Harry’s Style May Be Progressive, But His Music Is As Conservative As It Gets
Harry Styles wore a dress. Given the pop star and former One Direction member’s typical fashion preferences, this should not be news, but a new Vogue shoot — for a feature that made him the first man to appear solo on the vaunted fashion mag’s cover — has elicited intense reactions today from rightwing pundits such as Ben Shapiro and Candace Owens, who have decried the photo spread as an affront to masculinity.
For Styles, the dress is more or less par for the course: The dashingly handsome singer has spent more than a year promoting his Fine Line album dressed as a fabulous, effeminate dandy — elaborately painted fingernails, designer handbags, and all. In February alone, he rocked a pearl necklace at the BRIT Awards and wore a chiffon nightgown in his “Falling” video. But beyond his own personal history, this kind of subversive play on gender is part of a long rock ‘n’ roll tradition. From David Bowie to Prince to Kurt Cobain, superstar male musicians have been donning traditionally female attire for decades, and they usually generate a similar outraged response from conservatives. At this point whole song and dance is basically a tradition in its own right — though not quite as traditionalist as Styles’ own music.
.@harry_styles is our December issue cover star!
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) November 13, 2020
If those with less progressive sensibilities aren’t fond of Styles’ wardrobe, they’d probably find a lot to like about his music. Fine Line is about as sonically conservative as an A-list pop album can be in 2020. Upon its release last December, Styles billed the album as a corrective to his self-titled 2017 debut, telling Zane Lowe, “When I listen to the first album now, I can hear all the places I was playing it safe.” But if anything, Fine Line feels less risky than Harry Styles. The self-titled LP had the low-key audacity to reframe pop pinup Styles as a rock star, channeling Bowie in sound and Prince in nomenclature on the towering lead single “Sign Of The Times” and digging into a range of swaggering rootsy sounds from the Stones to Ryan Adams. Fine Line, on the other hand, is basically boutique adult contemporary; though stylishly executed, it only occasionally veers from the middle of the road.
That sound has been a smashing success for Styles, commercially speaking. Although “Sign Of The Times” rode significant post-1D fanfare to a #4 debut on the Billboard Hot 100, Harry Styles did not yield any real hits in the US. Nothing else on the album even charted stateside, and although Styles toured arenas that cycle, I wondered whether he was becoming more of a professional celebrity than a hit-making musical artist, famous for being famous but not actually generating inescapable songs the way true-blue pop stars do. Fine Line has ended that suspicion, and not just because Styles now counts key influence Stevie Nicks as a diehard fan. With a big radio push and a twee event video in which Styles cares for a giant fish, “Adore You” became his first top-10 hit this spring, five months after floundering upon initial official release. In the summer “Watermelon Sugar” completed a whopping nine-month rise to become Styles’ first US #1 hit. “Golden,” the album opener, is in the early phases of a similar airwave saturation.
There is nothing radical about these songs. They present Styles as a whitebread ’80s hitmaker, as suave as Robert Palmer but as sensitive as Christopher Cross. The funky synth-pop of “Adore You” was essentially developed in a laboratory to live on forever in grocery stores; I vaguely like it but cannot imagine it dredging up emotions intense enough to be described as love or hate. The brisk uptempo “Golden” is on a similar tip, inoffensively catchy and decked out with a chorus of attention-grabbing “doo-doo-doo-doo” Styles overdubs. I can’t hear the influence of the mushroom trip that supposedly inspired it, but I get what Styles means when he says “Golden” is ideal for cruising the Pacific Coast Highway. Unfortunately, Fine Line may refer to the border between tracks like those and tripe like “Watermelon Sugar,” which, as summertime menus go, hits more like corn.
There is no doubt Styles has enthusiasts in the millions, a number that seems to include every last staffer at Rolling Stone. Beyond the holdovers from his One Direction days, he’s captured the imagination of many by applying a distinctly youthful perspective to retro bohemian Hollywood glamour. Although that “Adore You” video was extremely Wes Anderson, Styles is more like a character from a Paul Thomas Anderson movie. In the Vogue feature, he pontificates on literature and claims there’s no fad he won’t try, including cryotherapy. Last year he told Rolling Stone‘s Rob Sheffield Fine Line is “all about having sex and feeling sad” while wearing a giant floppy hat and driving his Tesla through California for smoothies and “his favorite pepper-intensive wheatgrass shot.” He’s all about emotional vulnerability, psychedelic drugs, and post-Beatles solo records. He’s the enlightened pop star kids and their parents can agree on — the living, breathing manifestation of that 1975 lyric about “a millennial that baby boomers like” — and his gender-bending fashion is a big part of that persona.
It’s not just the talk and the walk. Styles can sing too, with a robust tenor that can belt out the high notes with passion and dig into the deeper end of his range with poise. I’d be curious to hear him cut loose over some startlingly inventive music. For all his talk about creative exploration, though, his Fine Line singles seem pretty closely aligned with the interests of Columbia Records and iHeartRadio. In an era where streaming success has become the defining measure of a pop hit, it’s perhaps no coincidence that a brassy, earthy lite-soul track like “Watermelon Sugar” hit #1 on the back of a corporate radio onslaught and a well-timed merch drop. It’s the kind of extremely beige song that sounds just as natural on my local soft-rock purveyor Sunny 95 as on my market’s Top 40 fixture, 97.9 WNCI, the kind of song people passively receive rather than actively seek out. As thinly veiled metaphors for cunnilingus go, “Watermelon Sugar” is about as bland and inoffensive as they come.
After the opening triad of hits, Fine Line does venture into slightly more interesting territory. The glowing, gospel-inflected lead single “Lights Up” stalled out at #17 on the US chart and never really gained a foothold at radio, yet its linear structure and subtly morphing arrangement stand as an example of how Styles can toy around with accessible sounds without descending into the blasé. Much of the album comprises lightly psychedelic folk-pop tracks like “Cherry,” “Don’t Call Me Baby,” and “Canyon Moon,” lifestyle music that won’t change your life but might at least offer a pleasant soundtrack. He goes full Austin Powers 1960s pastiche on “Treat People With Kindness,” backed by a choir of female voices and an arrangement so jaunty you can practically see the bandstand. The title track and album closer is basically smoothed-over Bon Iver.
Fine Line ultimately sounds like the work of an artist who wants to get weird but is constrained, either by corporate interests or his own milquetoast taste. It may be inspired by the classics, but it’s not classic in its own right. Now that it has accomplished its purpose and established Styles as a radio mainstay in the United States, hopefully he will move on to making a genuinely radical pop statement, music that sounds as stunning and provocative as his Vogue photo shoot looks.
Ariana Grande’s Positions spends a second straight week in the top position on the Billboard 200. Per Billboard, the album tallied 82,000 equivalent album units and 8,000 in sales in its second week on the market. After Pop Smoke at #2 is a new #3 peak for Australian teen pop-rap star the Kid Laroi, whose F*ck Love posted 52,000 units with the release of its deluxe edition. Luke Combs is in at #4. Bittersweetly, the late King Von’s Welcome To O’Block rises to a new #5 peak with 44,000 units in the first week after the Chicago rapper’s death. Nav debuts at #6 with 42,000 units for his new mixtape Emergency Tsunami. Juice WRLD, Lil Baby, Hamilton, and Taylor Swift round out the top 10.
Over on the Hot 100, 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood” holds on to #1 for a fourth nonconsecutive week, followed by Grande’s “Positions” at #2. Climbing to a new #3 peak is Gabby Barrett and Charlie Puth’s “I Hope,” bumping Drake and Lil Durk’s “Laugh Now, Cry Later” down to #4. The Weeknd’s deathless “Blinding Lights” remains at #5. Per Billboard, the song extends its own record for most weeks in the region to 33 and ties Post Malone’s record 39 weeks in the top 10 with “Circles.”
Another new peak: Internet Money and Gunna’s “Lemonade,” featuring Don Toliver and NAV, climbs to #6. Justin Bieber and Chance The Rapper’s “Holy” rises back to #7. Bad Bunny and Jhay Cortez’s “Dakiti” is up to a new #8 peak as well. Jawsh 685 and Jason Derulo’s “Savage Love (Laxed – Siren Beat)” is at #9, and Pop Smoke, Lil Baby, and DaBaby’s “For The Night” rounds out the top 10.
Lil Nas X – “Holiday”
The video is wildly entertaining, but don’t let that overshadow the excellent songwriting here. Working with Tay Keith (who definitely fucked me up with this beat), Take A Daytrip, Tyler Brooks, and Jocelyn Donald, our man Montero showed he’s got staying power beyond the joyous meme-song that put him on the map.
Billie Eilish – “Therefore I Am”
These one-off singles have all been strong. How nice would it be if we found out Eilish had a whole new album ready to go? It’s been a year and a half since her debut, and she’s been mostly stuck at home like the rest of us, so it’s not that crazy.
Tayla Parx – “Fixerupper”
Parx is a longtime Ariana Grande collaborator, and this kind of zany energy is why I like Sweetener better than Positions.
Tones And I – “Fly Away”
“Dance Monkey” girl had a dream that she just flew away, and yet in real life she refuses to disappear!
Jaden – “I’m Ready”
Despite the title, I would argue this one needed more time in the oven.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Jeremih is hospitalized in the ICU with COVID-19. [TMZ]
- Bad Bunny will make his acting debut in Narcos season 3. [ET]
- Opposing political views appeared to drive a wedge between Flordia Georgia Line, as Tyler Hubbard and his wife unfollowed Brian Kelley on social media. [Us]
- Miley Cyrus released the tracklist for Plastic Hearts. [Instagram]
- Selena Gomez will play trailblazing gay mountaineer Silvia Vasquez-Lavado in In The Shadow Of The Mountain. [The Wrap]
- Shawn Mendes and Justin Bieber will team up on a new single called “Monster” this Friday. [Twitter]
- In other Bieber news, he performed at the People’s Choice Awards last night. [YouTube]
- Bieber also covered Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” for Amazon. [Amazon]
- Mendes covered a classic too: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for the BBC Radio 1 Live Lounge. [YouTube]
- Beyoncé struck a multi-year content partnership with Peleton. [Peloton]
- Britney Spears’ previously unreleased “Swimming In The Stars” (from the Glory sessions) is now exclusively available as a 12″ from Urban Outfitters. [Urban Outfitters]
- Ariana Grande is launching Orange Twins, a new animal rescue. [Twitter]
- Relatedly(?), in an animated sci-fi commercial for her new fragrance, Ariana Grande and her pig save their dog. [YouTube]
- Halsey discussed her new poetry book on The Daily Show. [YouTube]
- Cardi B apologized for appearing as Hindu goddess Durga in a Reebok ad. [Twitter]
- Hailee Steinfeld sang a new song with the Sesame Street gang. [YouTube]
- Mariah Carey shared an unreleased 1996 video for her single “Underneath The Stars.” [YouTube]
- Kesha is launching a podcast about supernatural experiences. [EW]
- Post Malone talked to Jimmy Fallon about his new Messenger Watch Together series Post Malone’s Celebrity World Pong League. [YouTube]
GUEST REVIEW OF LIL NAS X’S ROBLOX CONCERT BY SCOTT’S DAUGHTER
by Molly, age 11
Over the weekend, Lil Nas X promoted his new song, “Holiday,” on Roblox. Roblox is a MMO game where you can make friends and play in various worlds. Along with being a creative platform for developers, Roblox has its own events. Lil Nas X said that his event was the first concert in Roblox, although Ava Max had a listening party a few weeks ago where she fell through the map.
I created the account Stereoyum (since someone already took the name Stereogum) and got to spend $5 of Stereogum’s money on some fun merch. Lil Nas X had special avatars created and also hats, glasses, wings, and a face mask available. These were all purchasable using Robux, the Roblox currency that is pretty expensive and close to necessary if you want to be considered “cool.” Of course Stereoyum went all out on accessories.
The day before the actual concert, there was a pre-show. This “show” was in the main map and it was a pre-recorded behind-the-scenes video or something. It stopped playing for me after 20 seconds. I don’t think it broke for everyone, but I never actually got to see the rest.
I came back the next day for the concert. While you were waiting, you could hunt for coins/tokens all around the map, which would earn you emotes. When you collected a token, a Lil Nas X character would pop up and display a fact about himself. I learned that he worked at Taco Bell and likes shrimp. You could also use chat to talk to other players, and I tried to ask if anyone liked the Stereogum redesign, but Stereogum is one of the many words you aren’t allowed to type.
Each Lil Nas X event server had a capacity of 150 players. There were lots of servers running at once, so how does Lil Nas perform in them all? When the event began I was disappointed to find out it was just a giant NPC dancing to pre-recorded songs.
I was expecting more from the main event to be honest. Lil Nas X said “Hi Roblox! Show me your best moves!” and after that there was a model of him dancing to “Old Town Road.” The first 3 performances (“Old Town Road,” “Rodeo,” and “Panini”) were boring since it wasn’t anything crazy. There were a few special effects, and the endings were cool, but besides that it was nothing special. Finally, it was time for “Holiday.” Since Roblox is aimed towards children, quite a few lyrics had to be changed. “Holiday” was definitely the best, considering I could throw snowballs at the giant dancing NPC that was supposed to be Lil Nas X.
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME