September 20, 2010 was an important day for pop culture – even if you don’t know it.
Just over 7.5 years ago, Harry Styles – previously known as one fifth of the massively successful, brilliantly devised boy band otherwise known as One Direction – auditioned for the British television show The X Factor. At just sixteen years old, Styles is hardly recognizable to the multidimensional superstar that he has become – appearing onstage with a mop of brown curly hair, wearing a taupe cardigan and matching scarf, quietly sharing his college plans – (he was going to study sociology, law and business in University) – and that he developed his passion for music after becoming the singer of his high school band, “White Eskimo.”
After performing his 30 second version of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” Styles won over the judges and was successfully moving onto the next round. Unfortunately, Styles’ journey on The X Factor as a solo artist ended quite abruptly. As the story goes, (or as all One Direction fans know it), all five future members of 1D, Styles, Niall Horan, Zayn Malik, Louis Tomlinson and Liam Payne were brought back to the stage after being sent home and formed the cultural phenomenon otherwise now known as One Direction.
Despite the group’s success during the competition, they ultimately came in third place, but that didn’t stop Simon Cowell, the brains behind the formation of One Direction, signed the group to his label, Syco Records.
Thanks to the very enthusiastic fans on social media all around the world, One Direction was quickly catapulted to success and ended up creating five albums between 2011 and 2015 – created hit singles like “What Makes You Beautiful,” “Story of My Life” and “Drag Me Down,” just to name a few.
After Zayn Malik left the group in March of 2015, fans feared the end of One Direction. While the remaining four members released Made In The A.M. in 2015, their run ended less than a year after Malik’s departure, announcing a hiatus (with no end date in sight) is January 2016.
All five members of One Direction have attempted to create solo careers for themselves in some form. The first to attempt was Zayn Malik, whose debut album, Mind Of Mine, released exactly one year after the announcement that he was leaving One Direction (calculating or catty? You decide). Taking a more R&B approached aesthetic to his album, Mind of Mine went on to immediately debut at number one on the UK Albums Chart: making Malik first British male to reach the number one spot with a debut album since George Michael in 1988 (and he took him nine weeks to get to #1).
Next was Louis Tomlinson, who chose to collaborate with DJ Steve Aoki, debuting a song called “Just Hold On,” released only days after Tomlinson’s mom shockingly passed away from cancer at the young age of 43. “Just Hold On” debuted at at number 2 on the UK Singles Chart and number 52 on the US Billboard Hot 100. While rumors continue to circulate around Tomlinson and his plans for future solo work, only time will tell as to whether or not he will indeed release more.
Niall Horan released his first song as a solo artist in September 2016 titled “This Town.” The song peaked at number 9 on the UK Singles Chart and number 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. His debut album is expected later this year.
Liam Payne’s debut single “Strip That Down” was just released on May 23, 2017, partnering with Quavo – which – after Google, I discovered that is one third of the rap group, Migos. Payne, like Malik, seemed to take a more contemporary R&B pop direction with his music, but failed to be perceived as anything but “safe” and “the least impressive debut” out of the five previous members of One Direction.
This leaves us with Styles, whose release of his debut single, “Sign of the Times,” on April 7, 2017, arguably had the best public reception. The single reached number one on the UK Singles Charts and sold 39,000 downloads, not to mention getting 3.5 million streams in the first week. In the states, the song debuted at number four on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold 142,000 copies and 16.5 million streams.
“Sign of the Times” was received by critics as a nod to the late David Bowie. The song comes up to 5 minutes and 40 seconds: marking a decision to release the debut single for a brand new solo career notes that Styles hardly chose cater to radio, a risk that seemed to pay off for Styles, who performed the track, along with “Ever Since New York” on SNL just eight days after the track’s international release.
Styles’ self titled debut album was released on May 12, 2017, just about four weeks after his performance on SNL. While Styles is the second member of One Direction to release a full length album, it’s debatable that he may be the only ex-member of One Direction whose solo career will continue to be taken seriously (and I may be a little bias).
Rolling Stone called Styles “a true rock & roll prince, a sunshine superman, a cosmic dancer in touch with his introspective acoustic side as well as his glam flash” and someone who “manages to steer clear of all the traps that ordinarily sabotage a boy-band star’s solo move.” Pitchfork complimented Styles’ “exceptional voice” and his debut release “captivating.” Vanity Fair compares Styles’ debut to “space rock and Fleetwood Mac and Sunset Strip scuzz and Brit-pop nostalgia.”
So what’s the deal with all of the hype? You may be familiar with One Direction’s sugar pop sound with radio friendly hits, but to the not so casual One Direction fan, Styles’ new direction into the rock vibes that he possesses on his debut were more than predictable. As One Direction matured as artists, so did their sound, with nods to a more class rock-sound on songs like “Stockholm Syndrome” and “Olivia.” It only makes sense that Styles, who contributed heavily to the songwriting in One Direction, naturally ventured in this direction of music. He always seemed to be the odd man out of the group, showing a different sense of musicianship from the beginning and arguably the only member of One Direction who could have had a solid run in the X Factor as a solo artist.
“Meet Me in The Hallway” opens the album in a somber tone, as Styles croons about a lover who left him in the hallway, singing that “I’ll be at the door / hoping you’ll come around.” The dissonance in the chorus between the melody and Styles’ voice is reminiscent of The Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” While the song does seem to be about love, the style is not even remotely comparable to his old roots in One Direction and gives the album the mystery it needs to keep the listener wanting to hear more.
Solid songs on the album that deserve recognition is the country twang “Carolina,” the third track on the album that has been debunked as a song about a girl named Townes Adair Jones, a 20-year-old from South Carolina that Styles briefly met in a location unknown to the world. As many teenage girls have dreamed happening to them, Styles sings that “I met her once and wrote a song about her.”
The album slows down its momentum with tracks like “Two Ghosts” – which sounds like it can be a John Mayer track – and “Sweet Creature,” – which is itself, is a genuinely nice written song, but sounds just a little too reminiscent of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” for me to not comment on.
Styles’ rock momentum continues on the album with “Only Angel,” and “Kiwi,” songs where it’s Harry’s turn to strip the boyband image and come out swinging as a full blown sexual rock star. Based on the public reception of the album, the role is being successfully played on Styles’ end – just listen to the Elton John vibing “Woman,” the ninth track on the album with massive guitar riffs and piano solos that rival the legendary Elton John himself.
I hope you can see the shape I’ve been in / While he’s touching your skin / This thing upon me, howls like a beast / You flower, you feast.
I don’t need to tell you that “Ever Since New York” is most likely about Styles’ short lived romance with Taylor Swift – the gossip magazines have called that even before the song was released and all we had was the title of the track. While the song is nice in itself, and we all know how much I love Swift, it tends to put me asleep.
I saved the best for last: “From the Dining Table.” Styles’ album closes just how it began, with a slow ballad about being alone and vulnerable. While “Meet Me in The Hallway” shows Styles’ soft side, it’s not comparable to the emotions felt in the final track, where Styles admits waking up alone in his hotel room and masturbating, falling back asleep and getting drunk by noon. If that’s not a way to be vulnerable on a debut album after catering to a ton of prepubescent girls for five years of your initial career, I don’t know what is.
The song encapsulates the album in three and a half minutes: the loneliness of being a rock star, the ability to get any girl in the room but it not being enough.
“Woke up the girl who looked just like you / I almost said your name”
and the sheer madness that comes with traveling around the world and missing the familiarity and safeness of what used to be.
Harry Styles is trying to be himself, even if you think that it’s an act. The transition from boyband superstar to bonafide rockstar is apparent in the album and the ambitiousness behind creating a cohesive, marketable, mainstream rock album is no easy feat. Styles may be a heartthrob and may never shed his boyband image as the sixteen-year-old who auditioned for the X-Factor in in 2010, but he’s sure going to try.