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Harry Styles's new direction as a solo artist: modern punk

The former One Direction member transcends the “former boy-bander” label by not giving a shit about the “former boy-bander” label.

iHeartRadio Album Release Party With Harry Styles At Rough Trade NYC In Brooklyn, New York
Harry Styles performs at an album release party in Brooklyn, New York
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for iHeart Media

Former One Direction member Harry Styles sent fans into a frenzy on May 12 with the release of his self-titled solo debut record, which debuted in the Top 10 everywhere from Azerbaijan to the US. The album finds Styles, who co-wrote every song on the album, laying the foundation for the artist he’s come of age to be, without the overbearing presence of One Direction mastermind Simon Cowell — a drastic shake-up from the time he spent as a pop music mouthpiece in One Direction, where he performed songs he barely had a hand in writing.

Naturally, the fiery hot takes came rolling in almost immediately, as music writers attempted to reframe the former boy-bander in this new solo context: The Guardian threw some neutral shade at Styles’s plethora of influences, while Rolling Stone crowned him a “true rock and roll prince” and the New Statesman argued that he’s been a rock star all along.

These attempts to label Styles as something go hand in hand with a need to reject the “former boy-bander” label. Referring to him as a “rock star” is somewhat condescending, implying what he’s pursuing is performative rather than artistic. It also extends the false notion that to be considered as an artist, rather than a performer, one must be divorced from “pop” and married to what’s (incorrectly) perceived as a more legitimate genre: rock.

But perhaps Styles wasn’t trying to be anything with this album. Perceiving the record as his frantic attempt to shed his “pop” image disregards what Harry Styles is: a musical homage to what made him Harry Styles, a flamboyant, honest tribute to influences — from Elton John to the Rolling Stones — famous for their own flamboyancy and honesty.

Ironically, that sense of liberation from labels evokes another sort of label, one that may seem comical at first, but makes a strange sort of sense in the context of Styles’s album: Harry Styles is kind of punk.

Harry Styles is punk in spirit, not sound

When using “punk” to describe what Styles is doing, it’s not intended in the perverted, violent Murder Junkies sense of the word. Hell, there was furor when Styles accidentally kicked a fan in the head when stage-diving; I don't think there's room for any GG Allin bullshit in his persona.

But there’s a total lack of fucks to give on Harry Styles, which finds the singer embodying the punk spirit by doing whatever he wants, in defiance of expectations. The record boasts ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s influences that combine to create something that can’t really be called “rock,” and which symbiotically contribute to the camp, androgynous, glamorous mysticism of solo Styles.

Expectations be damned, Styles is taking a huge risk by not adhering to the confines of a modish genre — something all of his former bandmates have done, be it Louis Tomlinson’s Steve Aoki-assisted EDM or Niall Horan's bland “coffee shop open mic” debut single. Zayn Malik has thrived in R&B, but his Mind of Mine still belongs to a genre that’s both in vogue and fairly expected for a pop-bred singer.

That’s not really the case with Styles. Take the lead single “Sign of the Times,” whose title evokes Prince but which explodes into a Goliath post-apocalyptic allegorical anthem that sounds more like Never Hear the End of Itera Chris Murphy than, say, going crazy, crazy, crazy. In discrediting the accusations of his music being manufactured for him, Styles has opened up himself — and his loyal fans — to an entirely new sound.

Going beyond that single, Harry Styles invites listeners to mellow down with the folk-rock Dawes and Jackson Browne–inspired harmonies of “Ever Since New York” and “Sweet Creature,” (a.k.a. “Thirteen” by Big Star lite), only to then smack them in the face with the raucous lasciviousness of “Kiwi.” But it’s on “Only Angel” where Styles feels most at home: The song is an illegitimate, sparkly glam-rock baby sired by Electric Light Orchestra and T. Rex, dumped on the doorstep of the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers and Sloan’s Navy Blues. He’s having fun with his references in a manner reminiscent of the Replacements’ notoriously erratic live sets, where they’d drunkenly perform everything from the Jackson 5 to Lloyd Price.

Styles’s referential prowess also extends to his lyrics, particularly in the breezy and sexy “Carolina,” which directly cites “Two Girls” by Townes Van Zandt: In name-checking his rumored lover (who happens to share a name with Van Zandt), he sings “Townes, better swim before you drown,” restructuring the original song’s more somber and heartbreaking, “You got to swim before you fly.”

But while such lyrical allusions may be clever, Styles is a more impressive storyteller when he’s at his most raw and real, as is evident during the lugubrious closer “From the Dining Table,” where he apathetically sings, “Woke up alone in this hotel room / Played with myself, where were you? / Fell back to sleep, I got drunk by noon / I've never felt less cool.” Harry Styles is telling us he masturbated just to feel something. Perhaps he’s ridiculing himself for being pathetic in his acedia, but the lack of shame is unlike anything else in modern pop.

The record’s focus on speaking to Styles’s truth is palpable here. His depiction of something so mundane efficaciously taps into both the ennui and the ridiculousness that characterized punk, and provides real insight into what makes him Harry.

To Styles’s discredit, the album’s lyrical matter can be somewhat hard to empathize with on a fundamental level, given that Styles is an attractive, wealthy white man with life experiences that the vast majority of the population will never have. But the record’s depth of emotion — or lack thereof — is definitely born of a human experience, so as to show that maybe being stinking rich doesn’t mean you’re happy. Styles may still be just as lost as the rest of us are in our early 20s. (It would be nice to be miserable and loaded, though. Just saying.)

Yet despite the album’s evolution away from the sounds and style of his boy band days, Styles’s multifaceted taste is still open to pop; he holds no contempt for anything One Direction released. He could have gone the Liam Payne route of singing, “I used to be in 1D (now I'm free),” but showcasing his impressive musical knowledge proves far more effective and much less petulant. On Harry Styles, he still appreciates the fruitful pop music spirit, seemingly knowing that not too long ago, rock was classified as pop.

Styles isn’t trying to be taken seriously. He’s trying to push himself.

Admittedly, there is already a genre label for what Styles has achieved by melding the aforementioned influences: power pop, a rock subgenre that’s been mostly subsumed into other genres since its late-20th-century heyday. But because there are no set criteria for what constitutes power pop in the modern day, Styles is free to mine his being for how he wants to sound, without having to conform to or advance genre expectations.

Harry Styles performs on NBC's Today show at Rockefeller Center.
James Devaney/GC Images

Styles has stated numerous times that he had no idea what Harry Styles was going to sound like, so there was never going to be just one style peg on which to hang the album. By releasing the album on his own label, he’s both avoiding having to meet A&R demands to adhere to a set style and claiming this album as a product of his own creation.

Critics have been quick to deride Styles as someone who wishes to be taken seriously, as they did with Zayn Malik, but I don’t think that’s what this album is about: Harry Styles is a result of him experimenting and pushing himself to do something outside the system that initially brought him fame. Even his lead guitarist and main co-writer, Mitch Rowland, worked in a pizza shop prior to joining Styles’s band. Taking a risk on an unknown and aligning himself so closely with someone who doesn’t have an established reputation or strong industry ties serves as better rejection of Styles’s regimented boy-band past than any stated rejection of pop or Payne-like lyrical sneering would have.

With his established success, his built-in fan base, and the idea that he didn’t need to reject the “Harry Styles of One Direction” label to be successful, Styles had nothing to run away from with Harry Styles. In launching his solo career from this privileged position, he was able to use his debut to explore and find himself as an artist. He seemingly doesn’t give a shit about anyone else’s categorization of him, and he’s written his own rules to make a record for himself — without the need for total reinvention.

In giving the intransigent boundaries previously dictated to him the middle finger, Styles is typifying the essence of punk. Acting in this capacity — particularly as a musician of his magnitude and fame — reiterates the carefree nature of the record. Which, combined with a total lack of sonic direction, fervent lyrical candor, and general openness to new ideas, created a record that not only told us who Harry Styles is but showed Styles himself who he could be.

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