Harry Styles for Prime Minister

Posted Tuesday, October 25th, 2022 by Gregory Forman
Filed under Book, Film or Music Reviews, Not South Carolina Specific, Of Interest to General Public

Having recently returned from an extended vacation in Europe, I intended to turn sixty last Sunday staying local and having dinner with friends.   However, the combination of ailing parents who I’ve not visited in almost a year coupled with the opportunity to see one of the biggest and most interesting pop stars on the planet open his extended run at Inglewood’s Kia Forum, led me to spend last weekend in my hometown.  Hence, the evening I turned sixty I was in the pit seeing Harry Styles.

Over the summer my college-age daughter had turned me into a fan, an experience that appears to be surprisingly common for fathers of teen and young-adult daughters. I expected the performance to be memorable. I wouldn’t have traveled to Southern California and stubhubbed pit tickets otherwise. What I hadn’t expected was to be gobsmacked.

I go to scores of rock concerts every year and this was easily the liveliest and most uplifting performance I’ve attended in five years.  While a limited (but not bad) singer, Styles has charisma and energy to burn.  After a mere three solo albums he already has a songbook so impressive that some of his best tracks were left off his 100-minute, nineteen-song set.  The intensity was simply bonkers.   I attended punk shows in my youth where the band kept the intensity level to 10, but those shows lasted under 40 minutes.  Even epic Bruce Springsteen or Rolling Stones performances have them dialing-back the intensity for brief periods. But Styles started at 10 and only dialed back when he interacted with his audience or—admittedly taking a breather—introduced his band.

However, this blog isn’t intended to be a concert review.  Much better writers have reviewed both this concert and his recent similar performance at Madison Square Garden.  Rather it’s to address why Harry Styles speaks to this moment.  In an era where most progressive icons disappoint, Styles may be the best progressive hero we can realistically hope for.  What I experienced in that pit was a fan base that attends his shows to have a few hours where they don’t have to feel ashamed or outcast and have the opportunity to experience pure communal joy.

Creating this welcoming and communal atmosphere appears to be a deliberate part of his persona and is a deliberate part of Styles’ concert ritual.  Styles seems to exclusively date women (who he deigns to name to protect their privacy—even though a few have publicly trashed him).  However, he keeps his sexuality ambiguous—at times playfully donning nail polish and women’s clothing and being a spokesperson for a unisex fragrance.  This helps his LGBTQ fans feel welcomed (and, admittedly, leads to allegations of queerbaiting). His pre-concert big screen messages were to support voter registration and anti-gun violence initiatives—progressive faves.  For his second album, Fine Line, he wrote and released a single titled “Treat People with Kindness”—now a regular part of his set.  Among the concert merch was a makeup bag with this slogan and a t-shirt showing Harry in a dress.

Myriad moments in the concert were intended to be welcoming and inclusive.  He begins his concerts by inviting audience members to be free and to be their authentic selves—if only for a few hours.  His stage is deliberately spartan, simply his five piece band and occasionally four horn players, with lighting but no strobe, smoke, or props, and set in the middle rather than the end of the arena floor—narrowing the distance between artist and audience. He spends much of the concert mugging for audience members (the better to capture the moment on one’s smartphone). As he notes, everyone in the audience gets ample time viewing his face and his ass.

Mid-set he takes a break to interact with pit attendees whose homemade signs intrigue him. For the concert I attended he interacted with a middle-aged woman whose sign read, “I’m living my twenties in my sixties.” He playfully warned another fan whose sign indicated she had skipped therapy to attend his concert, “It’s a sign that the people of L.A. do not approve of…because what do we know, L.A.? You. Never. Skip. Therapy.”

During this audience-interaction segment he always calls on one young fan whose sign indicates he or she is gay and ready to come out.  He then preforms a ritual in which he slowly raises a boa (provided by an audience member) over his head. When the boa is over his head, the fan is now officially out of the closet and cheered by the crowd for bravery.

The purpose of these rituals is to allow his audience feel welcomed, respected, and active participants in the performance.  Myriad print interviews of his fans note appreciation for this aspect of his concerts and suggest that they go through their lives frequently experiencing rejection. Many young teens have attended his concerts afraid to come out to their parents and experienced tremendous relief and acceptance from this ritual. The only persons shamed at his concert were the small group trying to sneak out mid-encore. Harry teased them for leaving before the conclusion to avoid traffic. They slunk back to their seats as the audience laughed.

Styles began his encore with his debut solo single, “Sign of the Times.”  A slow building piano ballad crescendoing to a rousing climax, the song is ultimately about disconnection and a desire for escape.  Had he ended the concert with this song it would have functioned as a benediction to an audience of misfits about their ability to remain strong in the face of divisiveness.

Yet Styles didn’t end his concert there.  After two more sprightly numbers, including “As It Was,” a highlight/single from the 2022 Harry’s House, he concluded with the only other song he performed from his solo debt, “Kiwi.” A fast and aggressive hard rock paean to a crazed sexual relationship with a complicated woman, it reminded his audience that peak pleasures occur where outcomes are uncertain—which may be the loadstar of Styles’ career decisions to date.

For a young man who first achieved fame in a boy band and whose audience is largely under-25 girls and a smattering of effeminate boys, Styles is both more complicated and more artistic than market considerations require.  That he’s chosen to develop a persona and concert dedicated to communal joy and self-acceptance renders him my idea of a progressive hero.  Moreover, the concert was simply great. If one doesn’t enjoy two hours of catchy songs, well performed (by a majority female band), with a handsome artist’s singing, dancing, and audience interactions radiating pleasure, one simply doesn’t like live rock.

A Harry Styles concert is a brief respite from a culture in which treating people with kindness is a sign of weakness.  A number of fans I spoke to in the pit traveled long distances and were seeing multiple shows in this fifteen-concert run.  One young woman had travelled from Texas, was in the pit for eleven shows, and was camping in a tent in the parking lot to be near the front of the general admission entrance line. 

Like many classic liberals, I find the current moment fraught.  It appears that in much of our politics the cruelty is the point.  I fear the time is not too distant when hatred will tear our country apart and many will suffer sanction for not being mainstream.  An empowered lawyer celebrating his 60th birthday greatly enjoyed that respite.  I’ve felt something similar in the pit at Pink or Lady Gaga shows but never this powerful. For the fan who’s scared to come out to her parents or who travels from Texas and squats in a parking lot, I suspect this respite is even more vital.  Mr. Styles has both a desire and a preternatural ability to bring people together that is a hallmark of the greatest progressive politicians.  Britain should have made him Prime Minister.

The setlist from Harry Styles’ October 23, 2022 concert.

One thought on Harry Styles for Prime Minister

  1. christina spinelli says:

    Happy Birthday Greg ⭐️??? glad you had a great time. What a wonderful way to celebrate your 60th??? Birthday.

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