COLUMN: Harry Styles still hits it

Like so many fans around the world, I first discovered Harry Styles through the boy band One Direction, which I have loved fiercely for almost seven years. I’m going to admit it — for a while, the obsession was embarrassing. I ran a blog, I read some fan fiction, I may or may not have participated in some mild stalking.

Like all great love stories between bands and their fans, my love of One Direction has been absolute, ever-present and, admittedly, a little immature. But as a 21 year old, my enthusiasm for empty-headed pop songs has been waning slightly in recent years. Consider it the maturation of tastes with age.

So when the band split just more than a year ago to allow members to work on individual projects, a part of me was a little relieved. Maybe a break from the pop music machine would mean the boy band’s music could evolve into something a little more mature.

Last week, Harry Styles’ release of his first solo single, “Sign of the Times,” didn’t disappoint.

Rolling Stone said “One Direction’s Harry Styles has launched his highly-anticipated solo career with the power ballad “Sign of the Times.” The sweeping, reflective song is the first single off his as-yet-untitled debut solo LP.”

Billboard described the song as “exud(ing) a darkness in both its moody, rock-leaning sound and its lyrics, ... it’s a departure from the gloss and tempo of much of today’s top 40, as well as 1D’s catalog.”

It was well received.

It’s thoughtful, it’s musically and conceptually interesting, and — perhaps best of all — it’s a complete departure from One Direction, sounding more like Space Oddity-era Bowie than what’s in the current Top 40.

But the departure from musical trends of the moment feels intentional rather than off-base. With contemplative lyrics and a haunting piano ballad as the backbone of the track, “Sign of the Times” appears to be not just a song, but an artistic statement.

Throughout the track, there are subtle musical references to Queen, the Rolling Stones, “Revolver”-era psychedelic Beatles and, yes, especially David Bowie. But instead of just creating an amalgamation of past artists, “Sign of the Times” is a nod to the history of British rock while still holding its own distinctive sound.

Thus far, Styles’ transition from high school heartthrob to mature artist is a masterclass in reinvention — one that few former boy banders pull off so well. The solo ventures of fellow One Direction alumni Zayn Malik and Niall Horan have stayed well within the pop and hip hop aesthetics that govern the Top 40, and even Justin Timberlake, the Cinderella success story of former boy band narratives, took a couple of years before he found his musical footing.

While it may be a little premature to say that Styles has completely cemented himself among rock gods like Bowie and Mick Jagger, or even among the ranks of reformed boy band members like Timberlake, what’s clear with “Sign of the Times” is that Styles is making an effort to prove his artistic merit.

As an older fan, this newfound musical maturity is exactly what I’ve been craving. And to those who still have doubts: banish any lingering memories of teenaged heartthrob Harry Styles, because certified adult man Harry is here, and his music is ready to be taken seriously.

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