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Harry Styles: the art of being shallow

The name itself, Harry Styles, seems to evoke a character from a bad romance novel. What is romance? Bloated, derivative storytelling specifically designed to arouse a feeling decidedly less than artistic. In 2011, he went from baker boy to male toy-love-object, in 2016 he desperately tried to forget the musical hiccup that was One Direction and now, in 2020 after all these years, he finally fails to become an artist. Recently, he made history by being the first male cover star of Vogue, and he did it by wearing a dress, but the truth is no one really cares for Harry’s new Frankenstein’s creation of 21st century fads; be it gender neutral clothing or sexual flamboyance, all they ask is that he be Styles: the man from romantic dream city, and we’d follow him anywhere.

Harry Styles is the sort of guy who thinks he is a genius and wishes to fast-forward his life until everyone else thinks he’s a genius too, perhaps that’s why he went from being Paul McCartney to David Bowie in five minutes. One minute, the cute, chestnut-curled and cherub-faced innocent little boy, soon mutated into something out of Saturday Night Fever crossed with My Fair Lady. The boy became, not a man, but a deliberate diva. Suddenly, half of us wondered if he was gay. No one doubted his talent, but everyone wondered, who did he steal it from? His music seems sort of Bowie meets McCartney meets Jagger meets Elton John, and they all were off to see “the Wizard, the wonderful Wizard of Oz”. Well if there ever was a Wiz, it would be Harry Styles shamelessly piggybacking on the greatness of much greater artists who came before.

Like a boy with a set of crayons, he tries very hard to colour in between the genius shaped lines

The problem our little British child faces is the ugly storm-cloud of 21st century post-modern depression under which he, musically speaking, manufactures his rainbow. It’s hard to be inventive, when everything has been done before. His Fine Line album solidified his mythology as gender-fluid: flamboyant suits, female clothing, and pop culture deconstruction. LGBTQ+ became quite literally the flag he held against his former shameful years as member of a seemingly evil boyband: surging hormones were replaced by the battle on heteronormativity. To us musical noobs, misfit outsiders, and non-genius types, the former One Direction victim seems to have become possessed by the ghost of David Bowie, even though Bowie seems to be doing a better impression of being Harry Styles than even Styles can do. Whilst David Bowie wrote “It’s a God-awful small affair to the girl with the mousy hair” (‘Life on Mars’), Harry merely sings “Do you know who you are?” (‘Lights Up’); sadly, he hasn’t got the same tragedy, pathos or sophistication but, like a boy with a set of crayons, he tries very hard to colour in between the genius shaped lines. He’ll never be anything less than adorable, but we shouldn’t be so hard on poor Harry.

Mothers still love him, women are attracted to him, but both question the ethics of dating a man prettier than they are

The chief source of his power is his innocence: everyone likes the idea of Harry Styles and everyone thinks affectionately of him. Because of his immature boyish quality, he embodies a simpler relationship to the performer. We can admire him for his natural goofy childlike aura; we don’t expect deep serious revelations from Harry Styles. We never asked him to become deep, or drown in ‘sexperimental’, deconstructionist, existential, post-modern cliches: overcoming the creepy music industry which, rather awkwardly, gave him the privilege to denounce them. It’s cute that he tries so hard, so long as we have immortalised him in One Direction immaturity, so long as he remains shallow in a good way, shallow despite his efforts to be deep. Shallowness is Styles’ art-form.

Mothers still love him, women are attracted to him, but both question the ethics of dating a man prettier than they are. Men sort of circle the edges of Harry Styles wondering whether to embrace dressing like a woman and explore their own capacity for nail polish. They wonder if being a woman is the masculine thing to do. Is this what will get them laid? The truth is, in our identity politics cool-cat economy, the boundaries have been pushed so many times that we don’t know where the fence belongs anymore. Masculinity is a social construct, but apparently social constructs wear dresses on the cover of Vogue now. Wasn’t that magazine exclusively female? It’s hard to distinguish between what to think, what we ought to think, and what we cannot help but think.

They say it’s wrong to judge by appearances, but it’s hard not too, when the appearances of the 21st century seem to be cruelly judging us. My enjoyment of Harry Styles has nothing to do with his attempt to massacre gender tradition (which could do with a little massacring anyway). I like the Harry who came on the X Factor and said: “I’m Harry, I’m 16 and I work in a bakery”; his innocence is eternal, no matter how many thousands of times he tries to grow up, and his charm is nothing to do with his dresses. His beauty was the rare kind that made you want to look, not like him but, more like yourself.

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