First things first: “Sign of the Times,” the debut single from One Direction’s Harry Styles, just had its first play worldwide, on BBC’s Radio 1.
You can listen to the track right now, and you can expect it to be heavily featured on every mainstream radio station in the world from this morning onwards. Go. Listen a few times. Then come back here and keep reading, because there’s some emotions that I need to express right now.
Even as a member of the world’s biggest boyband, Harry Styles marched to the beat of his own drum. Everything surrounding today’s release of “Sign of the Times” indicates that he’s marching more fervently than ever, and inviting the entire world to fall in line behind him. If you don’t, that’s okay — Styles would never do anything as uncouth as resort to force. But for those who do join him on this journey, he’ll lead you, if you’ll allow me to mix my musical instrument metaphors, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, into the realms of his own hopes and dreams, into the future, into the truth.
The track, co-written by Styles and acclaimed producer Jeff Bhasker (who has Grammys for his work on “Uptown Funk,” “We Are Young,” “All of the Lights” and “Run This Town”) is a whopping five minutes and 40 seconds long, a piano-heavy, falsetto-ridden epic rock ballad. Given that a song of this length is generally, in this lightning-paced, attention-deficit world, considered unmarketable and un-radio-friendly, this is a declaration of intent. Not a single One Direction song cracks the five minute mark — their own most famous example of the driving pop-rock ballad, “Story of My Life,” just about hits four. Pop stars do not release long songs, particularly not as singles. Particularly not as debut singles. Long songs are for artists.
SIGN.OF.THE.TIMES // 7.APRIL.17 // pic.twitter.com/W6ij1giOdX
— Harry Styles. (@Harry_Styles) March 31, 2017
Styles’ choice to show his hand with “Sign of the Times” demonstrates either an immense confidence in the loyalty of his existing audience, a deep love of his own material, or an absolute lack of fucks to give about what anyone thinks of him. Honestly, it’s probably a combination of all three: that special blend is what has already made Styles stand out thus far as an approachable yet mysterious idol. It must be a blessed freedom, to be so well-loved that you can put whatever you want into the world and know it will be supported. To have that up your sleeve if pushed in a different, er, direction.
Despite their reality-show beginnings, the authenticity of One Direction as people is what made them into a phenomenon. Those outside looking in may have seen boyband fangirl hysteria, but those inside know that it was more than that. It wasn’t about crushing on them — though they are all extremely cute — it was more like they were your best friends, or family members that you were proud of. One Direction’s success was due to the fans — the fans came before the recording contract. When they were eliminated from The X-Factor, their organically growing fan base — thanks to the irreverent, genuine personalities revealed in their brand-new Twitter accounts and grainy YouTube videos — was the reason that Simon Cowell’s Syco snapped them up.
They didn’t know what they were doing, or what was to come. They were 16 years old. They were just some lads having a go. It was truly a matter of demand before supply — and to the elitists out there, wank all you like, but that’s almost grass-roots. That’s an audience choosing what they love and what they want to support, as opposed to being presented something that was packaged and polished in a boardroom and getting told “this is what you will like. Give us your money.”
One Direction’s working-class roots, their refusal to succumb to the trappings of fame, and their respect for their fans have all been key factors in their unprecedented global success. These fans — mostly young women, the most valuable market for any form of pop culture — cannot be tricked, they cannot be bought. They have to choose you. No one knows this better than Harry Styles — he knows that he’s the Chosen One. He knows what that now affords him.
As I mentioned, one thing you may not know about Styles, if you’re not a Directioner, is that, in the most zen-like way imaginable, he doesn’t give a toss what society makes of him. Perhaps “free spirit” is a better way to put it — he’s always been a non-conformist reminiscent of the rock stars of the ’70s, with an added dose of authenticity. For them, it was often part of the performance. This is just who Harry Styles is, and it’s what’s made him a superstar.
His fans have always accepted and cherished his oddities, and no one could claim his image is curated by anyone other than him. The polo shirts and chinos first pushed by the label are just a horrible memory these days. He wears glittered boots and shearling coats and womens’ trousers, collects tattoos and modern art, loves motorcycles and Soul Cycle and scented candles and his mother, laughs way too hard at basic puns, and wants to spread peace and love. He’s wholesome AF. Nothing about him is ironic. Nothing about him is convoluted. If Harry Styles likes something, he just goes for it, and this single is no exception.
“Sign of the Times” brings to mind the wailing, emotional ballads of the glam rock and hair metal bands of the ’70s and ’80s — there’s a little Aerosmith, a little “November Rain.” Vocally — especially in the rather unexpected falsetto, from One Direction’s deepest and raspiest singer — there’s shades of Bowie and Prince, artists Styles is known to admire and emulate in his off-beat and sometimes gender-bending fashion choices. It’s orchestral, almost operatic in scope, with something of Coldplay, something of The Killers, something of fellow British ex-boybander Robbie Williams, something of Bhaskar’s previous production buddies Fun. There’s also, weirdly, something in the melodies that reminds me of Hamilton’s “It’s Quiet Uptown.”
Lyrically, it’s about loss — it seems to be about two people who love each other despite an impossible situation. “Will we ever learn, we’ve been here before, it’s just what we know,” Styles croons, revisiting the themes of “Something Great,” one of his most notable writing credits with One Direction, and one of the band’s rawest tunes. This almost sounds like a continuation of the story of that same relationship. Styles has called the track deeply personal, and out of a catalogue of 70 songs, it’s currently the work he’s the most proud of. It’s a classic heart-on-sleeve performance, and naturally, everyone will want to know who it’s about. That’s if you take his “running from the bullets” chorus as a metaphor about fame, of course. If you take it literally, it sounds like a commentary on the refugee crisis. Knowing Styles, either option could be viable.
Despite being down to earth and actually pretty dorky, Styles knows that professionally, he’s hot property, so the access he’s granted to himself surrounding this debut speaks volumes about his priorities. His first post-hiatus feature article was not with a newspaper, or a teen magazine, or GQ, or even Rolling Stone — it was a takeover of the bi-annual cultural journal Another Man, in an editorial that featured three separate photoshoots, a conversation between him and Paul McCartney, and a self-curated catalog of his obsessions, including scanned pages of his diary.
For his first performance as a solo artist, he’s chosen Saturday Night Live — on the first-ever episode that will air concurrently in all time zones. SNL has featured One Direction several times as a musical guest, but their 2013 appearance, in which they debuted the indie-rock-esque and harmonious “Through the Dark,” was widely credited with changing the public perception of the group and building their credibility with a new crowd, both proving them to be extremely skilled live performers and allowing the show’s primarily adult audience to understand the appeal of their cheeky, but not childish, personalities.
These choices seem to indicate a desire to be taken seriously, to validate himself as an artist that can appeal to all corners of culture. The Styles showcased in Another Man is an ethereal aesthete, an old soul, a highly intelligent and creative being with a carefully measured voice and vision, someone who immediately bewitches everyone who ever meets him. Today’s release of “Sign of the Times” demonstrates a slightly different side of Styles. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows anything about Styles’ personal life — I don’t mean the women the tabloids claim he’s dating, I mean his real personal life — he’s given the single’s worldwide first play, and his only in depth interview, to longtime friend Nick Grimshaw, host of the BBC’s Radio 1 Breakfast Show.
While premiering a debut single on the biggest radio show in your home country may simply sound like good business, it packs more of an emotional punch than that. Styles and Grimshaw have been extremely close since before either of them was a household name. After meeting in 2011, Styles joined Grimshaw’s social circle and was accepted as part of the one of the coolest and most media-savvy cliques in London society — a gang that includes Alexa Chung, Florence Welch, and fashion designer Henry Holland. Not your typical boyband crowd. When Styles based himself in London, he and Grimshaw were inseparable. Styles was present in the studio for the final free-for-all of Grimshaw’s graveyard shift radio show – revealing on air that he’s often sat in before, but wasn’t allowed to speak on the microphone — and he was also one of the celebrities involved in the promotional campaign welcoming Grimmy to the country’s top radio job.
As Britain’s biggest popstar and most prominent radio host, they’ve, of course, interacted in an official capacity — Styles co-hosting with Grimshaw for Radio 1’s One Direction Takeover, and Grimshaw interviewing three-fifths of 1D surrounding the release of their movie. Their professional interviews tend to dissolve into giggles, a series of personal in-jokes, or anecdotes about their friends and parents — yes, they’re friends with each other’s parents, and Styles has spent Christmas with the Grimshaws in the past — and they’ve also appeared on the radio together slightly less professionally, including a memorable morning after the 2013 Brit Awards, in which Grimshaw, Styles and an assorted motley crew rocked up to the BBC studios still drunk, having not yet gone to bed. They’ve been photographed together doing everything from attending fashion shows to shopping for groceries. Tumblr has even documented a history of the pair sharing clothes.
Nick Grimshaw does not think he, himself, is cool. He doesn’t think Harry Styles is cool. He’s the opposite of a name-dropper: he’s a self-deprecating homebody, he knows his public life is ridiculous. He tells mundane or hysterical stories about his friends on the radio, which often — especially the ones about Styles — don’t actually name the culprit, the pieces only falling into place later, via a social media post or fan sighting. Grimshaw — who is, like Styles, a working-class lad from near Manchester — is famously social, but he does not collect celebrity pals. He spills a lot of details about his life on his radio show, and through this it’s been established that most of his nearest and dearest were all young hopefuls together, and held tight to each other as they became successful.
The fact that Styles was never the nucleus of Grimshaw’s circle cements that it’s not a friendship of convenience or a PR move, and both he and Styles notably and publicly treat all their friends — famous or not — with the same value. Example: Grimshaw’s best friend, creative director Aimee Phillips, recently married his former BBC assistant producer, Ian Chaloner. Styles is friends with both. Styles is also famously close with his hair stylist Lou Teasdale, and lived, during the height of One Direction’s fame, in the attic of 1D’s go-to video producer Ben Winston. (Winston made the move to the USA with his longtime collaborator James Corden — another of Styles’ pre-fame friends. Expect to see him on the Late Late Show extremely soon.)
Styles’ decision to give Grimshaw this exclusive interview — a two hour session, cut down from a three hour recording — is a deeply personal one. There’s no journalist or host who Styles would reveal more of himself to, no one who can humanize him more. Grimshaw has already spoken on Radio 1 about how nervous both he and Styles were about Grimshaw hearing “Sign of the Times” — Grimshaw, as a reluctant tastemaker and a terrible liar, feared disliking his friend’s offering and being awkwardly unable to offer any platitudes. Thankfully, Grimshaw loved it — but the fact that Styles wants to be interviewed by someone who he knows would never lie to him about whether he was any good, who pokes fun at his slow speech and clumsiness and accidental hipsterness, someone who makes him feel normal, says a lot about how he wants people to view him.
Grimshaw’s interview, which meanders over subjects including, but not limited to: the creation of Styles’ new album, naturally; his controversial romantic life — including the deep 1D fandom meme about him dating Barack Obama; his role in the new Christopher Nolan epic Dunkirk; the fact that he still gets starstruck a lot; his family, his bandmates, and his vehement belief that Brussels sprouts are the new kale. Grimshaw also gently mocks Styles about a few of the more diva-like rumors about his life — an organic chance for the star to put them to bed. The recording of this chat is already being provided to other publications as a source for their promotional articles about “Sign of the Times” — instead of their own interview opportunities, they’re getting Grimshaw’s version of Styles — arguably, the real Styles, as close as the public is allowed to get to who he is behind closed doors.
This isn’t a new Harry Styles. This is who Harry Styles has always been — why he’s gained respect and loyalty from so many people, including huge handfuls of industry professionals and dozens and dozens of celebrities, in many genres and mediums, many of whom may be considered, by close-minded purists, to be “real artists” compared to Harry’s “manufactured popstar.” From Ed Sheeran to John Legend, Elton John to Mick Jagger, Kesha to Kristen Wiig, no one has a bad word to say about him. He is beloved by all. Even one of Rolling Stone’s most esteemed music critics, Rob Sheffield, who’s, for the record, a 50 year old straight dude, has gushed his praises. The kid baked Stevie Nicks a freakin’ birthday cake, people.
What Styles puts out into the world, how he presents himself as a public figure, is truly unique. He’s never rude, never snobby, never jaded, never dismissive. He has a wicked and sly humor, he gets along with children and old people. Forget the fact that he’s a heartthrob. As a role model for young women (and young men, and, while we’re at it, the sitting president of these United States) there isn’t a better one around. He’s inclusive and progressive in a way that seems to come from his core — he’s a feminist, a vocal supporter of the LGBTQIA+ community, a paragon of atypical maleness, so comfortable with his image that he’s willing to rebut a bandmate’s quip that the most important quality in an ideal partner should be “female,” with a chiding “not that important.” (Styles’ preferences were, instead, ‘sense of humor’ and ‘being nice to people.’) Regardless of where he chooses to put his penis, his gentle wokeness, and awareness of how heteronormativity hurts, is a quality that every 21st century man should aspire to. He’s constantly conscious, and his reputation as a bad-boy lothario is completely bizarre — he’s never made a public mess of himself, never even made a social media misstep, and any mother should be grateful to send her daughter (or, you know, son) out on a date with him.
This isn’t clueless happenstance. Harry Styles knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s put a lot of hard work ultimately into earning the right to be himself, and to use his influence in order to shape the world around him as he dreams it to be. His image, his taste, and now his sound are all both timeless and yet completely original. He’s going to be the biggest male solo artist on the planet — he already pretty much is — and a world in which Harry Styles is a dominant voice in the cultural zeitgeist is a more beautiful, more gentle, more daring world. We must all just pray that we don’t accidentally punch the first person — the first One Direction naysayer who probably also thinks Justin Timberlake is the essence of hip and who would have never given *NSYNC the time of day — who we overhear saying that Harry Styles is “cool now.” Styles really wouldn’t like it.