Millie Lovelock, who wrote her MA thesis on One Direction, answers Harry Styles’ critics.
When Steve Braunias wrote that ‘Sign of the Times’ would be the end of Harry Styles’ career he had no idea what he was talking about. When he wrote that Styles had fallen into the trap of wanting to be taken seriously he was wrong.
I’m fresh off the back of an MA thesis on One Direction and their fans and I am more than happy to provide some insight that might prevent further critical error following the release of Styles’ debut, self-titled album.
The first thing to know about One Direction and Harry Styles is that the music, the persona, the image – none of it has ever been about being taken seriously. It’s all about intimacy. Intimacy is about shared narratives, it’s about imagining that we can be close with another person if we can be a part of their narrative, or even privy to their narrative. Pop music, obviously, is all about the narrative. Pop music that has half the success of One Direction and Harry Styles sells narrative. And narratives are good when they’re convincing – not necessarily when they are serious, artistically radical, or even innovative. A good pop narrative makes you, the listener, believe that you can get close to the star, that you can truly know them, love them, and be loved by them.
For the past six years, One Direction have made their fans feel as though they are the centre of the universe. One Direction songs build worlds in which any and every girl is important. The girl in their songs is the quintessential ‘every girl’. She’s five-foot-something, wearing skinny jeans, she’s got dimples in her back at the bottom of her spine, and she’s everywhere. Simply put, it’s so easy to imagine that One Direction are singing about you. When you listen to One Direction you get to be a part of their narrative and it feels really good, it feels like they love you. Crucially, however, there’s a great deal of distance involved in this narrative. The ‘every girl’ is inevitably exclusionary; if you put any amount of thought into it, you know it isn’t really about you (though this doesn’t necessarily make the songs feel any less good), and you know that these five boys aren’t singing about just one girl. You know that probably the whole world of the song is imaginary, and that’s okay – there are ways you can make that work for you in fandom – but this unbridgeable distance is where the solo career really comes into its own.
Styles is quoted as saying he didn’t want to tell “stories” on his solo album, he wanted to tell his story. He’s a clever man. There isn’t really much of a distinction between the two at all, a story’s a story, but if you play your cards right you can simultaneously generate an enormous fan response and an even greater intimacy between fan and musician. Styles’ album allows you to imagine that he could be singing about you, while also gently encouraging you to believe that it’s an earnest representation of his own feelings and experiences. And I’m sure it is, as it’s nothing if not convincing.
Opener ‘Meet Me in the Hallway’ is a softly spoken liminal and mournful confession. Styles is vulnerable, pleading “just let me know I’ll be at the door […] just let me know I’ll be on the floor” before urgently, desperately even, reminding himself “I gotta get better, I’ve gotta get better.” The instrumentation on this track is stark; Styles is exposed and alone. It’s moving and feels deeply personal, and it swiftly and securely hooks you into the album.
There’s more than one track that feels this way on the album, but Styles breaks it up with Jet- and Kinks-esque rock bangers. These tracks feel less personal but they are exuberant and passionate and utterly earnest in their tribute to rock music. On ‘Carolina’, Styles sings about a girl with a book for every situation, she drinks hard liquor and gets into parties without invitations. She’s yourself as the intellectual bad girl you always wanted to be. Styles even breaks out an old One Direction trick and makes what feels like a direct address to his audience/the girl he is singing about. “How would I tell her that she’s all I think about?” he rasps. “Well I guess she just found out.” This track is our way in. When I listen to the album every crappy early morning before I go to work I mutter to myself about being the girl with a book for every situation, and by the time I get to tracks like ‘Kiwi’ and ‘Only Angel’ I’m a little bit convinced that I could tell someone “I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business” and get away with it.
The high points of the album, though, are the moments when Styles is truly open and raw. ‘Two Ghosts’ is almost a country ballad, contemplative and sprawling. It’s clearly written with a particular person in mind and it is heart-wrenching when Styles admits “we’re not who we used to be / we’re just two ghosts standing in the place of you and me.” Similarly, ‘From the Dining Table’ is palpably situational. The title alone is evocative, conjuring images of a private and perfectly ordinary intimate scenario. More than that, Styles quietly asking “why won’t you ever say what you want to say?” is a heavy way to end an album that relies on such a delicate balance of confessional songwriting and large-scale imagined intimacy.
Styles’ debut album leaves no one behind, least of all himself. His foray into traditionally ‘serious’ and ‘authentic’ rock songs and acoustic guitar ballads is not a desperate appeal to be taken seriously by middle-aged men, it’s a story about himself, a story that reveals as much as it hides behind the universal appeal of the pop song. Listening to Styles’ album makes you feel like you know him, but also like he knows you too.
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