A boy is a boy for only a very brief space. He has to be old enough to be capable of sexual response but not yet old enough to shave…The male human is beautiful when his cheeks are still smooth, his body hairless, his head full-maned, his eyes clear, his manner shy and his belly flat.
Germaine Greer, The Boy
The modern style of interpretation excavates, and as it excavates, destroys; it digs “behind” the text, to find a sub-text which is the true one.
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
He was gazing at the bare shoulders of a young male, lithe and nubile, partially submerged in pink liquid, facing away from the camera; his identity concealed, obscure. One of his hands appeared to be brushing his face. Traces of tattoos were visible on his arms, but not on his back, which was almost completely unblemished, barely marked by moles or scars. Pure. His pale skin was glazed with droplets, his hair darkly slick and ragged, and at the base of his neck a double pendant chain formed an irregular, sail-shaped triangle. The square pendant bore the picture of a flower.
He had been considering the photograph for some time now, trying to read something into its enigmatic quality. He found the image arousing, but not in a tawdry sense. The photograph had been all but ubiquitous little over a year ago; now it had more or less disappeared from public view. It could have been an anonymous young model preening in a paddling pool for the purpose of a Vogue photoshoot, or a throwaway snap from some teenager’s endlessly updated Instagram feed, but this was in fact a carefully composed and deliberately stylised photograph of one of the most instantly recognisable young men on the planet.
The photograph adorned the cover of Harry Styles’ self-titled debut album, Harry Styles.
In the photograph, Harry Styles appeared to be praying or bathing himself in the amniotic fluid of his post-boyband rebirth; a surreal self-Baptism in pink milk, the labile liquidity of Millennial identity. By turning away from the viewer’s gaze, Harry Styles’ bare back suggested that the music within contains an intimacy and vulnerability hitherto unseen, while the essential knowability of Harry Styles - his true self - was closed off. Protected. The softness of the photograph’s tonal palette, coupled with Harry Styles’ apparent nudity, playfully engaged with gender stereotyping and sexualisation within the music industry, and contemporary culture more generally.
On closer inspection, the flower on the pendant was revealed as a lotus, a symbol of divine perfection in the Hindu faith, or spiritual purity to Buddhists. Yet while the lotus divinities of those faiths were able to float above and transcend material wants and needs, Harry Styles had partially-submerged himself in the entropic waters of the liquid contemporary. Harry Styles was either Narcissus contemplating his reflection, or an iGeneration pessimist.
It was a bold move, releasing an album with a cover which was a portrait of ambiguity, inviting and resisting interpretation.
Harry Styles was Harry Styles’ declaration of self-definition, an album keen to acknowledge its ambitions and influences, an aural manifestation of the former boyband member casting off his manufactured identity. A bildungsroman of musical selfhood. An aural doodle. A mood-board.
He had bought the record for his wife, after she expressed her enjoyment of the lead single, and an admiration of the singer’s physical form more generally. He listened to it with reluctant appreciation, acceptance of its cultural value, but without the jouissance or adulation of others. Nevertheless, it had grown on him.
The album pivoted on the first single, ‘Sign of the Times’, which, according to one reviewer, mined the back catalogues of Pink Floyd, David Bowie, Queen, Spacehog, Suede, Coldplay, The Beatles, Eric Carmen and Prince, even borrowing its title from the latter’s 1987 album ‘Sign O’ The Times’.
Unlike Prince’s spooling litany of socio-political observations, in his neo-apocalyptic ballad Harry Styles murmured his impassioned apprehension of the precarious nature of contemporary existence. For the music video, Harry Styles levitated above the craggy landscapes of a sceptred isle, conjuring the tropes of desolation and isolation. We’ve got to get away, Styles lamented, before slipping the surly bonds of earth and ascending into the pinkly-hued heavens.
The spectre of Robbie Williams loomed large over the album, with its singer-songwriter aspirations, its AOR eclecticism and arena rock postures. Twenty years earlier, Robbie Williams had acrimoniously and ignominiously left his boyband under a cloud, falling into heavy drink and drug abuse, followed by a stint in rehab and the recording of his debut album, Life thru a Lens.
When Life thru a Lens was released in the late nineties, Williams had attempted to launch a Britpop album during the post-Britpop comedown. Next to the proggier sounds of The Verve, Spiritualized and Radiohead, Britpop V2.0, It was unlikely to receive positive reviews, and as an album it was largely forgettable save for ‘Angels’, the album’s redemptive centrepiece, an epic ballad which sound-tracked a thousand weddings and funerals, and shot Robbie Williams into the stratosphere for almost a decade.
‘Angels’ saved Robbie Williams’ floundering career and made him a multimillionaire. Robbie Williams showed Harry Styles how (not) to do it. Unlike Robbie Williams, who had left Take That badly, spouting acrimonious barbs as he parted, the apparently more sober Harry Styles had stayed the course, quietly working on solo material as the lifespan of the band he’d named slowly petered out. When ‘Angels’ was released, Harry Styles would have been three years old. Highly likely he would have no memory of it.
Watching the music videos for each single on YouTube, it was clear that the Serious Solo Artist template was being adhered to: popstar protagonist, clad in a dark greatcoat, striding through an exquisitely cinematic landscape; a narrative describing a essentially pastoral English sensibility, one which, upon being discomforted by modernity, seeks out a Paradise Lost; transcendent imagery to complement the song’s elegiac conclusion.
One Direction. It was Harry Styles who came up with the group’s name. When the band formed, he remembered thinking that the name was an unforgivable, if unintentional, double entendre. One Direction. Wand erection. Throbbing gristle. The only way is up.
One Direction was a band of five teenage boys brought together from the knock out stages of The X-Factor. Groomed and auto-tuned for greatness by manufactured music bogeyman Simon Cowell. Purveyors of forgettable singles, record-breaking tours and lucrative endorsements. An extended hiatus and the door left open for a blockbuster reunion whenever the solo careers hit the skids.
Take That had been more familiar, more present in his teenage years than One Direction had been in his thirties, for obvious reasons; yet in the early days of One Direction’s nascent megastardom, it was always Harry Styles who generated the most press interest, and it was Harry Styles who separated himself from the rest of the group in his mind. First, for his distinctive elfin features; then for dating a woman fourteen years his senior; latterly for dating Taylor Swift.
He knew who Harry Styles was without ever having heard his music. Of course, he didn’t really know who Harry Styles was at all. Neither did his legion of fans.
By the time the One Direction stardust had settled, Harry Styles had become a global brand and fashion icon, one of the most discussed, dissed and mentally-undressed men in the world, effortlessly switching barely-pubescent innocent of the X-Factor auditions to a brooding singer-songwriter with actorly aspirations. During that time, he had also become a multi-millionaire philanthropist and activist spokesman. By the time his debut album was released, he was still only twenty-four years old.
He had to cast his mind back to what he was doing at twenty-four years old. He was still living with his parents.
There was something too perfect about the Harry Styles story. His cherubic good looks, his ludicrous bouffant of hair. Even his apparently everyman name came with a faint whiff of artifice. Harry being faintly regal, Styles a cratyllic name on par with that of Usain Bolt. Imagine if he’d been called Barry. Barry Styles. Or Gary. Gary Styles. It wouldn’t have worked.
He might have known someone who knew someone who knew Styles, or his family, for Harry Styles had grown up in the affluent enclaves of Holmes Chapel, in Cheshire, a few miles from his own parents’ home. Despite his transatlantic lifestyle, he still spoke with a recognisable Cheshire twang, a gruff hybrid of Manc, Scouse and Potter. When he spoke, Harry Styles sounded like one of his friends.
Visiting his parents, the previous Christmas, his wife and her friend had seen Harry Styles walk into the local pub while they were having lunch. He was wearing a plush woollen cardigan and had shorn his verdant locks for his supporting role in Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk. He seemed completely at ease in his surroundings, unaffected by fame. Perhaps his new hairstyle confused the hoi polloi. It could have been his brother, or a doppelganger. Not the genuine article.
For every Harry Styles there were thousands of Harry and Harriet Nobody, musicians, actors, singers, tribute acts who wouldn’t make the grade. He wondered what differentiated Harry Styles from them, other than being possessed of slightly skewed good looks.
One of his brother’s school friends had been plying his trade as a singer-songwriter since leaving university. A nice guy, inoffensive-looking, decent voice and talented with the guitar. He had never made it further than singing at friends’ weddings and posting cover versions of hit songs on YouTube. He had little to show for twenty years grind, other than increasingly desperate eyes.
He thought of other creative talents he had known at school, who had been tipped for great things only to see their promise dissipate and disappear, despite their talent; or others who had worked tirelessly to get their art out into the world, to total indifference. All those who’d started bands and given it their best shot and come up with nothing. What did it mean to be a musician in a culture where selling out first was the best means to get art made? He didn’t know. He thought of his own work, small and limited in scale and ambition. He had no desire to change the world, to teach the world to sing.
He thought of the Coen Brothers’ film, Inside Llewellyn Davis, the ineptitude and sociopathic tendencies of the eponymous hero, which repeatedly scupper his chances of success, elusive as a loose cat on a tube train. In the closing scene, after playing at the Gaslight Cafe in New York, the main character is beaten up in the alley outside as a young Bob Dylan plays the gig which will later be feted by Robert Shelton in The New York Times, catapulting him to local celebrity and thereafter national and international stardom.
Then there was Gene Clark, The Byrd with a fear of flying, who after leaving the folk-rock outfit he founded refused to tour his solo albums and disappeared into obscurity, before being rediscovered by a new generation of fans, long after his death at forty-six from a bleeding ulcer brought on by years of drink and drug abuse. Gene Clark, who wrote There's always a reality in what you are doing / sometimes it's so hard to see which one is the true one, who made a handful of bewitching albums which bespoke his visionary lyricism and phenomenal songwriting ability, but which, due to his personal problems and ill fortune, didn’t make him a dime. Gene Clark, who we should be speaking of in the same appreciative tones as Dylan or Joni or Neil or Leonard, not lamenting his wasted talent.
Of all the talents it was possible to have, the ability to hold a tune - or not so much hold as transform a recognisable song into quavering reverberations of alien sound - had become a passport to untold riches and fame. This was what fed the X-Factor phenomenon and kept legions of hopeful young people queuing around the block for their shot a fame, under the tutelage of an industry hungry for more easily-manipulated wannabes. This was made Harry Styles’ story relatable, tangible, compelling. It could have happened to anyone. Equally, it might not have happened. There’s always room for one more Harry Styles.
This was the final truth of the photograph. The Harry Styles on the cover of Harry Styles was not the Harry Styles of Dunkirk; nor was it the Harry Styles of One Direction, the Harry Styles of countless music videos and arena tours; it was not the priapic Harry Styles of the world’s gossip magazines; nor the Harry Styles of Holmes Chapel Comprehensive School, the Harry Styles of his childhood band White Eskimo; nor was it the Harry Styles known to his close friends and family, his significant other, his intimates and his entourage, his hangers on. This Harry Styles was not that Harry Styles. That Harry Styles was gone. He had ceased to exist.
Some months later he saw another photograph of Harry Styles. This time it was a paparazzi photograph of Harry Styles leaving a recording studio in Los Angeles clutching a copy of Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. Sontag’s eponymous essay had called for a rejection of hermeneutics in favour of a new erotics of art which emphasised the primitive and sensual.
To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world—in order to set up a shadow world of “meanings”, Sontag wrote. Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.
Perhaps that was what Harry Styles had attempted with ‘Sign of the Times’ and the metamodernist modes of his debut album, vacillating between innovation and pastiche, heartfelt ballads and swaggering cock-rock. Not meaning, but feeling. An erotics of art. Perhaps Harry Styles, by toting this volume for all to see, was simply leveraging a degree of foreshadowing in advance of the new album, or some canny backshadowing to counteract the muted critical response to his previous album. Perhaps Harry Styles really dug Susan Sontag and was about to move on to Roland Barthes or Julia Kristeva. Perhaps Styles too believed in the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are. The luminosity of his album cover, without symbolic resonance. A boy in the bath: l’art pour l’arte.
But then again, perhaps he was carrying the book for someone else. Perhaps it was a gift from a suitor or new lover. Perhaps it wasn’t Harry Styles at all.