I recently had a conversation with someone about Harry Styles being my “celebrity crush.”
“Is that your little celebrity crush?” he asked, dismissive and pompous as ever (the implication being that if Harry Styles were “my little celebrity crush,” it would be out of pure virginal giddiness, a reflexive response to his irresistible charm, rather than an admiration for the Man Himself).
“Oh, not little,” I said. “I think his music is amazing. Probably the best ‘modern’ music released recently.”
He scoffed, but I meant it.
There’s a theory dictating that the reason adolescent girls become obsessed with heartthrobs like Harry (or Justin Bieber, Justin Timberlake, even Elvis and the Beatles) is so they can safely experiment with boys and sexuality with no risk of heartbreak or pregnancy. The perfect solution, as far as I was concerned. (This is coming from a gal whose bedroom was never without a boyband poster, and who did not so much as kiss a boy until the age of 21.)
I used to joke that the longest relationship I’ve ever had with a man has been with Harry Styles. Like so many others, I became infatuated with Harry Styles over a decade ago, gushing over One Direction videos in my middle school cafeteria. And here I am, 12 years later, writing an essay about the man. And much like the lovesickness of the first few months of a relationship wears and transitions to a deeper commitment, my schoolgirlish obsession with Harry has evolved as I have, blossoming into a greater respect and admiration for the artistry and the complete individual behind the pretty face and curly hair and tattoos. I wouldn’t say this commitment is akin to that of a marriage (especially considering I can’t speak to the marital experience having never had any nuptials myself), but rather much like a connection between two old friends who haven’t spoken in quite some time (or in our case, never).
Although One Direction’s music holds a special place in my heart, it is admittedly very vapid, commercialized bubblegum pop. It is by no means complex, though it tried to delve into that realm with “Little Things” or “History.” Perhaps the most sophisticated album was Made in the AM, with comparatively more folksy, mature-sounding tracks such as “What a Feeling” and “History.” That folksy nature seemed to impact Niall Horan, Ireland’s Sweetheart (see: “This Town”). Meanwhile, Louis Tomlinson ventured into forgettable Swedish-backed Europop, Liam Payne attempted and failed to become the next Justin TImberlake, and Zayn Malik solidified a respectable position in R&B.
After emerging from One Direction, Harry was able to explore the somber, genre-bending territory with considerably more adult subject material. Harry deftly cleared the chasms from “What Makes You Beautiful” to “Meet Me in the Hallway,” from “One Thing” to “Ever Since New York,” from “Little Things” to “Woman,” with what appeared as effortless leaps. Seemingly overnight, Harry began to shed his disrespected teeny-bopper label, and stepped into the mold of a bona fide rock star, often compared to Elvis, Mick Jagger, and David Bowie.
Though his self-titled album is certainly a departure from his boyband days, it is quintessentially a debut album, uncertain of the land it would like to occupy. But much like Harry’s entrance into his solo career, his album came when I was first entering adulthood, myself unaware of what would unfold in this next phase of my life (arguably the start of my real life). At the ripe old age of 18, a freshman in college, I initially felt solid in my position in the world. Upon greater reflection though, I, like Harry, had much to learn and plenty of room to grow.
With his sophomore album, released in 2019, Harry continued his exploration into various genres, with a slightly more consistent, slightly darker motif – the psychedelic. Harry’s magnum opus, “She” is clearly influenced by greats like Pink Floyd and Supertramp, while “Sunflower, Vol. 6” and “Canyon Moon” feel like the love-children of the Grateful Dead and the Magical Mystery Tour. Even the album art is something out of a 1960s acid trip, paying homage to Jimi Hendrix, The Byrds, and The Turtles. With Fine Line, Harry firmly announced his position as modern royalty in the pop-rock sphere, securing a place on 2020’s Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Albums of All Time – the most recent album to be included.
While there are clear companions between Self Titled and Fine Line – “Meet Me in the Hallway” and “Fine Line,” “Woman” and “She,” “Cherry” and “From the Dining Table” – Harry’s evolution as an artist is evident, with a much more cohesive sound (or dare I say, style). The through-line appears to be the mixture of angst and delight characterized by one’s early twenties (as I myself can confirm is very real), as evidenced by floating from the sourly self-pitying “To Be So Lonely,” to the sublimely melancholic and mysterious “She,” to the jovial psychedelic diddy “Sunflower, Vol. 6.”
Fine Line embodied one of the best times of my life in 2019. I remember walking down the sunny streets of Santa Monica to head to my favorite coffee shop by the beach before my shift at the tutoring center. I felt pure gratitude, astonishment. This is my life. I’m actually here. To be young and in love and fulfilled and imagine so much to look forward to.
Perhaps I’m romanticizing that chapter, splicing and editing it to the soundtrack of Fine Line. In fact, I know I’m romanticizing, much in the way I do the 1960s and 1970s. Upon reflection (while watching footage of Elvis and Priscilla Presley’s wedding, of all things), I realized this romanticization emerges from the desire to know the outcome. In 1959, Elvis didn’t know he’d become the icon he is today. In 2009, Harry didn’t know if he’d pass his X Factor audition. In 2019, I didn’t know if I’d get a job after graduating with a degree in English, or if he liked me back. But now we collectively know the end of those stories, and can take a sigh of relief. No more wondering. We can sit back after completing a chapter with a satisfying resolution and close the book.
But now it is time for the next chapter, and I am paralyzed by the uncertainty that befalls me. In this odd new chapter of life, I still find Fine Line applicable. These days, instead of blasting “Canyon Moon,” I find myself listening to “To Be So Lonely” on repeat. Having listened to the album in various stages, I’ve come to appreciate the artistry with a greater depth – love, loss, loneliness, community, the solemn monotony and beauty of everyday life, all packaged in a signature sonic theme, making Fine Line as much of a literary creation as a musical one.
After a three-year wait (and what a three year stretch that was), Harry finally returned and fed his ravenous fans with Harry’s House. An obvious callback to 70s folk singers like Joni Mitchell (and her own “Harry’s House,” as well as Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s “Our House”), Harry’s House is clean and sober compared to its older siblings, wading more confidently in the pop pool with a sprinkle of funk and 80s inspiration.
Like Fine Line, the album takes the listener on a hero’s journey, with syncopated and synthesized instrumentals capable of inspiring gyrations, penetrations, and lamentations alike. One could go from recalling their childhood trauma to wanting to dance like nobody’s watching to languishing in the memory of a past love. All these experiences, and yet, the album is as cohesive and undoubtedly Harry as it could get, with a beautiful blend of influences from artists of yesterday and today – Lizzo, Paul McCartney, synth pop groups like a-ha and Duran Duran, the Brothers Johnson, Daft Punk, Khalid, Stevie Wonder; the list goes on.
My first run with Harry’s House took place on a sunny San Francisco Friday. Just as I had strolled to my favorite cafe in Santa Monica, I made my way to my new favorite cafe in my neighborhood in the Fillmore. The parallels are clear, but how much has changed in those three years. Interestingly, as Harry reconciles his roots in pop and his curiosity in exploring other genres, my experience with the album comes at a time when I have simultaneously examined and relived my past experiences and sit terrified in the face of what comes next.
On a meta-level, the album seems to convey Harry The Artist’s playful, devil-may-care attitude in trying on new musical styles, exposing his comfort with unlimited choice. In interviews about the album, Harry expressed his laissez-faire approach to making music: essentially, it may not be the product the audience expects, but it is nonetheless the product he wanted to create at this time in his life.
At the time of writing this, I’d been reading Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated, in which the author wrote, “You are completely free to choose because it doesn’t matter what you choose. That’s why you’re so free. Because it doesn’t matter” (Italics my own). A raucous Bowie-esque debut single? Easy. A mushroom trip? Fire up the recording booth, boys. An exploration into 80’s-inspired pop? No problem. As an artist, Harry makes the most out of whatever avenue he traverses. Whatever he chooses, it doesn’t matter. He’s enjoying himself, transmuting his experiences into self-expression void of expectations. And that’s confidence, baby.
However, Harry as a resident of the house, if you will, seems entirely unconfident. It’s paradoxical, really. Harry The Artist may be proud of his art, but that very art demonstrates his lack of self assurance in his personal life. He constantly questions himself (“Do you think I’m cool, too? Or am I too into you?”), painting portraits of a nervous boy with an obsessive crush, reeking of the desperation and neuroticism characteristic of a new, young romance. Somehow this star, beloved by millions, still questions if he shines bright enough.
Encapsulated in the experience of Harry’s House is the journey toward self actualization and contentment. Harry wades between insecurity and the burden of choice that so plagues young adulthood (remnants of Fine Line), and acceptance of the present moment. And just as I connected with the experience of the past two albums, I see myself wading between these two extremes evident in Harry’s House. At times, I am comfortable with where I am, accepting what is and allowing the rest to come as it should. I’m just going with the flow, doing my own thing and just letting things unfold, I will catch myself telling others. Other times, the sheer uncertainty of it all sends me into a tizzy. Do you think I’m cool, too? Should we just keep driving? It’s not the same as it was.
So, all of this is to say: it’s not just a little celebrity crush. It may seem like my love for Harry is just another girlish fantasy, a continuation of my teenage yearnings; however, to me, it is a relationship with a fellow 20-something, between artist and consumer, speaker and listener.
I tip my hat to you, Harry. Look at us go.