Harry
Harry

Harry Styles: Emirates Old Trafford, Manchester

The man of the moment is triumphant as he performs his first stadium shows, and Shaun Ponsonby thinks he’s just warming up.

By Shaun Ponsonby
Fri 17 June, 2022

I was too old for One Direction.  I didn’t pay attention.

But, even in the glimpses that I did see, Harry Styles was the one. It was obvious to even a casual observer. Any time they appeared on TV, or on an awards show, or I’d see a clip from one of their concerts, Harry effortlessly outshone them all.

So, am I surprised that he has had by far the most successful solo career? No.

Am I surprised that I’ve become a fan? Yes.

Styles is the smartest pop star around right now. He has captured the zeitgeist to become one of the defining figures of his generation. And he has done it by ultimately being a positive force of nature. He understands something fundamental; we love our favourite artists for reasons more than music.

His music is increasingly brilliant, but Harry Styles represents something. He literally has a song called Treat People With Kindness. He gets the crowd to hold hands and give each other compliments. A fan throws a Pride flag on stage during Lights Up and he holds it aloft. The stage seems to have the colours of the Ukrainian flag embedded into its design. His band are multi-racial and multi-gendered. He is about love, acceptance and equality.

 

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You can feel it in the atmosphere. This is pretty much the nicest crowd of people I have ever been in. He either attracts genuinely nice people or he brings the best out of us. Even when the stadium erupts for the opening strut of Music For a Sushi Restaurant – our first glimpse of the REAL Prince Harry – it’s respectful, to him and each other.

Walking into Emirates Old Trafford – the first of two stadium shows Styles is playing in Manchester – the effect he has on his audience is evident. Having worn a feather boa at the Grammys last year, a sizeable chunk of the crowd have elected to do the same. Loose feathers cover the ground surrounding the stadium, any colour you like.

In certain quarters of the gay internet (a wild place at the best of times), Styles has been criticised as gay baiting. But I’m not sure this is accurate. His personal persuasions aside, he seems to be tackling masculinity rather than sexuality – and there happens to be some crossover there. Is it patronising for an ostensibly straight (as far as he has officially revealed), male pop star to hold up a Pride flag to a packed stadium, or is it something we’ve always wanted? Styles’ philosophy of kindness is in-keeping with this act.

It is telling that the setlist was light on material from his self-titled debut. That effort was a little too careful, a bit of a sub-Britpop throwback. Pleasant, but all a bit safe.

His subsequent releases, though – 2019’s Fine Line and this year’s Harry’s House – have found him taking greater chances and it has paid off. He embraces his pop star status, revelling in the adoration of the crowd, but veers just enough into artistic intent. It’s a difficult balance, one that most of his forebearers and none of his former bandmates have managed to pull off.

Gradually, people who wouldn’t have given him the time of day during his time in 1D have turned their heads at the massively unconventional Lights Up, or the classic Californian feel of Golden, or the Earth Wind & Fire vibe in Late Night Talking – all highlights tonight.

Even As It Was, sitting on top of the UK singles charts for 10 weeks now (by the time you read this, Kate Bush might have knocked him off), isn’t a typical number one single for the TikTok age. It’s far more thoughtful and personable. It’s a mesh of intelligent indie pop, 80s throwback and The Weeknd’s Blinding Lights.

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He plays about half of both albums, including a gloriously re-vamped Canyon Moon, which has gone from a folkish acoustic song to an Under The Sea-esque calypso.

What is most striking, though, is the lack of gimmicks we are now accustomed to seeing at big stadium spectacles.

Styles has been very shrewd about how he presents himself. He aligns with bands like Fleetwood Mac. He covers Peter Gabriel in radio sessions. He names his albums after Joni Mitchell songs. His influences are old skool, and his simple set up reflects this; a stellar band he has chemistry with, and charisma in spades. He doesn’t hide behind choreography and special effects. He doesn’t need to. He is a charming and adored presence, and he knows how to use his powers.

There was a strange moment at the end of Love of My Life when, having left the stage, the crowd were eerily quiet awaiting his return for the encore. Perhaps this is more of a sign of the redundancy of the traditional encore pantomime than anything else, or perhaps even the respectful nature of Styles‘ audience.

There is also a sense that he hasn’t quite hit his peak. He is still warming up to something much bigger. If I was a betting man, I would wager that we’ll see him headlining Glastonbury over the next few years, an unthinkable premise eight years ago.

There is often a superficial comparison people make between him and David Bowie. This doesn’t really hold water and has more to do with nail varnish than music or impact.

A more appropriate comparison would be George Michael.

When Michael disbanded Wham! in 1986, he wasn’t welcomed with open arms by the self-proclaimed Real Music™ fans. He was dismissed as a former boybander, his talents – obvious to anyone paying attention – not taken seriously.

But he proved them all wrong. He changed their minds. By the time 1996’s Older was released, you would be hard pressed to find people who didn’t at least respect George Michael.  Today, he’s an icon.

Harry Styles is in the middle of this journey, and he’s arguably navigating it more successfully than anyone before him. To anyone guffawing at the notion, I’ll be screenshotting your response so I can say “I told you so” when you finally come around on album number four.

 

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