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12 May 2017

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.

By Anna Leszkiewicz


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.

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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”.

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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.