Seven years ago, onto the X Factor U.K. stage walked a boy named Harry — bed-headed locks, sleepy eyes, and a soft, decorative scarf tied with a blithe panache that suggested his surname was more fateful than tragic. He spoke, in his audition video, as though he’d been born bored. “Nothing much happens here,” he said of his hometown, in Holmes Chapel, Cheshire. “It’s quite picturesque,” imbuing that last word with audible scare quotes — a tone of smirking irony that would become his signature once Styles became one of the most famous boys in the world.
He sang a passable “Isn’t She Lovely,” but it barely mattered; there was a sense that the judges (and the audience, who already seemed to be hanging on his every word) had made up their respective minds before he’d uttered a note. “I think with a bit of vocal coaching,” Simon Cowell said after his brief performance, “you actually could be very good.” This wasn’t a knock. The ever-savvy Cowell recognized something more important, and profitable: charisma. Presence. He voted Styles through to the next round. One of the other judges said no, thus earning a lifetime of voodoo-doll pin pricks from the foreboding army that would soon convene and call themselves Directioners. The other judge, Nicole Scherzinger, gave so enthusiastic a yes that it is rumored she later dated him, when he was 19 and she 35, adding to the mythology surrounding his preference for dating older women.
Styles seems both young and old, as if Mick Jagger had Benjamin Buttoned but retained a lot of the things he’d witnessed somewhere behind the eyes. He is boyish, but with a sense that he has fast-forwarded through the more brutish things dismissed with the expression “Boys will be boys.” Even from day one, when he arrived at the X Factor auditions in a soft cardigan and that scarf, he seemed unashamed of his feminine side and also aware that that sort of self-acceptance only drove the girls crazier. Discussing his playfully androgynous fashion sense, a source once told the Daily Mail that Styles “prefers women’s [jeans], because they are the tightest.”
Last month, in a cover story for Rolling Stone (his first major interview as a solo artist), Styles once again branded himself a crusader for all things female. When asked, by Cameron Crowe, about his fan base of young women, he replied, “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? … Young girls like the Beatles. You’re gonna tell me they’re not serious? … Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie.”
And yet, even as he defended the types of music fans that are too often dismissed as teenyboppers, Styles was doing so within the pages of Rolling Stone, in an article written by Cameron Crowe, promoting an album so indebted to old-fashioned signifiers of rock ’n’ roll that it feels out of step with its own era. The irony was clear: In a moment when hip-hop and EDM reign supreme, the last major mainstream advocate for rock culture is none other than Harry Styles, that kid from the boy band that was put together by Simon Cowell on a reality TV singing competition.
Success didn’t come immediately: For Harry Styles and four other young male singers who’d auditioned solo, there was one full reality-TV commercial break of hardship. But then Cowell brought them all out together — Styles, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, and Louis Tomlinson — and said that he’d had the idea to group them together as a boy band. Ecstatic, they collapsed into a group hug — this moment looms so large in One Direction mythology that a YouTube video of it has been viewed more than 24 million times — and in that instant put their solo careers on hold.
Given that they auditioned as individual artists, though, it seemed inevitable that at least a few of the boys would eventually make runs for solo careers. It was less obvious what any of them would sound like. On their records (which have sold more than 50 million copies worldwide), their voices blended seamlessly, by which I mean that the vocalists of One Direction sounded more the same than boy bands of a previous generation did. When the Backstreet Boys harmonized, you could distinguish the low guff of A.J. McLean from the nasal croon of Nick Carter; when One Direction sang together, it sounded more like a melodic soccer chant, five voices merging to create some kind of colossally rambunctious ur-boy.
They pledged allegiance to the Girl (“The story of my life, I take her home, I drive all night to keep her warm,” they sing, selflessly, on one of their biggest hits), and from this devotion sprang one of the most rabid fan bases of the digital era. Using the tools at hand — Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram — Directioners turned their fandom into an alternate universe of gloriously imaginative speculation. In a way, the genius of One Direction is that they were just blank enough for fans to project all kinds of stories, identities, and desires onto them. Lyrics, photos, even glances within photos are pored over endlessly online. One Direction virginity-loss fan fiction is … very much a thing. As is “Larry Stylinson” — the portmanteau for the conspiracy theory that Styles and Tomlinson are secretly in love with each other and possibly married — which returns 1.36 million hits on Google, and, if for some reason you’re just learning about it, will probably take up the rest of your day.
They couldn’t possibly have stayed under that magnifying glass forever. Zayn was the first to splinter off: Exactly a year after his departure, in March 2016, he released the solo album Mind of Mine, a solid if relatively indistinct cloud of hazy, Weeknd-indebted R&B. It wasn’t artistically risky in the grander scheme of things, but it was definitely a departure from the sugar-high power pop of One Direction. And while promoting the record, he took several opportunities to point this out. “That’s not music that I would listen to,” he said in a Fader cover story. “Would you listen to One Direction, sat at a party with your girl? I wouldn’t. To me, that’s not an insult, that’s me as a 22-year-old man. … I want to make music that I think is cool shit.”
Over the past year, Zayn has continued clarifying his personal definition of “cool shit.” Most recently, it’s meant linking up with powerful and well-connected collaborators: He dueted with Taylor Swift on the heavy-breathing Fifty Shades ballad “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” and his current single, “Still Got Time,” is spiked with passionfruit thanks in part to a feature from PartyNextDoor. Shy, averse to touring, and occasionally a little prickly in interviews, Zayn wasn’t One Direction’s surest bet for solo success; it almost seemed like his departure was his attempt to get a head start. He’s now had upward of two years to establish himself as a solo artist (and the fittingly stylish boyfriend of supermodel Gigi Hadid), uncontested by any of his former bandmates. He’s done a decent (though definitely not extraordinary) job, and he’s got the kind of pretty-though-not-terribly-distinct voice for which there is plenty of room on pop radio.
Since the band’s split, though, a corollary question has hung in the air: How does Harry Styles define “cool shit”?
The first possible answer came on April 7, when he put out the solo single “Sign of the Times.” It takes a certain kind of audacity to crib the title of your debut single from Prince, and a whole different kind of audacity to make it sound like a postmillennial “Space Oddity,” but Styles did both of these things. In the context of 2017, “Sign of the Times” is at once conservative and daring: It’s one of those grand, Bowiesque ballads that sounds instantly familiar to anyone listening to the radio, but it also doesn’t sound like anything on pop radio right now. It’s more Elton John than Ed Sheeran. A dad scanning the dial might land on it, thinking he is safe in the comfort of the classic rock station. And then he will have a wonderful, necessary moment of reckoning when he realizes it’s Harry Styles, the guy on his daughter’s lunch box.
In Minneapolis’s City Pages — the home of Prince and the Replacements and Hüsker Dü — the music writer Keith Harris asked, “What does ‘rock music’ even mean anymore anyway?” Attempting to understand at least how Billboard answered this question, Harris dumpster-dived into the Hot Rock Songs chart to “see what’s left of commercial rock in 2017.” The results ranged from puzzling (Billboard classifies Lana Del Rey and the Weeknd’s doo-wop throwback “Lust for Life” as “rock”) to predictable (Imagine Dragons at no. 1, almost by default) to downright funereal (“Sucker for Pain,” Lil Wayne’s collaboration with Wiz Khalifa and — yep — Imagine Dragons from the Suicide Squad soundtrack). A very noticeable omission from this confusing junk heap? The only rock song I have heard on commercial radio in the last few weeks, and the only song I’m suspecting really wants to be on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart in 2017: Harry Styles’s “Sign of the Times.”
The songs on Harry Styles, his 10-song debut LP, have the kind of reverence for ’60s and ’70s rock bands that Jack White has for analog recording, occasionally with a polished twinge of homage to ’90s alt-rock. The croaked, subdued opener, “Meet Me in the Hallway,” sounds like Supergrass covering Pink Floyd (with a dash of unremembered psychedelia in a line imploring, “give me some morphine”); the “woo-hoo”-laden “Carolina” has a Kinks influence through the prism of Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, whose Kinks influence has of course already been filtered through Albarn’s other band, Blur. Styles’s songs are well crafted, catchy, and ably performed, but they often lack a certain kind of urgency or direct communication with the moment in which they exist. They feel several levels removed from the things they’re nostalgic for.
The first time I listened to this record, I was grateful for the punky jolt that kicks the sixth track, “Only Angel,” into gear. The first half had felt a little listless, and I was eager to hear Styles unleash that fabled Jagger impression. But on subsequent listens, I’ve come to much prefer Styles in that softer register — and find the supposed “rockers” on this album to be downright embarrassing. “Only Angel” strings together a couple chords and a whole lot of lyrical clichés (there should be a law against anyone singing the words “devil in between the sheets,” and an additional fine when the word “angel” is in the song title) to become the world’s most generic “bad girl” anthem. Unfortunately, you don’t have to wait long for that title to be challenged, because the blustering, Libertines-lite “Kiwi” (“Hard liquor but a bit of intellect / And all the boys, they were saying they were into it”) is the very next song.
Styles is so much more himself when he tones things down a little. “Ever Since New York,” one of the two songs he played on Saturday Night Live last month, is a lovely showcase for his aching, emotive croon. “Sweet Creature” is a little reminiscent of One Direction’s acoustic-driven songs, but that’s not a slight — it still works for him. The most affecting song on the album, though, is the quietest: the forlorn closing track, “From the Dining Table.” It says a lot about Harry Styles that the record’s most startling sexual admission is not a hollow boast of conquest but a confession of vulnerability: “Woke up alone in this hotel room / Played with myself, where were you?” That line comes out as a sad mutter, and the whole song has the intimacy of a whisper. From the second he walked on the X Factor stage with that scarf, Styles has been typecast as “this generation’s Mick Jagger.” But by the end of his solo album, that comparison proves to be limiting — both in the way we see him and the way he sees himself as an artist. Listen to that last song for proof: He does a much more convincing Nick Drake.
As fate would have it, not one but three former members of One Direction are releasing new music this month. Niall Horan (“the Irish One”) just put out a single called “Slow Hands.” It rips a page from the book of his buddy Ed Sheeran (a page that reads, “don’t let this acoustic guitar and nice-guy haircut fool you, I still LUV 2 BONE”), and in a time when “Shape of You” can top the Billboard chart for 11 consecutive weeks, I’m sure it, and whatever comes after it, will do pretty well. I am slightly more concerned for Liam Payne, who is slated later this week to release “Strip That Down,” a song featuring Quavo. The teaser is trying admirably hard to look like a Marky Mark Calvin Klein ad. We are defined just as much by the things we do as the things we choose not to do, so please remember that Harry Styles did not do that.
Styles isn’t hitching himself too tightly to this particular pop moment, and time will tell whether or not that will pay off. It would have been very easy for Styles to cave to pop radio — to give “Sign of the Times” a drop that sounds like a neon sea creature weeping. Instead, he made a competent if somewhat faceless rock record in a time when nobody makes big rock records anymore. Whether you see that as a declaration of independence or a tone-deafness to the times is up to you, and how much you expected from the solo artist Harry Styles.
September 16, 2012, was, for some One Direction fans, a day that will go down in infamy. That afternoon, when a fan had asked Louis Tomlinson on Twitter about the “Larry Stylinson” theory, he punctured the dream and tweeted, “Larry is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard. I’m happy, why can’t you accept that.” Of course plenty (or really, most) Larry shippers continued to believe, but for many fans there was something uniquely disappointing about this shattering of illusions. Tomlinson’s simply being “happy” wasn’t nearly as interesting as all the fictions the fans had been forced to invent in the absence of information. What is is so much less illustrious than what could be. The same could be said of the solo careers of the members of One Direction, at least so far. We’ve had years to speculate on them and dream them up, and these speculations, in the end, became necessarily more interesting than reality. Perhaps that is what Styles is nostalgic for in his music: not a particular sound so much as a time before the internet mandated that stars present themselves as accessible, approachable, and endlessly giving. A time when rock stars still walked the earth, mythic, mysterious, and larger than life.