Harry Styles' Fans Elevate His Shows from Entertaining to Empowering
The content of his music isn't anywhere near political, but his shows inherently are.
All photos by Hélène Marie Pambrun
Harry Styles is a faithful disciple of silence. He rarely does interviews, and when he does he speaks with charm and cheek while avoiding any nuggets of actual information that could be described as revealing. Until he started doing press around his debut solo album this spring, giving him various bits of artwork and magazine covers to screengrab, his Instagram looked like an A-Level photography project – full of dramatically monochrome shots of infrastructure and food. His Twitter timeline is essentially a corkboard littered with messages expressing thanks to his fans, structured like love letters from a husband in the trenches – "See you soon. Love. H".
In our climate of oversharing, his withholding nature may conveniently double up as a watertight marketing tactic, creating a shroud of mystery that's inherently desirable (what's he wearing today? What's he eating for breakfast? What does he do when he's not making scheduled public appearances?). But for him, it's more than that – "When I go home, I feel like the same person I was at school," he told Rolling Stone earlier this year, "You can't expect to keep that if you show everything."
This is why you don't often see Harry Styles among the names that frequent the daily aggregated news cycle of and Person Says Thing > The Thing is Outrageous! > Actually, The Thing Is Very Nuanced > Ugh, Someone Has Said Something Else Now. He has, to paraphrase someone he once dated, removed himself from the narrative. But, at the same time, Styles has created a narrative that exists just between him and his fans. Simply put: he cares about them, very sincerely and very unabashedly. Which isn't unusual – Lady Gaga is a perfect example of the often very intimate way fandom culture works today – but Harry Styles is muse to such a vast number of teenage girls, a demographic whose interests and opinions are rarely taken seriously by music critics or society at large, that his respect for them takes on a different meaning. It's a relationship best summarised by the following quote from Styles in that Rolling Stone interview: "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? That's not up to you to say." He goes on: "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."
This was also the defining characteristic of One Direction's relationship with their fandom. They knew exactly who elevated them from bronze winners of a generic talent contest to global superstardom, they knew exactly who kept them there, and in return they gave them what they wanted. In the wake of their split, journalist Anna Leszkiewicz described One Direction as "a towering monument to the power of teenage girls."
It would have been both a strange and fairly stupid move for Styles to abandon that relationship moving into his solo career, but if anything he seems to have doubled down. He still doesn't say a great deal to the press, save for the endless shouts of appreciation for the people who make his life possible – namely, his fans and faves (artists like Stevie Nicks, to whom Harry Styles owes much of its inspiration) – but over time he's fostered a channel of trust that means his shows have become as close to a safe space as is possible for young girls to get as far as experiencing live music is concerned.
Harry Styles is currently touring Europe. He passed through London last weekend, with fans arriving to camp outside Hammersmith's Eventim Apollo in west London as early as Tuesday. Approaching the venue on Sunday evening, the area outside is deserted. It looks like a Glastonbury camping zone on clean-up day. Duvets are draped over the empty barriers; the floor is littered with foil blankets and carrier bags full of empty sandwich boxes and crisp packets; Pride Flags and Black Lives Matter placards have been taped in place like calls to arms. Everyone is already inside, obviously, and has been for ages. There are about 50 girls camping across the road on a patch of grass underneath Hammersmith flyover so they can be first in line for tomorrow's show. To arrive on time to a Harry Styles show is akin to missing it.
As for inside the venue, you can hardly see the stage for the number of LGBTQ Pride and Black Lives Matter signs held aloft by the audience. In Manchester, people also held up the city's bee symbol. The "I love you"s and "Marry me"s stereotypically associated with teen girl fandom are still very much there in spirit, but their articulation has taken on an actively political tone. The rainbow, the striking black and white of the BLM logo, the Manchester bee – all are symbols of support shared widely on social media, where pop fanbases tend to be most active, exemplifying a generational shift in consciousness towards social awareness. Here, they're brandished less a show of resistance and more as a celebration. People feel comfortable expressing themselves this way because they know everyone in the room is already on their side.
Styles has spoken generally about equality in the press before ("Most of the stuff that hurts me about what's going on at the moment is not politics, it's fundamentals," he told Rolling Stone. "Equal rights. For everyone, all races, sexes, everything"), but it's what he says at his shows, addressing people directly, that means the most to those who care the most. Throughout the night he encourages people to be "whoever you want to be in this room" and continually thanks them "from the bottom of my heart". Someone throws a Pride Flag on stage and he holds it with both hands above his head and runs back and forth across the stage. Someone else throws a French flag and he does the same. Someone else throws a bit of tinsel and he drapes it around his shoulders like a stole.
The room is full of groups of teenage girls hugging each other, hugging people they didn't know, turning to ask the people behind them if they could see alright. Anyone crammed towards the front has been there from the second the doors opened, denying themselves water or a sit-down so they could be as close to their idol as possible. The show had to be stopped twice to help two girls who fainted in the pit. Harry calmly asked people to take a step back, repeatedly checked if everyone was okay and spoke soothingly about looking after one another. He played "Kiwi" twice because it's what the fans wanted, though not without a bit of showmanship ("if you want us to play it again you're going to have to scream louder than that").
It's also worth noting that, although it was ostensibly The Harry Styles Show, five of the ten people onstage are women. As well as a female drummer and keyboardist playing in his own band, he's being supported by MUNA – a goth-pop trio from LA whose music communicates the emotional disarray of sexuality and relationships, as well as heavier topics like assault, through a specifically queer lens. On stage in Hammersmith this weekend, they repeatedly acknowledged the marginalised communities present within the crowd, providing reassurance that – in this room, at least – they are seen and heard. There are, sadly, so many awful reasons to feel unsafe at any show, but in light of the Manchester Arena bombing, pop shows now carry a particularly horrific association that lingers in the back of your mind and can make you inadvertently take note of the emergency exits. Rather than avoiding it, guitarist/vocalist Naomi McPherson addresses the elephant in the room and reminds people how brave they are for being here at all. Singer Katie Gavin introduces their single "I Know A Place" – essentially the San Junipero episode of Black Mirror as a song – by describing it as their imagining of an ideal world we should be working towards. "I know a place we can run / Where everyone gonna lay down their weapon," Gavin sings over a dancey four-to-the-floor beat, "Don't you be afraid of love and affection."
For all the talk of inclusivity and equal rights often thrown around within subcultural communities like punk, hardcore and indie – predominantly male-dominated spaces that can't seem to go a day without someone in a band being called out as abusive – it strikes me as significant that this is one of the few shows I've ever been to where I've not felt threatened by anyone in the room. And it's not because I am, at 5ft 3, one of the largest people in this one. It's because Harry Styles supports his fans' politics while they really live it, and as a result his shows have become a place for people to celebrate being whoever they are. The diversity of the room itself speaks to that. He's cheering just as much for his fans as they are for him.
Pop music is accessible and available in ways that more subcultural music isn't, but this dynamic doesn't just present itself anywhere. Justin Bieber shows, ecstatic as they may be, are not largely comprised of kids shouting down racism while overtly celebrating their queerness. Pop, like all music, can often be a form of escapism – a way to forget yourself, especially if being yourself can mean facing a multitude of hardships. The actual content of Harry Styles' music isn't anywhere near political but, because of the way his fans engage with him and each other, his shows inherently are.
Obviously, anything can happen anywhere and anytime. Harry Styles' name on the front of a building can't guarantee the absolute safety of everyone in it. But it does foster a world away from our current one; a world that feels less oppressive and more like MUNA's "I Know A Place". I can't imagine how valuable it is for teenagers to experience that – even if it's just for a night.
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