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
He is gazing at the bare shoulders of a male figure, lithe and nubile, partially submerged in pink liquid. His pale skin is glazed with droplets, dark hair slick and ragged, and at the base of his neck a double pendant chain forms an irregular, sail-shaped triangle. The square pendant carries the picture of a flower. Facing away from the camera, his identity is concealed, obscure. One of his hands appears to brush his face. Traces of tattoos are visible on his arms, but not on his back, which is almost completely unblemished. Pure.
He had been gazing at the image for some time now, trying to read its enigmatic quality. To all intents and purposes, it might have been an anonymous young model preening in a paddling pool for the purpose of a Vogue photoshoot, only this was one of the most instantly recognisable young men on the planet, Harry Styles.
The figure in the photograph, Harry Styles himself, appeared to be praying, or bathing himself in the amniotic fluid of his post-One Direction rebirth, a surreal self-Baptism of sorts. One analysis of the image linked the pastel pink water motif to the hue ‘Millennial Pink’, with Harry Styles being assigned the role of generational spokesperson.
The softness of the tonal palette deployed, coupled with Harry Styles’ apparent nudity, playfully engaged with gender stereotyping and sexualisation within the music industry and contemporary culture more widely. By turning away from the viewer’s gaze, Harry Styles’ bare back suggests that the music within contains an intimacy and vulnerability hitherto unseen, while the essential knowability of Harry Styles - his true self - remains closed off to us.
Elsewhere, the flower depicted on the pendant was the lotus, a symbol of divine perfection in the Hindu faith, or spiritual purity to Buddhists. Yet while the lotus divinities of these faiths were able to float above and transcend material and physical wants and needs, Harry Styles was bogged down in the entropic waters of his liquid contemporary epoch. If one really wanted to push it, Harry Styles was Narcissus contemplating his reflection. A spokesperson for the iGeneration. Millennial Think.
The photograph had been all but ubiquitous little over a year ago. He had bought the album for his wife, after she expressed her enjoyment of the lead single, and an admiration of Harry Styles’ physical form more generally. He listened to it with begrudging appreciation, if not respect.
Harry Styles pivoted on the first single, ‘Sign of the Times’, a track which borrowed its title from Prince’s 1987 album ‘Sign O’ The Times’. Unlike Prince’s spooling litany of socio-political observations, Harry’s Styles’ highly-polished, neo-apocalyptic ballad concerned itself with the precarious nature of existence in the Twenty-First Century. The zeitgeist absorbed, distilled and repackaged.
Here was Harry Styles’ declaration of intent, a kitchen sink kind of album of hurried styles and muddied influences, an aural manifestation of the former boyband member casting off the shadow of his former self.
The spectre of Robbie Williams loomed large over the album, with its shared-songwriting credits, its AOR eclecticism and arena rock postures. Twenty years earlier, Robbie Williams had scored a career-saving hit with ‘Angels’, which soared and swept in a similar way to ‘Sign of the Times’. Back in 1997, ‘Angels’ sold 1.2 million copies in the UK, taking the much coveted Christmas Number 1 spot. A Number One in the UK with limited sales, in the US, ‘Sign of the Times’ was downloaded 16.5 million times. When ‘Angels’ was released, Harry Styles would have been just three years old.
He first heard Robbie Williams’ debut album, Life Through a Lens, in the late nineties. It was largely forgettable save for ‘Angels’, the centrepiece of the album, an epic ballad which shot Robbie Williams into the stratosphere for almost a decade. Unlike Robbie Williams, who had left Take That in the midst of a alcohol and drug binge, 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.
Take That had been more familiar, more present in his teenage years than One Direction had been in his thirties, for obvious reasons. Take That were inescapable, while One Direction were easily ignored. It was Harry Styles who came up with the group’s name. When the band formed he remembered thinking that the name was a terrible, if unintentional, double entendre. One Direction. Wand erection. Throbbing gristle.
Five teenage boys cobbled together from the knock out stages of The X-Factor. Groomed and auto-tuned for greatness by manufactured music bogeyman Simon Cowell. 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.
in the early days of One Direction’s nascent megastardom, it was always Harry Styles who generated the most press interest. First for dating a woman 14 years his senior, then for dating the icily cool Taylor Swift. 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 after 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. He was still only twenty-four years old.
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. He knew who Harry Styles was without ever having heard his music. Of course, he didn’t really know who he was at all. Neither did his legion of fans.
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 Galacticos locks for his supporting role in Christopher Nolan’s 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.
Yet 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 really, really, ridiculously good-looking. 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.
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 cat. 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.
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 manipulable wannabes. This was made Harry Styles’ story relatable, tangible, compelling. It could have happened to anyone. Equally, it might not have happened to him.
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 was it 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 return to formalism and a rejection of hermeneutics in favour of a new erotics of art which emphasised the primitive and sensual.
Perhaps that was what Harry Styles had attempted with the metamodernist modes of his debut album, vacillating between innovation and pastiche, heartfelt melodies and swaggering cock-rock. 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 he was carrying it as a gift for someone else. Perhaps it wasn’t Harry Styles at all.