The week of September 11, 2017 started on a high note. While filling in last-minute for The Killers, Harry Styles performed solo for the first time in BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge and delivered fresh renditions of “Sign of the Times,” “Two Ghosts,” and Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain.” It was beautiful, it was magical and it solidified the 23-year-old’s place as a blessed prince on the pop music landscape. And, days away from his first world tour, it also reaffirmed that Styles is an artist worth caring about.
The myth of Styles is unparalleled. From his turn in Dunkirk to his self-titled solo debut, the 1D alum has gone on to establish himself as a young cultural icon with universal appeal. Which is rare for someone entrenched in industries (music and film) equally notorious for toxic and disposable approaches to young talent. Even rarer? That in addition to a subculture that existed during One Direction’s heyday, Harry’s fanbase has grown to include grown-ass women. And it’s all due to the Holy Trinity.
Good music, a great sense of style, and a magnetic personality: these are the traits one must exhibit to maintain a place atop pop culture’s hierarchy. Fortunately, by the time One Direction announced its hiatus in 2015, Harry had already mastered all of them, earning praise not just for co-writing the group’s jams or his vocal range, but for his onstage charisma, his unscripted interviews and a very public friendship with Stevie Nicks. Plus, he’d begun aligning himself with fashion houses renowned for creativity and gender fluidity: Gucci suits became mainstays, while his penchant for Yves Saint Laurent boots went on to garner physical reactions. He embraced prints, sheer fabrics, lace, and even women’s clothing. And as a result, he cemented himself as an artist who took an active role in his image.
When One Direction promoted Midnight Memories in 2013, the singer began standing out for his fashion sense, having graduated from graphic tees and high tops to a sleeker, tailored style. But during Made in the A.M.’s press cycle the next year, he upped the aesthetic ante: with longer hair, a zest for hats and military jackets and unbuttoned dress shirts, he began drawing comparisons to ’70s rock mavericks —especially Mick Jagger—which made sense, especially after 1D’s performance with Ronnie Wood back in December 2014.
Which is particularly appealing, since an evolution of one’s style tends to connote an evolution of one’s self. (Also, Mick Jagger is a total babe.) But where anyone with money can begin investing in labels and designers, Harry used his wardrobe as a vehicle through which to explore creative complexity—and to suggest that like Jagger and Bowie, he also didn’t (and doesn’t) subscribe to gender norms.
And that’s appealing to grown-ass adults, particularly as we’re still finding ourselves stuck releasing “unisex” collections that resemble shapeless pieces from a dystopian future. But Styles actually gets it. And by using his platform as a means of embracing gender neutrality, particularly through clothes, he signals an understanding of how fashion can be a gateway to bigger conversations, to creativity and to self-expression. Which should draw in anybody—and does, regardless of age bracket.
Because in addition to growing up, he’s continued to include his teen fan base. When speaking to Cameron Crowe in April he defended teen girls, while more recently he went on record about the necessity of One Direction’s hiatus. And that type of transparency is important, particularly since it parallels Harry’s inclusive persona. While Styles’ new music is geared towards an older crowd (more on that in a second), his respect for teen culture re-affirms his humility: he isn’t too good for the community who launched his career, and he’s old enough not to act like a petulant child, rebelling against his teenage self. At 32, I know few adults my own age who can walk that fine line—most of us are still grappling with who we used to be versus who we want to be now.
Arguably, we’re all kind of like Zayn: where the first Direction defector used Mind of Mine to separate himself from the 1D narrative, Harry used his debut for self-expression on a few fronts. Instrumentally, he played guitar (which only Niall Horan did in 1D). And vocally, he delivered a range of ballads (“Sign of the Times”), rock songs (“Kiwi”), and sweet, acoustic jams (“Sweet Creature”), as if to show us what he could do. Plus, he sang explicitly about adult-ish content: sex, heartbreak and his own self-destructive tendencies, all while presented without slagging off the group he came from or dismissing the type of music they used to perform. In contrast to Mind of Mine, Harry Styles seemed a celebration of past and present Harry, while suggesting he seemed to know himself, at least enough to take stock of his life in an articulate way.
And that’s a trait—the willingness and ability to compromise—fellow adults can recognize. Because while his debut was decent, it was his press tour that drew further attention to Styles’ capacity for charm, warmness and intellect. His first solo interview with Another Man saw him engage (as an equal) with Paul McCartney, while he used a conversation with Chelsea Handler to talk about fame and God. On Graham Norton, he held his own against the quick wit of the host and the guests (fellow adults) while very politely acknowledging the pandemonium around him.
Compare this to an artist like Justin Bieber (who’s staging complicated battles very publicly), or Zayn (who’s nestled comfortably into rebelling against his 1D persona), or even to an actor like Leonardo DiCaprio (whose cargo shorts and model girlfriends tend to eclipse everything else), and Harry’s approach to his music, his acting, his fans and the press is very rare. He simply is, which is refreshing when it comes to a famous person—or a person in general. And as adult consumers of his music and, well, brand, it makes sense that we find refuge from our day-to-day bullshit in the persona of a young artist who embodies the traits many of us are still trying to find ourselves. (Plus, like Mick Jagger, he’s also a babe.)
So ultimately, Harry’s trajectory seems destined to keep us in awe of his choices. And whether those are about his suits, his open blouses, or his ability to speak and sing candidly about his experiences with perspective, he’s laid the foundation for an empire defined by the merits of taking creative and aesthetic risks, and doing so with grace, humility and an earned confidence.
In fact, you could say that Harry’s real appeal lies in our own desire to be like him. And while we—as adults—may harbour a crush or think he’s cute or just love his music, we zero in especially hard because he exhibits what we strive to achieve ourselves. Personally, I’d love to perform a One Direction song next to Ronnie Wood.
Or hang out with Stevie Nicks. Because if she stands by Harry, that’s good enough for me, full stop.