Alright, it’s happening: Harry Styles’ full-length debut has dropped, and will likely snag the No. 1 spot on the UK albums chart. And not a soul should be surprised.
The commercial and critical success of Harry Styles (both the record and the artist) was determined during the early days of One Direction, particularly as his writing efforts on the band’s singles and albums proved as rich in accessibility as they were in storytelling. And they didn’t stop there: after writing for Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, Augustana, and Gavin DeGraw, Harry’s universality inferred his understanding of and respect for pop music in general. Which was made even more obvious by his continued praise for 1D—a sharp contrast to Zayn’s revelations that he never particularly liked the music.
But is being a solid pop artist with a decent pop record good enough? In the year of our lord 2017, as the world falls more and more to pieces, is producing an album built solidly on the foundation of sex and romance the album we need? Or is it the album we deserve? Does Harry Styles need to get political?
Actually, he already has. Before even Zayn left One Direction, Harry’s views on gender and sexuality were a refreshing reflection of how far pop stars have evolved. Where the boy bands of yore (think New Kids, BSB, and *NSYNC) relied heavily on a heteronormative schtick complimented by their open button-ups and dedications to she and her, 1D often shied away from establishing who they were singing to. Which was important: the band, their own preferences aside, were mindful in their language not to exclude queer and non-binary fans from their lyrical narratives. And this sent the message that all fans had a place in the One Direction fandom—Harry and the boys weren’t interested in discriminating.
So add to this his views on Brexit (he’s voting for “whoever’s against” it in the upcoming UK election), his previous allegiance to the Labour Party, and this week’s jokes about Donald Trump during his residency on the Late Late Show, and Harry Styles has largely established himself as a political figure—a feat, when you consider artists like Taylor Swift merely posed in a voting line-up and have yet to make mention of Trump. To be political as a person is a powerful thing. To be political as an artist can be tricky.
It’s important to remember that Harry Styles is an album that functions first and foremost as a love letter to Styles’ own musical preferences. It’s Brit-pop and McCartney, Jagger and Alex Turner. For years, Harry has cited groups like Fleetwood Mac and their musical contemporaries as the cornerstones of his own taste, having gone so far as to bake Stevie Nicks a cake—which was followed months later by being interviewed by Sir Paul. The record stays true to who Styles presents himself as and what he’s told us he likes. So to that end it is authentic, sincere, and proof that when waxing poetic about classic rock and pop, it wasn’t just lip service.
But an album that was political or reactionary to Brexit or Trump would’ve been. While Harry’s always worn his heart and politics on his brightly-patterned sleeves, he’s also always left room for his work to breathe on its own. Even when being grilled about the identity of “Olivia” (the namesake of a song on Made in the A.M.), Styles never took the bait. And even now, when being grilled about which songs of his are about Taylor Swift or Kendall Jenner, he attempts to keep himself separate.
So for Harry to have used his debut as a political soap box wouldn’t have made sense—especially since he’s been as vocal about not being educated enough on politics to properly articulate a point as he’s been about his aforementioned views. Instead, he used it to establish himself as Harry Styles the Man™ and not Harry Styles The Teen We Once Knew™.
Whether through songs like “Kiwi” (is it about an abortion?), “Woman,” or “Only Angel,” he asserts himself as a grown-ass man embarking on questionable relationships in the wake of his own questionable decision-making. But most importantly, they’re songs from his own standpoint, and not from the perspective of a group. These experiences are his own. They are his mistakes. His successes. His feelings. They are entirely his, much like his approach in mixing genres.
Because while Styles may like classic rock, he doesn’t entirely abandon the great ship Direction. “Meet Me In the Hallway” could easily pass as a 1D song all grown up, while “Sign of the Times” delivers the high notes we’d typically hear in ballads like “Night Changes” or “Story Of My Life.” Arguably, the only inconsistent thing about Harry Styles is its consistent change in genre. But when you think about it, that’s what the best albums do. Especially when acting as a tapestry of all the factors that make Harry Styles the pop legend he will be.