Cast your mind back to 2010, when five teenage boys of limited talent but looks and charm in abundance auditioned as solo candidates on The X Factor. Feeling each had something about them, but not enough to make it on their own, Simon Cowell came up with the idea of sticking the lot together and, hey presto, One Direction was born.
When the most successful boy band of the 21st century so far spluttered to an end (or, officially, went on hiatus) in 2016, its members went down various forks in the road. Zayn Malik tried his hand at sleazy R&B, leading to the all too prophetically titled 2021 album Nobody Is Listening. Niall Horan became the Radio 2-friendly housewives’ choice. Louis Tomlinson got into indie rock. Liam Payne discovered sex in a big (and embarrassing) way. Harry Styles, who seemed to be the quietest and most unassuming of the five, became a phenomenon.
No, It’s Not the Same …
This month Styles, 28, made his splash on the Sunday Times Rich List, a new entry at No 37 on the music millionaires chart with a net worth of $125 million. It comes after his April single “As It Was,” from his third album Harry’s House, became America’s most streamed single in a day, with 8.3 million streams. Alongside a sell-out world tour, he recently announced a ten-night run at Madison Square Garden, New York.
Harry’s House is being launched with a series of pop-up shops round the globe, where this past week Styles’s style was yours to buy in the form of T-shirts, hoodies, towels, hats and totes. Then there is the acting career: a 2015 debut in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, a forthcoming lead as a gay policeman in 1950s Brighton in My Policeman and a lead role opposite Florence Pugh in the 2022 psychological thriller Don’t Worry Darling, which is directed by his girlfriend, the Booksmart director and actress Olivia Wilde. On May 23 he lulled the nation to sleep by reading them a CBeebies bedtime story. Most significant of all, however, is Styles’s status as a new kind of superstar, an androgynous pin-up for the modern age.
In 2019, Styles hosted the Met Gala in a sheer blouse and single pearl earring. He has been the face of a fragrance, Gucci’s gender-free (naturally) Memoire d’un Odeur, and has his own range of skincare products and nail varnishes called Pleasing. In 2020 he became the first man to grace the cover of US Vogue — in a Gucci ballgown. All this has been accompanied by the kind of critical acclaim for his classic rock and funk-referencing albums that just doesn’t happen to former members of manufactured boy bands. “There’s not an element of what we’re doing now with Harry that’s manufactured,” says Rob Stringer, the Sony chief executive who oversaw his solo metamorphosis. “He has all the attributes of a true artist. And what’s coming next is even more exciting.”
Styles has professed a love of Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan, Van Morrison, Fleetwood Mac and other revered figures from rock’s golden age. The title of Harry’s House references Hosono House, a cult 1973 album by Harry Hosono of the electronic pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra, and a song called “Harry’s House/Centerpiece”from Joni Mitchell’s 1975 masterpiece The Hissing of Summer Lawns. Mitchell, not one to throw out compliments or even communicate much at all with the modern pop landscape, gave a nod back to Styles this year with the tweet: “Love the title.”
On the album, Styles has resisted chasing after contemporary pop trends in favor of 1970s Laurel Canyon-style singer-songwriter balladry (“Boyfriends”), 1980s synth pop (“As It Was”) and 1990s alternative rock (Little Freak). “My favorite thing about it is it just feels the most like me,” Styles said of Harry’s House to Zane Lowe of Apple Music last week — adopting the kind of bizarre, Cheshire-by-way-of-Los-Angeles transatlantic accent that is the preserve of the extremely successful. So who is Harry Styles?
“We all just want to be loved. And inside that, music is an industry where everyone just really wants to be loved really bad,” Styles said. “What is so dangerous about it is that you put so much love into an industry that is so fickle — and it loves you back when you’re doing well. If you’re not, you’re just out.”
“There’s not an element of what we’re doing now with Harry that’s manufactured. He has all the attributes of a true artist.”
His approach to dealing with that situation, it seems, is to put the hours into crafting albums that stand outside his pop idol fame. Styles does relatively few interviews and never talks about his private life, although being a heart-throb means it is endlessly analyzed anyway: Caroline Flack, Taylor Swift and Kendall Jenner are among his famous exes.
Harry’s house — the bricks and mortar, not the album — is an 18th-century villa in Highgate, north London, bought in 2020 for $5.2 million, and he owns two others in the area. He was marooned by the pandemic in a second home in the canyons of Los Angeles when, in January 2021, he got together with Wilde. She recently split up with Jason Sudeikis, with whom she has two children, and does not live with Styles. He is not above rich man’s playthings either; he has a collection of classic cars, split between London and LA.
Despite all this, he has an ability to come across like any other twentysomething searching for love, sex and happiness, even when he is so patently not. The lyrics in Harry’s House reference one-night stands, misadventures with cocaine and prescription drugs, good relationships, bad relationships, nights in with a bottle of wine, and other tears and joys of the average young life. The truth, however, is that Styles has been a household name since the age of 16.
“The craziest thing about the whole X Factor thing,” Styles said in 2019, “is that it is so instant. The day before, you’ve never been on telly. Then suddenly … You don’t know what to be protective of.” Growing up in Cheshire with his mother and elder sister (his parents divorced when he was seven), Styles was a musical child from early on, playing in school bands, entering singing competitions and discovering the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other hallmarks of the rock era.
He also seems to have had an unusually developed sense of style, drawing jeers from his pre-teenage classmates when he turned up to school one day in a pair of Chelsea boots rather than the requisite trainers. In One Direction he came across as charming, polite … and a little too sophisticated for such a crassly commercial venture. When the band came to an end he came into his own — and how.
He’s Got the Look
Styles’s first release as a solo artist was in 2017 with “Sign of the Times.” A soft-rock ballad with shades of Pink Floyd and Queen, it was in part a product of a new era where almost all of the world’s recorded music is there to pick and choose from on streaming sites. His accompanying fashion sense had shades of David Bowie’s flamboyance and androgyny, but in a softer, less threatening form: fluffy cardigans twinned with pearl necklaces, shiny nail polish, billowing Oxford bags in lurid greens and pinks, dresses, feather boas and Gucci handbags.
A fan favorite called “Medicine” has lyrics that describe messing about with boys and girls. At a 2017 concert I attended, Styles draped himself in a rainbow flag and commanded his fans to “Feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room.” It has led to him being celebrated as an LGBT hero — and to accusations of being a straight guy appropriating gay culture for his own ends.
“Am I sprinkling in nuggets of sexual ambiguity to try and be more interesting? No,” Styles said in 2019, when an interviewer asked if he was doing exactly that. “I want things to look a certain way. Not because it makes me look gay, or it makes me look straight, or it makes me look bisexual, but because I think it looks cool.”
Help has come from Harry Lambert, a London-based stylist who began working with Styles in 2015. “Harry has always been interested in fashion, essentially,” Lambert says. “You could kind of tell already from the way he was dressing … It’s part of him. I never want to feel like something is wearing him.”
Also ensuring that Styles is yet to put a foot wrong is his American manager Jeff Azoff. The son of the scary industry mogul Irving Azoff, he hooked up with Styles in 2015 and realized that the best thing to do was not the usual ex-boy band thing of teaming him up with the biggest pop songwriters and producers of the day, but to let him go down his own path, musically and stylistically. “The great thing about Harry is he’s the kind of artist who knows exactly who he is … The music people expect from him … I can’t tell you how many people say to me, ‘Oh, I didn’t expect it to sound that way.’ ”
In truth, Styles is less the second coming of rock and pop he is being presented as, and more a sophisticated singer who has combined great taste in music with an attuned ear to the sensitivities of the times. He has worked on all three albums with a songwriter called Kid Harpoon, aka the Chatham-born Tom Hull, who co-wrote many of Florence and the Machine’s biggest hits and shares with Styles a love of the glam-era records of T. Rex and David Bowie. Hull also encouraged Styles to deal with girlfriend troubles by putting them into a song.
Styles draped himself in a rainbow flag and commanded his fans to “feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room.”
And central to Styles’s appeal, according to the team around him and the people who have met him, is his charm. In 2019 he achieved the unheard-of feat of making Van Morrison smile for a photograph (by tickling his back). He has also avoided rejecting his less than credible past, stating: “When somebody gets out of a band, they go: that wasn’t me. I was held back. But it was me. It was so much fun. It’s not like I was tied to a radiator.”
Nonetheless, Styles has gone way further into exploration than he would ever have been allowed to in One Direction, and certainly comes across as more interesting than your average boy band alumni. He’s cited Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women and Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood as being among his favorite books. Alongside discovering such thoroughly Californian phenomena as transcendental meditation and wheatgrass juice, during the making of his 2019 album Fine Line at the producer Rick Rubin’s Malibu studio he was tripping out on magic mushrooms. “We’d do mushrooms, lie down in the grass and listen to Paul McCartney’s Ram in the sunshine,” he remembered of the experience.
Styles has managed to combine all of this with a laid-back ease that is rare among the incredibly famous. Harry’s House ends with a song called “Love of My Life.” It’s about being in London, a place where, despite a very weird accent suggesting otherwise, he still lives. “I’d always wanted to write a song about loving England, but it’s hard to do that without being, like, ‘Went to the chippy …’” he told Lowe. Then he concluded the interview by suggesting that, in spite of all the noise around him, he’s a simple soul at heart. “I just want to make good music. And that’s kind of … it.”
Will Hodgkinson is the chief rock-and-pop critic for The Times of London and contributes to Mojo magazine