Anytime a singer from a boy band goes solo, an inescapable question follows him: Can he survive outside the system that built him? Can he hack it on his own?
In the case of Harry Styles, formerly of One Direction, the answer is yes, he can. But the better question is, does he want to?
Styles is a talented musician and songwriter. He writes beautiful songs with evocative lyrics, and while his solo stuff is certainly different from the music he performed with One Direction, it shows maturity and complexity that the band's songs lacked.
But put Styles onstage by himself and you might notice an interesting phenomenon: As talented and genuinely grateful to be there as he is, he doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself most of the time. It’s unexpected given that Harry was always the darling of 1D, with GIFs of his onstage antics proliferating online.
Part of what made One Direction concerts such an enjoyable experience for fans was that, between the four or five boys onstage, there was always someone interesting to look at. Maybe it was whoever was singing, or maybe it was a couple boys goofing around in the background. But none of the boys was the sole focus for the entire concert, and no one noticed if anyone looked momentarily bored. The songs were also mostly uptempo, boppy things, likely cultivated in labs by a team of expert Swedes.
Styles’ self-titled album, released in May, isn’t that. It’s got a funky, groovy vibe, with a couple higher-energy songs. Even the album’s lead single, “Sign of the Times,” is a ballad, as sure a sign as any that this Harry is more serious than the one we thought we knew. And as technically adept as Styles is at singing those serious songs, it doesn’t seem like he has a handle on how to perform them yet.
Last night at the Greek Theatre (the second performance of his first solo tour), Styles sang most of the songs with his eyes closed, occasionally scrunching his face when the musical phrase went up. He’s a Soulful Musician, singing a Soulful Song. But as the old saying goes, “The eyes are the window to the soul,” and they’re the easiest way for a performer to connect with the audience. It’s a tool Styles used effectively between songs, looking out at the vast sea of young women who were elated by his presence, and doing that thing where, when he spoke, it felt as if he was speaking to you, as if he really did care about how you’re doing. The electric connection he was able to make with the audience between songs made its absence during them all the more noticeable. He delivered the songs proficiently, and his voice harbored all the emotions transmitted by the album, but there was a disconnect between what you heard and what you saw.
That’s not to say that the whole concert felt like he was going through the motions; he did come to life during the songs that had more of a rock-star vibe, such as “Only Angel” and “Kiwi.” The latter seemed to give him the most joy of any song in the set — so much so that he initially stopped performing it because the audience was too low-energy for him. “Stop, stop, stop. That’s not it,” he said. “I’m about to tell you I’m having your baby. I quite simply am gonna need a little more from you. Now would you like to try that one again?” A genuine smile snuck out, and he started acting the song, feeling it, rather than reciting it. He played with the rhythms and danced around during musical interludes. He’s not the greatest dancer, but that made him all the more charming — he dances like your dad, not an overly polished cyborg.
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He also at times seemed to enjoy toying with convention. His cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” soared (though, in this post-1989 world, it bucked expectation that he didn’t bring any members of Fleetwood Mac out with him to perform), and the concert’s best song was a rockabilly version of “What Makes You Beautiful,” the song that propelled One Direction to megastardom. He grooved onstage, and ran around with a rainbow Pride flag. No matter what Styles’ intentions were, the performance transformed a twee song into a love letter to the LGBT community.
As he does more solo shows, Styles likely will grow as a performer. And he did seem aware of how fortunate he is to be in such a position, with thousands of people cheering just because they’re breathing the same air he is. But no matter how much joy his fans derive from seeing him live, it’s too bad Styles doesn't seem to be having quite as much fun.
Ever Since New York
Stockholm Syndrome (One Direction cover)
Meet Me in the Hallway
Just a Little Bit of Your Heart (Ariana Grande cover)
What Makes You Beautiful (One Direction cover)
From the Dining Table
The Chain (Fleetwood Mac cover)
Sign of the Times