IIt is not advisable to project too much on a hit single. But when cultural historians come to recount the post-pandemic moment, the montage of the privatized Channel 4 show will inevitably be accompanied by As It Was, Harry Styles’ No. 1 single. Currently in its seventh week at the top, As It Was reflects on Styles’ love life, acknowledging how situations can change.
But the song’s success owes a lot to the way Styles bridges the chasm between times past and now. “You know it’s not like before!” Styles sings, joined in the backing vocals by 5,000 very partisan observers at this small show – for Styles – in London, a few days after the release of his third solo album, Harry’s house. The gig’s billing as “One Night Only” isn’t entirely true. He performed last week in New York and will be touring the UK soon.
But the sense of occasion is undeniable, with styles playing Harry’s house from start to finish, plus an encore of the greatest hits; it’s a night that gets better, more talkative styles become. He stops the songs to make sure fans get medical attention. He apologizes to his mother for the phrase “Cocaine, side-boob” on one of the album’s most thoughtful musings, Keep Driving. He gets serious to advise you that, even if you’re lonely or troubled, “you can still sing a song about oral sex!” It’s Watermelon Sugar, the lip-smacking song of 2019 Thin linewho confirmed that Styles’ solo career was not a one-album deal and that he had heard Arctic Monkeys.
Now Styles is even more up to date. Not all stars are outgoing, but Styles is definitely a people person. One of the vignettes of As It Was finds him moping inside. “Harry, you’re worthless on your own,” someone advises over the phone, “why are you sitting on the floor at home?” His love distress is palpable, relatable. But on a larger scale, the songs tap into a larger sense of lockdown PTSD. As of this writing, As It Was looks set to be joined by two other tracks from Harry’s housethe softly slamming Music for a Sushi Restaurant and the boy-next-door funk-lite of Late Night Talking, in the next Top 3. The album, too, is heading for number 1, the fastest selling of 2022 nowadays.
Ed Sheeran may fill most stadiums in the UK several times in the coming weeks, but Styles is the man of the moment, dancing around the stage like no one is watching, but not really doing any tricks. moves like Mick Jagger (source: Mick Jagger); on a charm offensive that has seen him regularly celebrated for moving the couture dial with his gender-neutral outfits and in public discourse with his female ally and the LGBTQ+ flag. (Tonight’s outfit: a tight black and white polka dot t-shirt with generously cut off-white pants.)
Since launching a solo career in the aftermath of One Direction, Styles’ following has only grown and deepened; people like the Milwaukee Bucks basketball superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo have recently gone public as fans. On the morning of that gig, Styles covered Wet Leg’s sassy postcard with a hit Wet Dream for Radio 1’s Live Lounge and recorded a bedtime story of CBeebies in satin pajamas. Unlike his most obvious ancestor, Robbie Williams, Styles’ ambitious amiability comes with little of Williams’ saucer-eyed alpha masculinity.
There is also spirit in the deployment of this album: the first revealing interview of Harry’s house went to Better homes and gardens magazine. The action on these songs actually quite often takes place in beautiful kitchens, while yacht rock and synth-funk play. But it’s basically about being comfortable with yourself, whatever that means to the listener. Tonight Matilda is a huge single for someone who is misunderstood by his family and shouldn’t feel guilty for being who he is.
So Styles is kind of an extremely pop star right now: three out of five of his jumpsuit group are women, and he’s not only waving a rainbow flag, but also a Ukrainian flag. (There’s also a union jack, which you think simply relates to how “so, so, so, so happy to be home.”)
But all of its forward-thinking is heavily offset by some pretty tried-and-true scaffolding. Styles’ fondness for your old album format isn’t down to Spotify and TikTok algorithms. And for all the frank mentions of cocaine on Harry’s house, much of his former restrictive boyband contract remains etched in his soul. The cinema finds him making his partner “pop”, which is about as graphic as things get with 28-year-old Styles.
At one point, he reads a sign written by a fan whose boyfriend Luke slept with (the sign uses another word) her best friend. He asks the audience to shout what they want to say to Luke. “Fuck you Luke!” everyone is screaming. Styles’ response is one of funny consternation, as if he’s been doing some relevance math in his head, balancing his maturing 1D audience with his more recent recruits. “It’s a family show!” he scoffs.