Esther Zuckerman: Fran, I’ll start off this discussion by stating for the record that you and I are two adult women who enjoy Harry Styles. But is Harry Styles for us? Can we appreciate his persona and music without infantilizing ourselves?
Some background for those who are not familiar. Harry—as we’ll be referring to him here, since it seems weird to call him “Styles”—got his start as the charming, de facto frontman of One Direction. When he tried out for Britain’s X Factor and did not win, Simon Cowell got the brilliant idea to put him in a supergroup with a bunch of other youngsters who auditioned. And thus emerged a boy band that seemed birthed from the screams of teenage girls.
One Direction was extremely entertaining. As a band, Harry, Louis, Liam, Niall, and Zayn put out infectiously fun songs and had a cheeky, don’t-give-a-fuck rapport that was a joy to watch because they never seemed to take themselves all that seriously. But all good things must come to an end, and the band broke up. (Well, went on “hiatus.”) Zayn was the first to go, deciding to pursue a career of bland pop bangers, and the rest soon followed. Harry, based on pure charisma, always seemed like he was going to be the breakout. But the songs he’s released so far off his self-titled solo album—which debuts today—don’t immediately strike me as massive hits. They are lower-key than one might expect, more likely to be played at a coffee shop than a party. When I was laying out my theories about Harry (this is clearly a topic I enjoy), my boyfriend likened his new vibe to Adele’s music: It’s not particularly challenging, and it could be liked by almost everyone.
Harry certainly hasn’t disavowed the demographic that’s supported him all along: those aforementioned teen girls. He even explained to Cameron Crowe in a Rolling Stone profile why the music tastes of young women shouldn’t be derided—a move that also seems intended to woo an older, feminist audience. And yet, it’s hard to listen to this music with the same hint of irony I employed when listening to One Direction. Has he gotten almost too sophisticated? Help me, Fran. I feel like I’ve worked myself into a knot over this.
Fran Hoepfner: Esther, I’m here for you. The whirlwind of the Harry Styles press tour has been confusing and disorienting for a lot of us One Direction fans—not because we haven’t greatly anticipated Harry’s music, but because we had no real grasp on what it was going to be. In his departure, Zayn was always upfront about wanting to make more “adult” music leaning toward R&B. Niall has always clutched that acoustic guitar. Harry, on the other hand, presented himself as a little more ambiguous and introverted. I’ve always thought a big part of his appeal is that no one knows what his deal really is.
I, too, always enjoyed One Direction with about 98 percent sincerity and 2 percent irony; it’s easy to enjoy a lot of Top 40 music that way. But Harry’s new music seems so wildly anti-Top 40. I mean, if we want to just dive in, he released “Sign Of The Times” in April, which is a six-minute-long rock ballad. It’s a deeply serious and sweepingly heartfelt song—not unlike an Adele track; your boyfriend makes a good point—and it instantly defied parody. I remember hearing it and my gut emotional reaction was confusion. This is who he wants to be on his own? But again, maybe it’s always who he was; we don’t know. Regardless, what a way to reintroduce himself! The new Harry Styles—the lone Harry Styles—didn’t establish himself with what he was saying but rather how he was saying it. While Zayn and Niall have gone on to release, well, uh, sexier music, Harry’s given us something to think about. What were your first impressions of “Sign Of The Times”?
EZ: My immediate thought was that he’s completely embraced the fact that he looks like a young Mick Jagger and decided to evoke the rock stars of old. That, in my mind, seemed like a pretty bold choice—one that didn’t align with the usual path taken by artists of his ilk.
I found it interesting that immediately after his Saturday Night Live performance there seemed to be a wave of posts saying, essentially, “Don’t worry, it’s okay to like Harry Styles.” Madeleine Davies wrote an article at Jezebel declaring “Harry Styles Is Hot And Good,” while BuzzFeed’s Lauren Yapalater argued “It’s Time To Get Over Yourself And Get On Board With Harry Styles.” It reminded me of how the tides respectively turned on Taylor Swift after she released Red and Justin Bieber after the singles off Purpose started coming out. But in both those cases, I’d say the cultural reassessment was largely based on critical acclaim. Suddenly, they were both putting out music that was legitimately interesting and challenging their artistic preconceptions. While I like “Sign Of The Times” and the other two of Harry’s songs we’ve heard—“Ever Since New York” and “Sweet Creature”—I don’t think they’re equivalent statements or all that sonically revelatory. They are really only surprising in the sense that I didn’t think they were necessarily what Harry Styles would put out.
This all comes back to the persona Harry is adopting for this press tour as well. He’s very much acting like the guy you could take home to your parents. The Crowe profile emphasized how serious he is about his craft and featured ingratiating anecdotes about how he once crashed in the attic of the Orthodox Jewish producer of The Late Late Show With James Corden and his wife. On top of that, he’s simultaneously starring in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, making an auspicious movie debut that implies he’s also not taking this whole acting thing lightly either. This all feels very calculated to me. Would you agree? Or do you think this is the “genuine” Harry?
FH: Wow, I might feel exactly the opposite! For me, all of these things—the non-Top 40 singles, the Crowe profile, the Dunkirk debut—don’t really add up to something that suggests Harry Styles is being calculating about defining who he is. To me, there’s an earnestness in its uncertainty (that or the marketing is working really well on me).
I agree that the general critical reaction to Harry’s new music is reminiscent of the reaction to post-Red Taylor Swift and post-Purpose Justin Bieber. (And not for nothing, all three of these musicians debuted new haircuts around the same time of their so-called “reinventions.”) I’ll agree that these initial songs aren’t sonically challenging, per se, but I respect his willingness to not lean on his pop roots and to try different things toward figuring out the type of music he’s trying to make. After his performance on SNL, I had a handful of friends text me, lauding it if only because they hadn’t known what to expect and were pleasantly surprised by what they got. His reinvention does seem like it’s going to pull in more people from outside the One Direction fandom, which is the point.
As to our question of “Is Harry Styles for adults?” I think the answer is, very clearly, yes, if only because he’s still determined to grow as an artist—and that’s the kind of thing that grown-ups are “supposed” to respect. His new songs are all noticeably distinct enough from one another that I still don’t have a full grasp on where he’s going from here: Some kind of nouveau, soft-rock Brit-wave thing? Something more thoughtful and folksy? The appeal of Harry Styles for adults is that it’s still unfolding, music that’s neither condescending nor grasping for something too “mature.” It lies somewhere in the middle, both heartening and uncertain, charming, and, yes, sometimes slightly unremarkable. Whatever you think it is—whatever you thought it was going to be—it definitely isn’t. And I think any adult who enjoys being surprised by music can appreciate that.