In many cultures, children, teens and tweens undergo rites of passage in order to mark their newfound maturity. In the most gender normative of terms, these ceremonies are designed to differentiate the men from the boys. In the entertainment industry, rites of passage are far more involved and unique than your typical confirmation or Bar Mitzvah. Drake buried his CTV childhood by abandoning his wheelchair and taking on a Jamaican patois. Britney Spears declared her independence with a buzz cut. Miley, Selena, and Demi more or less stopped being child stars the moment they conveniently misplaced their promise rings.
But when it comes to the strange, color-coordinated world of boy bands, group members often struggle to make the jump from self-declared “boy” to “solo artist with independent selling power.” The road to an inevitable reunion tour is riddled with former boy banders who failed to grow up and make their musical mark. For every Justin Timberlake, there is a JC Chasez. And for every JC Chasez, there’s a guy whose name you don’t even remember anymore.
If there’s a single belief that binds humanity trans-historically, it’s that young boys ought to harmonize together. It’s this universal urge that connects, say, a medieval choirmaster and Simon Cowell, who decided in a 2010 episode of X Factor that a handful of talented lads should band together to form One Direction. Founding members Harry Styles, Zayn Malik, Niall Horan, Liam Payne and Louis Tomlinson quickly became superstars, famous for their first-rate looks, second-rate harmonies, and third-rate stick and poke tattoos. Five years, countless hits and one pregnancy later (in retrospect, it’s sort of incredible that One Direction didn’t knock more ladies up), the boys called it quits. Initially, solo career odds favored Zayn Malik, the crooner whose desire to make “real music” kick-started 1D’s inevitable dissolution.
Zayn wasted no time ditching his last name, debuting new music, and writing (posing for?) a picture book. Unfortunately, while Malik has the cheekbones of a superstar, his music hasn’t exactly hit the mark. Let’s put it this way: if your first single is about all the sex you have with Gigi Hadid, there isn’t really anywhere left to go. While Malik was busy squandering his best material and highest-resolution selfies, 1D’s second star-in-the-making, Harry Styles, took a well-deserved break. Formerly known as Taylor Swift’s real-life boyfriend and Louis Tomlinson’s fake one, Styles made his triumphant mainstream return on April 15, when he hosted SNL and performed two tracks off of his upcoming solo debut.
Styles emerged in a plaid Gucci suit—a far cry from his 1D days—only to further reveal a crisp white button down (the British equivalent of a highly erotic striptease). Dressing like a minor middle-aged lord with a healthy sense of whimsy has never been so sexy. As for the music, “Ever Since New York” did not, unfortunately, appear to be a diss track aimed at New York ambassador Taylor Swift. It was, however, pretty—an ode to Brooklyn’s “empty avenues” and a mysterious waterless swimming pool. Meanwhile “Sign of the Times,” Styles’ debut single, has been described as everything from “early Bowie” to “vintage Brit rock” to “a lot like an Aerosmith ballad.” In other words, it’s a mash-up of a bunch of influences that Harry Styles wasn’t alive to experience personally because he is 23 years old.
Styles may have the experience and insight of just over two decades on planet earth, but in another way, he’s just getting started. At least, that’s the message being sent by the artwork for his self-titled solo album, which features a naked Styles surrounded by the embryonic fluids of his own musical rebirth. Either that, or its just some murky millennial pink bath water. Styles’ musical resurrection will be accompanied by a “behind the music” documentary, chronicling his journey from shaggy-haired boy bander to confident solo artist who sort of sounds like Ray LaMontagne.
In addition to his new sound, Styles has boldly swerved on his public image by dipping into the choppy waters of a Christopher Nolan-helmed WWII movie. That movie is called Dunkirk—Harry Styles cut his hair for it, Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy co-star, and it will be out this July. Because if you’re going to have the audacity to try and sell an epic film about old-timey British soldiers as a summer blockbuster, you better have at least one One Direction member and three sets of piercing blue eyes. P.S.: Harry Styles most certainly dies in Dunkirk.
Harry Styles may not be a trained Shakespearean actor, but he’s clearly willing to work outside of his comfort zone. More importantly, he also knows when it’s time to stay in his lane. By far the greatest coup of Styles’ still-nascent solo artist transformation came courtesy of his recent Rolling Stone cover. In the Cameron Crowe profile, Styles shows that he’s so much more than a former X Factor contestant with a really great stylist. First off, Harry proves that he’s courteous and compassionate where exes are concerned, refusing to speak ill of Taylor Swift (despite the fact that she’s written not one but two hit singles about him).
“I mean, I don't know if they're about me or not ...” he says in the interview, adding, “but the issue is, she’s so good, they’re bloody everywhere. I write from my experiences; everyone does that. I’m lucky if everything [we went through] helped create those songs.” When asked what he would say to Swift now, Styles concludes that, “Meeting someone new, sharing those experiences, it’s the best shit ever. So thank you.” In the era of Tinder dates and late-night texts, that expletive-ridden expression of gratitude is essentially Romeo and Juliet. Also, for the record, some of the grown men who have dated Taylor Swift could take notes from this mature 23-year-old.
But Styles reaches true heartthrob status when he makes peace with all of his exes—the hundreds of thousands of heartbroken One Direction diehards. In response to a query about courting older listeners, Styles explains that he’s quite content with his teenybopper fan base, thank you very much. “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy?” He asks. “That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans—they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.”
Look, anyone can wear a “male feminist” T-shirt or retweet Matt McGorry. But 23-year-old guys who are willing to publicly admit that hipster dude taste is bullshit are few and far between. In addition to being positively swoon-worthy, taking teenage girls seriously is seriously smart. Just imagine the collective buying power of every girl who’s ever been forced by their boyfriend to listen to the entire Parquet Courts oeuvre. All of those future doctors and lawyers are probably more inspired than ever to hand over their allowance to Harry Styles. Plus, as Styles astutely notes, teenagers have a knack for predicting the next big thing. By pledging his loyalty to the young women who have stood by him, Styles is ensuring his future success without being all pretentious about the pop music that got him here (looking at you, Zayn). With a new album, a feature film debut, Gucci and an army of teenage girls all working in his favor, the new Harry Styles seems all but unstoppable.