Back when One Direction, the biggest act to come out of The X Factor, was formed in 2010, it carried the same appeal as a pet shop chain: superficially cute, instantly recognisable, mass market -friendly. At the time Justin Bieber was melting hearts with the rays of sunlight reflected off his signature haircut, and the music industry recognised that more of the same was needed to fill the apparent gap left in the wake of the Jonas Brothers.
In 2012 The Telegraph (forgive me, reader) analysed the success of One Direction in the following terms: ‘there was still a huge appetite for clean cut, wholesome, whiter-than-white, middle class parent friendly pop: cute boys advocating puppy love. It is safe sex for dangerous times. And what could be better than one cute boy, if not five?’ Indeed. I am strongly reminded of Bo Burnham’s parody song ‘Repeat Stuff’ — this level of calculated cynicism is normally left to dating agencies and divorce lawyers. Also, Zayn Malik, who was with One Direction since the band’s foundation and until 2015, is of Pakistani descent. Take that (forgive me, reader), Neil McCormick from The Telegraph.
Having not been interested in boy bands since The Beatles and The Beach Boys stopped qualifying as such, I ignored One Direction the way you can ignore a giraffe licking your face. In 2011 their hit ‘What Makes Your Beautiful’ could be heard from every passing car and open shoebox, confirming the opinion I had previously had about the act’s music. It was repetitive, with catchy choruses and comforting lyrics, but, ultimately, inoffensive and boring.
In 2016, after leaving the band, Zayn Malik released a solo record: Mind of Mine. That was the first of the albums made by One Direction members independently of each other. That is where things, supposedly, get interesting.
One of the marketing ideas behind One Direction was to keep the band image cohesive and clear while allowing for a degree of individuality. Thus, not unlike the main cast of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, the members of One Direction were ascribed distinguishable features, one per person: ‘the cute little Irish one’, ‘the quiet and mysterious one’, ‘the sensible one’, ‘the charming one’ and ‘the funny one’. People, like ice-cream, come in many flavours of sweet!
‘The charming one’ is Harry Styles, him of the Taylor Swift exes pantheon. In my corner of the world, there was that picture of their Central Park date — an Urban Outfitters advertisement, entirely meme-worthy in the larger context — and Tumblr-originated rumours that Styles was the most talented of the band and that one should keep an eye out for what’s to follow. What followed is his debut solo record Harry Styles, released a couple of weeks ago.
Harry Styles immediately topped the UK charts, yet that says little about the album’s quality. Styles had previously achieved a level of fame that meant anything and everything he would do would sell. To illustrate that point, here is a quote from a Rolling Stone article: ‘When [Styles] pulled over to the side of the 101 freeway in L.A. and discreetly threw up, the spot became a fan shrine. It’s said the puke was even sold on eBay like pieces of the Berlin Wall.’
When even the vomit you produce is coveted, that does not exactly set a high standard. That said, Harry Styles is not a bad record. It is not a great record either, but when so much of pop music produced in the recent years sounds overprocessed or as a continuous circle of rip-offs and established patterns (every song is written for Rihanna and features will.i.am, plus the Millennial Whoop), it is nice to hear something different — if not truly original.
‘Sign of the Times’, the first single released from the album, is probably the strongest track out of the ten comprising the record. It is a mellow hymn to the apocalypse, with a hypnotic hook and melodramatic lyrics, instantly giving an idea of the best and worst sides of Harry Styles. First of all, it is not a pop album. It is soft rock, very much nodding to the early Rolling Stones — the way Styles himself is often seen in comparison to Mick Jagger, both on and off the stage.
The lyrical language consists of phrases that have not been around for a while: ‘sweet creature’, ‘Couldn’t take you home to mother in a skirt that short / But I think that’s what I like about it’, ‘she’s a devil in between the sheets’, etc. There is a couple of inventive images and lines: “Oh, I think she said, ‘I’m having your baby, it’s none of your business’” and ‘When’s she’s alone, she goes home to the cactus’, both occurring in ‘Kiwi’, track No. 7. There is a couple of cringeworthy bits, such as ‘Even my phone misses your call’ in the last track, and this refrain from ‘Carolina’:
She’s a good girl
She’s such a good girl
Yeah, she’s a good girl
She feels so good
She feels so good
I am having trouble reading it any way other than as a weirdly sexual ode to a female dog.
Chiefly, the vocabulary and the music of this record come from a fancy dress shop. It may be a practice adopted naturally, but everything still carries the hint of mothballs and déjà vu, which would explain the rather outdated and un-nuanced descriptions of the female.
The pleasure of Harry Styles is in the updated sound of old music. The weakness of Harry Styles is that, at heart, it is an imitation. Back when The Doors and the Stones were making their cult records, there was a bite, a spite, and a challenge to their songs. Using the exact same tools half a century later cannot provide the same effect, resulting instead in a work of an apprentice studying the masters. Yet, I am comparing Styles to the best of rock because he invites that comparison.
To return to an earlier point, it is worthwhile to keep an eye out for Harry Styles and what he might produce in the future, two or three albums from now. As it is, his debut record is possibly the most intelligent and accessible way to introduce his existing One Direction fan base to a different type of music and to a different Styles, one that comes with all the tattoos and none of the branding.
Discography: Harry Styles, Harry Styles. United Kingdom. Released on Columbia Records from May 12th, 2017. (On AllMusic)
Current album: Harry Styles, Harry Styles
Current book: Deborah Levy, Hot Milk
Current TV series: Twin Peaks, Series 1 (1990)