Harry Styles, the debut solo album from Harry Styles, formerly of the British boy band One Direction, comes out this week. This is big news in many quarters, including Rolling Stone magazine (which featured Styles on its last cover), Twitter (where One Direction fans of all ages continue to jockey for the position of who can embrace Styles's new sound the hardest), the remnants of the music industry (which can still rev up an impressive show of solidarity—or rather synergy—when a legitimate superstar makes a new record), and the 82 nations around the world (including the US and UK) that made Styles's lead-off single number one the moment it was available.
Writing that last sentence reminded me of a time when number-one singles and Rolling Stone magazine occupied a more central place in the culture, and when a dutiful music fan might have felt an urge, or even a responsibility, to take a position about Styles, or One Direction—a group of five blisteringly attractive British/Irish lads (none more so than Styles) who were "discovered" by Simon Cowell on the UK TV show The X Factor. But in 2017, it's no challenge to be familiar with one of the biggest international groups of the past decade, and the dating habits of its most famous member, without ever knowingly hearing a single note of their music.
I pause here to mention that while all boy bands are alike to my ears, some of One Direction's songs were noticeably better—which is to say less gratuitously horrible—than most.
The release of the single "Sign of the Times" began prompting podcast conversations about the meaning and merits of Styles's embrace of a rock style on his solo debut. In the context of UK boy band pop stars striking out on their own, "rock" is a relative value that generally means "arranged for and played on instruments that aren't synthesizers," but it's unmistakable that "Sign of the Times" is way more rock than One Direction. That isn't saying much, but given Styles's profile, it also isn't saying nothing.
The rock in question is big and ballady, piano driven in the mode of early-middle Elton John and softly grand like the Raspberries. (Also, I know that verse melody from somewhere.) The other two songs that Styles has aired in public have similarly easy-to-identify antecedents. Second single "Sweet Creature" reaches conspicuously for the string-scrape delicacy of "Blackbird," but grasps something more adult contemporary with the aid of desultory relationship observations ("It's hard when we argue"). The Laurel Canyon harmonies on "Ever Since New York," the other number Styles and his band performed on Saturday Night Live last month, hit a much sweeter spot—not too far down the road from Crosby, Stills & Nash, Jackson Browne, or even, minus one or two more elaborate intervals, Fleet Foxes. His voice has a nice grain of yearn in it.
All of which is to say: If you have a passing acquaintance with the sober end of the 1970s commercial soft-rock canon, Harry Styles's solo stuff will sound deeply familiar, and possibly even pleasing. It seems unlikely that the people who are most eagerly awaiting this album will have those associations to bring to it, so it will be interesting to see what it winds up meaning to them, if "meaning" isn't too grampsy a word to apply to this subject. The idea of contemporary teenagers having their important moments scored by songs meant to evoke the songs that scored similar experiences for their parents, and even grandparents, seems implausible but weirdly appealing.
Because it used to be a reliable signifier of seriousness, toughness, and heterosexuality, turning to rock—or at least a sort of pop-ified version of it—has been a winning strategy for several other alumni of British boy bands, most conspicuously George Michael, who vaulted from the smoldering remains of Wham! to cultivate his Faith period, an album that made conspicuous use of rock sounds while taking full advantage of a club- and pop-chart-friendly production palette.
For Michael, "rock" was as much a fashion choice as a sound, and it came replete with a fashion rock look (jeans, leather jacket, stubble—all as tight as possible) and several impossibly catchy songs and videos meant to reframe the iconography of Elvis for the late 1980s.
His second solo album, Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1, also employed some rock moves, but it embraced the ambitious hybrid of pop and dance elements more brazenly. Speaking of brazen, its impossibly catchy lead-off single, "Freedom '90," also had the audacity to play the ultimate British pop card: addressing its audience directly, essentially begging them to let the singer remain famous despite having previously been a boy band star.
Robbie Williams, who had been a member of the 1990s boy band Take That, was so enamored of George Michael's solo success that he not only repeated his strategy, but borrowed his song. Williams's solo debut was a (not strong) cover of "Freedom '90" in 1996. He never stopped being fundamentally pop, but he found a way to associate himself with the momentum, look, and general feel of Britpop's prominent rock bands.
On reflection, given 1990s rock's tricksy obsession with authenticity, Williams's cozying up to Oasis and company was a pretty amazing ruse for a boy band alumnus to pull off. As a career tactic, though, it was straight out of the pop-star playbook: Go where the fame is. Harry Styles's solo material may not prove to be especially memorable as a collection of music, but it is noteworthy—and I suppose admirable, if you like to think of the world in such terms—for going where the fame isn't, and hasn't been for some time.
Apropos of Britpop and Harry Styles, it's worth considering the career of Damon Albarn as a contrasting example. Though Blur always operated under a traditional rock band model, the success of their third album, Parklife, in 1994, delivered them into the same sphere of UK pop chart stardom as the likes of Take That. They became pinups in magazines published for young girls, fodder for tabloids, and not long after, entered into a singles chart stunt feud with Oasis that would come to permanently link their name and legacy with that vastly inferior group.
At the center of all of this was Albarn, who had a face that was made to be a pop pinup, and whose hunger for fame was evident in every move the band made. The fame he achieved came to be overwhelming, and the inevitable consequences—backlash, fall from grace, personal problems, etc.—wrought changes in Albarn that any observer of his career could see, burying himself in a dazzling and somewhat dizzying number of side projects, solo experiments, and one-offs that not only stood in contrast to his camera-mugging rock band frontman persona, but did so by manifestly removing himself from the center of the frame.
By the time Blur initially split up in 2003, he had already somewhat eclipsed the group by creating Gorillaz, a "virtual" band (in the parlance of the times) with cartoon avatars. The first Gorillaz album sold seven million copies around the world—far more than Blur ever did—and their four subsequent LPs, rich in dance, R&B, and hiphop textures, have also been successes. More to the point, they have been increasingly ambitious with regard to collaborations and guest appearances.
Their unwieldy new 20-song record, Humanz, features appearances by Grace Jones, Mavis Staples, Vince Staples, Pusha T, Rag'n'Bone Man, Anthony Hamilton, Carly Simon, De La Soul, Jean-Michel Jarre, and even Noel Gallagher, among others. Plastic Beach from 2010 had Snoop Dogg, Lou Reed, Mos Def, Bobby Womack, Gruff Rhys, Mark E. Smith, and Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the Clash (who also featured in the touring band).
Though it has become impossible to keep track of everything Albarn does, the factor his many projects seem to have in common is that he is surrounded, even obscured, by the people he works with. There are many songs on Humanz on which his voice—the group's only real identifiable element—never appears. He has become content to linger behind the curtain, orchestrating the chaos, letting Jamie Hewlett's cartoon avatars do his mugging for him.
Talk about a sign of the times.