When One Direction were just taking off, and the sugary staccato intro to ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ was absolutely inescapable, I, like many other people who wanted to be considered distanced from the growing hysteria surrounding ‘that X-Dactor boy band’, turned my nose up. I groaned when it came on the radio, extra loud so people knew I disapproved. It wasn’t a good song, and people (girls) were stupid for liking it, auto-tuned and annoying as it was. Fast forward a few years and here I am, nailing my flag to the mast for Harry Styles. I actually consider this a marker of personal growth. Let me explain.
Admittedly, WMYB is a bit of a terrible song. But it was catchy and inoffensive enough to provide a foot in the door for 1D as they were starting out. But as the albums kept coming, the song-writing did undeniably mature. ‘Perfect’, on which Styles has writing credits, is a straight up jam. Even Rolling Stone gave it four stars. Fast forward again, to the interview Rolling Stone have just published with Styles. In it they poke Harry about his One Direction days, dangling former bandmate Zayn Malik’s comments about their music in the hopes that Styles too would admit that One Direction weren’t what he wanted to be doing. “One Direction is not music that I would listen to. If I was sat at a dinner date with a girl, I would play some cool shit, you know what I mean? I want to make music that I think is cool shit”, Malik said. Styles replies with a measured, but genuine sounding “I think it’s a shame he felt that way.” Immediately, Malik comes across as snobbish and arrogant, but up until recently I probably would have agreed with him.
One Direction were most definitely not ‘cool shit’, but they were enjoyable, no-harm fun, and the cause of many living room jams and screaming sing-alongs, once I stopped groaning every time someone turned their music on. What exactly was wrong with openly enjoying their music? Malik could take his ‘cool shit’, but I was no longer interested in just liking music to impress other people. Rolling Stone asks Styles if he’s worried about appealing to the ‘older crowd’ and his answer is something I think everyone needs to think about. The journalist is thinly veiling a question about Styles female fans, of course, which Styles sees right through. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say… Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you.”
Right there Styles has sliced through the age-old gender bias that has been swirling around pop music since day one. When I was sighing at One Direction it was a gender bias I was unconsciously subscribing to. I was trying to not be like other girls, listen to ‘real’ music, the whole set of clichés. I was fighting the view that teenage girls can’t be serious music fans, or be ‘serious’ about pop music. Styles has no time for that view, as well he shouldn’t – he knows he owes his success to these girls, and he obviously doesn’t take it lightly, and he will defend them.
Styles is an interesting cultural figure. He wears his classic rock inspirations quite literally on his sleeve, dressing in floating women’s silk shirts and floral patterned suits. The image he puts out is nothing new: Bowie, Prince, Marc Bolan – they’ve all been there before, but he’s one of a few cultural figures bringing back this casual androgyny in the mainstream. (Less well-known artists like Christine & The Queens and Perfume Genius are doing the same.) Styles’ album artwork is another example; all that soft pink, petals, the vulnerability of his naked back, all adding up to a gentle refusal not only to be the squeaky clean boyband member anymore, but also of today’s normalised hyper-masculinity. If the pink aesthetic reminds you of something, it might be The 1975’s latest album. Lead singer Matty Healy wears heels, lipstick and nail polish on stage, calls himself a feminist and covers Justin Bieber and One Direction in The 1975’s concerts. Their aesthetic, like Styles’, isn’t an accident.
Styles’ songs aren’t particularly revolutionary, but they’re a refreshing change in the pop landscape – ‘Sign of The Times’ is a deliberate throwback to Styles’ musical inspirations, and a promise that he’s going to put out the music he wants to make regardless of its mainstream appeal. If teenage girls like it, then that’s fine and welcome. With the critical success of The 1975’s most recent album (nominated for numerous awards) and their status as indie-pop-lite because of their female fan-base, it’s an attitude that the rest of the music industry would do well to embrace. Teenage girls deserve better.
Image: Another Man