Why we’re wild about Harry Styles

To wit: in an interview that appears a few days later announcing his investment in a new arena in his native Manchester, he repeats the refrain – “There will be a time we dance again” – referencing a much-needed return to live music and the promise of some 4000 jobs for residents. None of which is to suggest that Styles, 26, phones it in for interviews. Quite the opposite: he does very few, conceivably to give more of himself and not cheapen what is out there and also to use the publicity opportunity to indulge his other interests, like fashion. (Last month Styles became the first male to grace the cover of Vogue solo.) Still, it stings a little that a waltz with the former One Direction member may not come to pass on this album cycle – curse you, coronavirus.

Styles’ isolation has coincided with his maturation as an artist, a thespian and a person. With Fine Line, he’s proved himself a skilled lyricist with a tremendous ear for harmony and melody. In preparing for his role in Olivia Wilde’s period thriller Don’t Worry Darling, which is shooting outside Palm Springs, he found an outlet for expression in interpreting words on a page. And for the first time, he’s using his megaphone to speak out about social justice – inspired by the outpouring of support for Black people around the world following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May.

Styles has spent much of the past nine months at home in London, where life has slowed considerably. The time has allowed him to ponder such heady issues as his purpose on the earth. “It’s been a pause that I don’t know if I would have otherwise taken,” says Styles.

In truth, while Styles has largely been keeping a low profile – his Love On Tour, due to kick off on April 15, was postponed in late March and is now scheduled to launch in February 2021 (whether it actually will remains to be seen) – his music has not. This is especially true in the US, where he’s notched two hit singles, Adore You, the second-most-played song at radio in 2020, and Watermelon Sugar (No. 22 on Variety’s year-end Hitmakers chart), with a third, Golden, already cresting the top 20 on the pop format.

Why do these particular songs resonate in 2020? Styles doesn’t have the faintest idea. While he acknowledges a “nursery rhyme” feel to Watermelon Sugar with its earwormy loop of a chorus, that’s about as much insight as he can offer. His longtime collaborator and friend Tom Hull, also known as the producer Kid Harpoon, offers this take: “There’s a lot of amazing things about that song, but what really stands out is the lyric. It’s not trying to hide or be clever. The simplicity of watermelon … there’s such a joy in it, [which] is a massive part of that song’s success.”

Styles is quick to note that he doesn’t chase pop appeal when crafting songs. In fact, the times when he pondered or approved a purposeful tweak, like on his self-titled 2017 debut, still gnaw at him. “I love that album so much because it represents such a time in my life, but when I listen to it – sonically and lyrically, especially – I can hear places where I was playing it safe,” he says. “I was scared to get it wrong.”

This from someone who’s had free rein to pursue every musical whim, and hand in the album of his dreams in the form of Fine Line. Chart success makes it all the sweeter, but Styles insists that writing “for the right reasons” supersedes any commercial considerations. “There’s no part that feels, eh, icky – like it was made in the lab,” he says.

Styles has experience in this realm. As a graduate of the UK competition series The X Factor, where he and four other auditionees – Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson – were singled out by show creator and star judge Simon Cowell to conjoin as One Direction, he’s seen how the prefab pop machine works up close. The One Direction oeuvre, which counts some 42 million albums sold worldwide, includes songs written with such established hitmakers as Ryan Tedder, Savan Kotecha and Teddy Geiger. Being a studious, insatiable observer, Styles took it all in. “I learned so much,” he says of the experience. “When we were in the band, I used to try and write with as many different people as I could. I wanted to practice – and I wrote a lot of bad shit.”

His bandmates also benefited from the pop star boot camp. The proof is in the relatively seamless solo transitions of at least three of its members – Payne, Malik and Horan in addition to Styles – each of whom has landed hit singles on charts in the UK, the US and beyond. Styles has plainly thought about this. “When you look at the history of people coming out of bands and starting solo careers, they feel this need to apologise for being in the band. ‘Don’t worry, everyone, that wasn’t me! Now I get to do what I really want to do.’ But we loved being in the band,” he says. “I think there’s a wont to pit people against each other. And I think it’s never been about that for us. It’s about a next step in evolution. The fact that we’ve all achieved different things outside of the band says a lot about how hard we worked in it.”

Indeed, during the five-ish years that One Direction existed, Styles’ schedule involved the sort of nonstop international jet-setting that few get to see in a lifetime, never mind their teenage years. Between 2011 and 2015, One Direction’s tours pulled in north of $US631 million in gross ticket sales, according to concert trade Pollstar, and the band was selling out stadiums worldwide by the time it entered its extended hiatus. Styles, too, had built up to playing arenas as a solo artist, engaging audiences with his colourful stage wear and banter and left-of-centre choices for opening acts (a pre-Grammy-haul Kacey Musgraves in 2018; indie darlings King Princess and Jenny Lewis for his rescheduled 2021 run).

Stages of all sizes feel like home to Styles. He grew up in a suburb of Manchester, ground zero for some of the biggest British acts of the 1980s and 90s, including Joy Division, New Order, the Smiths and Oasis, the latter of which broke the same year Styles was born. His parents were also music lovers. Styles’ father fed him a balanced diet of the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, the Rolling Stones and Queen, while Mum was a fan of Shania Twain, Norah Jones and Savage Garden. “They’re all great melody writers,” says Styles of the acts’ musical throughline.

Stevie Nicks, who in the past has described Fine Line as Styles’ Rumours, referencing the Fleetwood Mac 1977 classic, sees him as a kindred spirit. “Harry writes and sings his songs about real experiences that seemingly happened yesterday,” she tells Variety. “He taps into real life. He doesn’t make up stories. He tells the truth, and that is what I do. Fine Line has been my favourite record since it came out. It is his Rumours. I told him that in a note on December 13, 2019 before he went on stage to play the Fine Line album at the Forum. We cried. He sang those songs like he had sung them a thousand times. That’s a great songwriter and a great performer.”

“Harry’s playing and writing is instinctual,” adds Jonathan Wilson, a friend and peer who’s advised Styles on backing and session musicians. “He understands history and where to take the torch. You can see the thread of great British performers – from Bolan to Bowie – in his music.”

Though Styles has owned properties in Los Angeles, his base for the foreseeable future is London. “I feel like my relationship with LA has changed a lot,” he explains. “I’ve kind of accepted that I don’t have to live here anymore; for a while I felt like I was supposed to. Like it meant things were going well. This happened, then you move to LA! But I don’t really want to.” Is it any wonder? Between COVID and the turmoil in the US spurred by the presidential election, Styles, like some 79 million American voters, is recovering from sticker shock over the bill of goods sold to them by the concept of democracy. “In general, as people, there’s a lack of empathy,” he observes. “We found this place that’s so divisive. We just don’t listen to each other anymore. And that’s quite scary.”

That belief prompted Styles to speak out publicly in the wake of George Floyd’s death. As protests in support of Black Lives Matter took to streets all over the world, for Styles, it triggered a period of introspection, as marked by an Instagram message in which he said he was “privileged every day because I am white” and encouraged social change. “Talking about race can be really uncomfortable for everyone,” Styles elaborates. “I had a realisation that my own comfort in the conversation has nothing to do with the problem – like that’s not enough of a reason to not have a conversation. Looking back, I don’t think I’ve been outspoken enough in the past. Using that feeling has pushed me forward to being open and ready to learn. … How can I ensure from my side that in 20 years, the right things are still being done and the right people are getting the right opportunities? That it’s not a passing thing?”

His record company – and corporate parent Sony Music Group – has been grappling with these same questions as the industry has faced its own reckoning with race, with SMG leading the charge in some respects (like omitting triggering language in label contracts). Styles acknowledges the fundamental imbalance in how a major label deal is structured – the record company takes on the financial risk while the artist is made to recoup money spent on the project before the act is considered profitable and earning royalties (typically at a 15 per cent to 18 per cent rate for the artist, while the label keeps and disburses the rest). “Historically, I can’t think of any industry that’s benefited more off of Black culture than music,” he says. “There are discussions that need to happen about this long history of not being paid fairly. It’s a time for listening, and hopefully, people will come out humbled, educated and willing to learn and change.”

By all accounts, Styles is a voracious reader, a movie lover and an aesthete. He stays in shape by adhering to a strict daily exercise routine. “I tried to keep up but didn’t last more than two weeks,” says Hull, Styles’ producer, with a laugh. “The discipline is terrifying.”

Of course, with the fashion world beckoning – Styles recently appeared in a film series for Gucci’s new collection – and a movie that’s set in the 1950s, maintaining that physique is part of the job. And he’s no stranger to visual continuity after appearing in Christopher Nolan’s epic Dunkirk and having to return to set for reshoots; his hair, which needed to be cut back to its circa 1940 form, is a constant topic of conversation among fans. This time, it’s the ink that poses a challenge. By Styles’ tally, he’s up to 60 tattoos, which require an hour in the makeup chair to cover up. “It’s the only time I really regret getting tattooed,” he says.

He shows no regret, however, when it comes to stylistic choices overall, and takes pride in his gender-agnostic portfolio, which includes wearing a Gucci dress on that Vogue cover – an image that incited conservative pundit Candace Owens to plead publicly to “bring back manly men.” In Styles’ view: “To not wear [something] because it’s females’ clothing, you shut out a whole world of great clothes. And I think what’s exciting about right now is you can wear what you like. It doesn’t have to be X or Y. Those lines are becoming more and more blurred.”

But acclaim, if you can believe it, is not top of mind for Styles. As far as the Grammys are concerned, Styles shrugs, “It’s never why I do anything.” His team and longtime label, however, had their hearts set on a showing at the January 31 ceremony. Their investment in Styles has been substantial – not just monetarily but in carefully crafting his career in the wake of such icons as David Bowie, who released his final albums with the label. Hope at the company and in many fans’ hearts that Styles would receive an album of the year nomination did not come to pass. However, he was recognised in three categories, including best pop vocal album.

“It’s always nice to know that people like what you’re doing, but ultimately – and especially working in a subjective field – I don’t put too much weight on that stuff,” Styles says.

“I think it’s important when making any kind of art to remove the ego from it.” Citing the painter Matisse, he adds: “It’s about the work that you do when you’re not expecting any applause.”

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