“I’m pretty sure she died”: inside Harry Styles’s Beatles-esque European tour

The first show in Paris included rainbow flags, “Kiwi” chants and some very bad French.

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In January 1964, on the cusp of the British Invasion, The Beatles played The Olympia Theatre in Paris for eighteen days – sometimes playing three shows a day to mixed reactions from the audience. On the night of their first performance, a telegram came through from America: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” had become their first American number one hit. This is the kind of anecdote that gives The Olympia, which holds an audience of around 2,000 people, a whiff of rock legend.

In one sense it’s surprising that Harry Styles (who has sold out much bigger French venues, including the 114,000 capacity Stade de France, with his former boyband One Direction, and is returning to play the 20,000 capacity AccorHotels Arena solo next year) would start his European tour here. But in another, it makes perfect sense. Some of Styles’s greatest influences – The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and, yes, Norah Jones – have played here. And Styles, who has been branding himself as a rock artist for some years, has intentionally begun his solo touring career in smaller venues with bags of rock history – from LA’s The Greek to London’s The Garage to Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. It’s an intimate and deliberately understated move.

Much of the joy of this tour lies in seeing a ludicrously famous artist crashing around on a tiny stage. When Styles, dressed in a characteristically extravagant glittery red and black floral suit, introduced himself with the words, “Bonsoir, I’m Harry, I’m from England,” it felt almost comically low-key – especially as it came immediately after a theatrical on-stage reveal involving Style’s James Bond-esque silhouette projected, larger than life, onto a curtain that fell dramatically to the floor. Fans responded to both extremes with the same level of dizzying enthusiasm.

Opening with “Ever Since New York” and “Two Ghosts”, Styles mostly kept the ballads on his album to the early portion of the set list, easing into a triumphant, cheeky rock performance as the evening developed. He’s obviously most at home in greasier, up-tempo tracks:  channelling a Jagger-esque strut and clap on “Only Angel” and bursting into giggles during “Woman”.

But Styles has refused to shy away from his boyband roots, and reworked One Direction songs slot seamlessly into the setlist, emphasising the links between the boyband’s guitar-heavy pop and his current sound. “What Makes You Beautiful”, One Direction’s most bubblegum single, is given a snaking bass line reminiscent of “Come Together”, while the much-loved “Stockholm Syndrome”, one of the night’s rowdiest tracks, is tweaked to show off Styles’s deeper voice.

“Kiwi”, a bizarre but infectious rock song that “started out as a joke” and is set to be Styles’s next single, was the clear highlight of the night for both performer and audience – with the crowd chanting for him to play it again three separate times.

Styles knows that for many of his fans, the excitement in seeing him live lies in the little connections he makes with the audience. He brought the house lights up at different points in the evening –waving at particularly enthusiastic fans, congratulating a new lawyer, and trying out his schoolboy French. “Je suis allé au cinéma avec mes copains et ma famille,” he joked at one point – a phrase he’s been repeating during every trip to France for years – while showing off some new vocab. “Sois belle et tais toi,” (“Be pretty and shut up”) he said, pointing at one fan in the balcony. “I’m pretty sure she died,” a fan told me outside later. (The phrase is a reference to a French film).

Teasing aside, Styles goes out of his way to foster an inclusive environment at his gigs, emphasising that he feels “honoured” to perform for audiences of “strong women” every night. “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room,” he told the crowd, which was littered with rainbow flags and signs reading “Always choose love”. As at all his North American gigs this year, Styles pulled an LGBT flag onto the stage while he was performing. Merchandise emblazoned with the phrase “TREAT PEOPLE WITH KINDNESS” would be nauseating – if it wasn’t for the fact that Styles himself seems to actually live by it.

When the third chant for “Kiwi” showed no signs of dying down, Styles half-laughed and half-sighed. “I’m exhausted,” he grinned, choosing to end instead with “Sign of the Times”. With 15 more dates to play before Christmas across the UK, Europe, Asia and Australia, and another already sold out world tour beginning in March, it’s hard to know when Styles himself will catch a breath. But his insatiable fans show no signs of running out of steam.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.