authentic rock star of tomorrow. This is the narrative the vast majority of coverage of his debut, self-titled album (released today) will offer you.

The New York Post led with how “Harry Styles went from teeny-bop to classic rock”, after “years of being cooped up in the cage of One Direction”, leading to a shift in “the teen-girl hysteria” that followed 1D “like a screeching shadow.” The Daily Mail quipped that he has moved “in a very different direction”, while Metro agreed the album is “a definite departure from his One Direction days.”

“One Direction’s fans have grown up” NME wrote, and “Harry’s music has too.” Buzzfeed announced that “Harry Styles Isn't Following The Pop Star Playbook”, while Stereogum headlined their review “Harry Styles, Prince Of Pop, Takes A Stab At Rock Stardom”, opening with “Here’s a sign of the times for you: The most famous member of the world’s leading boy band is trying to become a rock star”. The Telegraph’s review found the departure so stark that it offered the following intensely patronising speculation: “It is so old-fashioned it may actually come across as something new to its target audience. After all, most One Direction fans wouldn’t even have been twinkles in their parents’ eyes when this kind of ragged confection was all the rage.” Because, tragically, society has still not discovered a way to make music from the past available to modern ears.

Of course, there is some truth in the observation that this is not a One Direction album. More relaxed, dishevelled and playful than any One Direction product, Styles experiments with a diverse range of influences on this debut, and lyrically, you can absolutely tell that these are the most sincere words of a 23-year-old, not an experienced adult songwriter trying to get inside the brain of a teenager.

But fans of the band will see this album as a natural next step for Styles after One Direction’s increasingly classic rock-influenced songs. After their first two albums, Up All Night and Take Me Home, the band began to become more guitar-heavy and nostalgic: established publications were outraged that Midnight Memories’ lead single “Best Song Ever” dared to reference The Who, while the bands final two albums – Four and Made in the AM, are packed with varied rock references, particularly songs on which Styles has a writing credit, even if more traditional music press insisted the albums remained “bubble-gum”.

Harry even chose to play one of these One Direction tracks on his Today appearance this week, Four’s “Stockholm Syndrome”, which takes the experience of being taken hostage as its central (potentially problematic) conceit. It’s a favourite amongst fans who never thought they’d devote themselves so sincerely to a boy band – “Baby, look what you’ve done to me.” It sounded complimentary to the songs he played from the new album “Carolina”, “Sign of the Times” and “Ever Since New York”. For me, “Sweet Creature”, the second single from Styles’s debut, is a natural extension of One Direction’s “I Want To Write You a Song” and tracks co-written by Styles, “If I Could Fly” and “Walking in the Wind”.

In terms of music, then, Harry hasn’t made as radical a departure as many suggest – so why is the predominant narrative still one of an aspiring rock artist desperately hoping to shake off his pop past? Certainly, he’s long looked like a rock star – always the most androgynous and bohemian of his bandmates, experimenting with floral suits, women’s jeans and heeled boots. Pictures of the four boys together sometimes seemed as though they were taken in an alternative universe where Marc Bolan had accidentally stumbled accross Take That on the red carpet. He single-handedly brought back the pussy-bow, for God’s sake. He’s always had the charisma of a rock star, the mystery, the mischievousness, and the style of a rock star.

Styles is, in fact, very much the traditional rock star – his very appeal may be due to the fact that he is the most traditional one we’ve had in years. Like McCartney, John Lennon, David Bowie, Jagger, Marc Bolan, or Kurt Cobain, Styles is creative, interested in fashion, androgynous, boyish and followed around the world by a stream of enthusiastic fans, who are mostly young women. Like boy bands past and present, the rock canon is littered with pretty boys with ambiguous sexualities engaging in over the top homosocial bonding on stage – Harry could not tick these boxes more enthusiastically. Harry Styles didn’t just become a rock star overnight – he always was one.

The boy band is still often seen as the antithesis of the rock band, despite their many cultural similarities in terms of audience and marketing. In fact, bands like The 1975 and Blossoms are exploiting those overlaps by positioning themselves somewhere between boy band and rock group. But the boy band remains dismissed and derided while rock groups are mythologised and worshipped as art.  

One person who seems less interested in this particular narrative is Styles himself. In his Rolling Stone interview, Styles said of One Direction, “I love the band, and would never rule out anything in the future. The band changed my life, gave me everything.” He went on to celebrate the young women who have supported his career. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don't get it?”

In a small cinema in Notting Hill last night, Styles hosted an intimate screening of a new documentary, Harry Styles: Behind The Album, for a group of fans from One Direction’s golden age. After introducing it, he stayed to watch from the side-lines. The hour-long film is a striking look at the last year or so of Styles’s life, including clips of him drinking and swimming in Jamaica, lounging around in Hawaiian shirts snoozing in the ocean on a surfboard; shots of his much-discussed haircut of 2016; an impressive Bob Dylan impression; and several minutes devoted to Styles’s bromance with his guitarist Mitch Rowland, with clips of them flirting and exchanging guitars and declarations of love. (The album’s executive producer, Jeff Bhasker, told the New York Post of Rowland, “He’s kind of like the Keith Richards to Harry’s Mick Jagger. That type of dynamic between the lead guitar player and the singer needs to exist for the type of music Harry wants to do.”)

About 15 minutes in to the documentary, we cut to black and white clips of One Direction playing their biggest stadium shows, while Harry reflects on the strangeness of the narrative being imposed upon him. “When you leave a band – a boy band – you feel like you have to go in a completely different direction, and say, ‘Don’t worry everyone, I hated it, it wasn’t me.’” 

He pauses and smiles.

“I loved it.”

Cheers erupted from the fans in the row in front of me.

“And I don’t feel like I have to apologise for that. I never felt like I was faking it.”

Perhaps the main thing that separates Styles from some of his rock counterparts is his enormous respect for pop music, young women, and the extraordinary dynamic that can emerge between an artist and their fans. Whether this is a calculated fan-servicing move or not – it’s one that critics should aspire to.

“The thing with the band,” Harry continues in the documentary, “was that it went so well, from the start, that it almost felt like everything had to get a little bigger each time. I think at some point it’s quite stressful. There’s only so high you can go, at some point you’re not going to make that expectation. Going out on a high and now feeling like I’m starting afresh, I came to terms with the fact that that was so great, and if I never get to do that on that level again, that’s okay.”

Styles has confronted the fact that the sweaty combination of youth, beauty, hype, and sheer devotion that propelled him and his bandmates to ridiculous levels of fame is unsustainable. To keep moving forward, he knows they had to change. But changing, for Styles, isn’t a simply clean break. And it doesn’t involve discarding, rebranding or disowning the people who helped him get where he is. 

Harry Styles is out now. Harry Styles: Behind The Album is out on Monday on Apple Music.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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