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It’s inadvisable to project too much on to a hit single. But when cultural historians come to soundbite the post-pandemic moment, the montage on the privatised Channel 4 show will inevitably be soundtracked by As It Was, the No 1 single by Harry Styles. Currently in its seventh week at the top, As It Was ponders Styles’s love life, recognising how situations can change.
But the song’s success owes much to the way Styles pithily nails the gulf between the before times and now. “You know it’s not the same as it was!” Styles sings, joined on backing vocals by 5,000 very partisan observers at this small – for Styles – London show, a few days after the release of his third solo album, Harry’s House. The gig’s billing as “One Night Only” isn’t quite true. He performed last week in New York and will be touring the UK shortly.
But the sense of occasion is undeniable, with Styles playing Harry’s House end to end, plus a greatest hits encore; it’s a night that gets better the chattier Styles becomes. He stops songs to make sure fans get medical attention. He apologises to his mother for the line “Cocaine, side-boob” on one of the album’s most thoughtful reveries, Keep Driving. He grows grave to advise that, however lonely or troubled you may be, “you can always sing along to a song about oral sex!” That’s Watermelon Sugar, the lip-smacking song from 2019’s Fine Line, which confirmed Styles’s solo career was not a one-album deal and that he’d heard Arctic Monkeys.
Harry’s House is fundamentally about being at home with yourself, whatever that means for the listener
Now Styles is even more zeitgeisty. Not all stars are extroverted, but Styles is definitely a people person. One of the vignettes on As It Was finds him moping indoors. “Harry, you’re no good alone,” advises someone on the phone, “why are you sitting at home on the floor?” His romantic distress is palpable, relatable. But scaled up, the songs tap into a wider sense of lockdown PTSD. At the time of writing, As It Was looks set to be joined by another two tracks from Harry’s House, the gently slapping 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 No 1, the fastest selling of 2022 so far.
Ed Sheeran might be filling most of the UK’s stadiums several times over in the coming weeks, but Styles is the man of the moment, dancing around the stage like no one’s watching, but not actually busting moves like Mick Jagger (source: Mick Jagger); on a charm offensive that has seen him routinely feted for moving the dial in couture with his gender-agnostic outfits and in public discourse with his female allyship and LGBTQ+ flag-waving. (Tonight’s outfit: a tight, spotty, black-and-white T-shirt with some generously cut, off-white trousers.)
Since he launched a solo career in the aftermath of One Direction, Styles’s audience has only widened and deepened; people such as the Milwaukee Bucks’s basketball superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo have recently gone public as fans. The morning of this gig, Styles covered Wet Leg’s saucy postcard of a hit Wet Dream for Radio 1’s Live Lounge and recorded a CBeebies bedtime story in satin pyjamas. In contrast with his most obvious forebear, Robbie Williams, Styles’s ambitious amiability comes with little of Williams’s saucer-eyed alpha maleness.
There is wit to this album’s rollout, too: the revealing first interview for Harry’s House went to Better Homes & Gardens magazine. The action on these songs is actually quite often set in nice kitchens, while yacht rock and synth-funk play. But it’s fundamentally about being at home with yourself, whatever that means for the listener. Tonight, Matilda is a huge singalong for someone misunderstood by their family who should not feel guilty for being who they are.
So Styles is a tremendously right-now sort of pop star: three out of five of his boiler-suited band are female and he waves not just a rainbow flag, but a Ukrainian one too. (There’s a union jack as well, which you assume merely relates to how he’s “so, so, so, so happy to be home”.)
But all his forward thinking is heavily offset by pretty tried-and-tested scaffolding. Styles’s affection for ye olde album format is hardly the stuff of Spotify algorithms and TikTok. And for all the frank mentions of cocaine on Harry’s House, quite a lot of his restrictive old boyband contract remains etched on to his soul. Cinema finds him making his partner “pop”, which is about as graphic as things get chez Styles, 28.
At one point, he reads out 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 yells. Styles’s response is one of droll consternation, as though he’s run a calculus of appropriateness in his head, balancing his maturing 1D audience with his more recent recruits. “This is a family show!” he mock-chides.