Now what are we supposed to make of it?
That’s the question the entire internet seemed to be asking itself Friday, after Harry Styles’ debut single, “Sign of the Times,” finally dropped. And it felt, to me, like the answer most people went with was, “well, whatever we were gonna say about it already.”
The Guardian asked if Hazza’s going to be our new Bowie (answer: no, because the entire point of an icon like Bowie, or Prince, is that there never will be another one – but he’ll probably throw in a nod or three to him). NME, The Independent, and The Atlantic were, in my opinion, the most even-keeled and fair: acknowledging the song’s triumphs while not gushing to the point of cloying excess. SPIN is the only outlet I can find that trashed the song, but then SPIN have taken up the NME’s former position of the music rag that jockeys the hardest to seem “hip” in recent years, and as such have taken a downturn from their days of cheerful effortlessness, and the place to be if you wanted to read Chuck Klosterman’s monthly column, into something much more bitter and – dare I say it? – try-hard.
SPIN also took great offense at the release announcement of “Sign of the Times,” made as it was on the 30-year anniversary of the Prince record, Sign o’ the Times. “Milquetoast,” they called Styles, and ended with a note that Lana del Rey had named her new album Lust for Life, a title previously used by Iggy Pop – the implication being that anyone who takes inspiration from or pays homage to other artists will of course never be anything but a cheap ripoff.
That’s a tough line to sell in the era of the internet, to a generation of fans that have grown up on hip hop’s sampling and remix culture and for whom mashups and covers aren’t simply understandable, but expected. It reeks of the kind of too-cool music snob posturing that no one who likes Harry Styles is likely to fall prey to, anyways.
Because we all know Styles’ origin story here, right? There’s no need to run through the X-Factor, Simon Cowell, biggest boy band on the planet, 1D narrative again? Good. Here’s what we’ll focus on instead, then: Harry Styles is already a pop star, and this is his first solo jaunt, the moment he gets to set the tone for his own career, outside the trappings of One Direction.
So what has he chosen to lead with?
Well, for starters, a pretty bloody solid effort.
Clocking in at almost six minutes, “Sign of the Times” puts to bed any notions of being just a pop single with its length alone. It’s a long song for 2017, a length better suited for an era of albums and record shops than singles and .mp3s. That’s not surprising for anyone who’s followed any of Styles’ career up until now: the man’s dressed himself like Keith Richards the pirate king by way of Noel Fielding’s wardrobe for several years now, and in interviews and on his (rare) social media jaunts he’s professed a fondness for Fleetwood Mac (Stevie Nicks in particular – good lad), The Rolling Stones, Patti Smith, Nirvana, and The Eagles. Last year, Styles got to interview Paul McCartney, and the question he seemed to most want answered was, “what was it like to go from being in a band to being a solo artist?” There are worse people to get career advice from than Sir Macca, and few people who would understand the transition Styles is trying to make – from one piece of the biggest group act in the world to someone able to stand on his own, creatively – as intimately.
You’ll notice that I didn’t name David Bowie in my list of influences Styles has mentioned above. That’s because, before Bowie died, I didn’t realize that Styles considered him an influence – at least not beyond the obvious way in which most everyone making music in a post-Bowie world must reckon with the fact that, probably, David did it first. That’s not to say Styles didn’t, just that he didn’t make it publicly known the way that I know, for instance, that he loves Ronnie Wood and Basquiat (and Bukowski and Beyonce).
In fact, it’s likely that Styles has always loved Bowie, because the artists Styles is drawn to and the public persona he has crafted for himself make one thing clear: Harry Styles, way before he ever embarked on his solo career, has stepped into a long line of a specific type of hipness. He is a student of rock’n’roll – of Jagger’s lips and Tina’s hips, of Dylan’s sleek skinny-legged silhouette and Elvis’ near-dangerous sex appeal. He’s the eager inheritor of everything that has gone before him, and that’s precisely why it’s silly and pointless to slam him for making use of a serendipitous Prince connection.
That’s also what makes his solo jaunt a little bit different, and likely harder to reckon with for a lot of seasoned music journalists, than most former boy band members’ first individual efforts. Because usually, the artists need to establish themselves as someone separate from the childish band they’ve left behind, someone more grown up and able to be taken seriously – see Styles’ former bandmate Zayn Malik’s near-parodically explicit first offering, or Robbie Williams’ premiering himself with a cover of George Michael’s “Freedom 90”. This isn’t more pop schlock, the first solo move needs to confirm, this is adult. This is cool.
The thing is, Harry Styles is already cool. He has been for years. He’s dated Cara Delevingne, he’s good friends with the Primrose Hill “hipster clique” set, he’s a fixture and a draw at London fashion week, and Matty Healy is – if begrudgingly or bemusedly or both – his friend. So what’s he got left to prove?
Whether or not he can make music, mostly.
And “Sign of the Times” proves that he can. It’s not the best song I’ve ever heard. It’s not even the best single of 2017. But it is a very good song, one that highlights Styles’ appealingly raspy voice and a surprising and well-executed falsetto against a piano slow-build into a gorgeous sweep of guitars that’s more Lennon than it is McCartney.
It’s a song that sounds better on repeat: rich and layered, more complex than it seems on first listen. Most reviewers are highlighting the 70s influences present in the track, and they’re certainly there (maybe a shade too much so: the main criticism of the song has been that it is too derivative) – Bowie’s Hunky Dory era and Mott the Hoople in particular, as well as the aforementioned solo work of John Lennon – but the song reminds me of nothing so much as Suede’s “Wild Ones,” particularly when the drum fill trips over into the first chorus.
The dramatic orchestration and melancholy nostalgia of Britpop would suit Styles’ voice and, well, style to a tee, and I can only hope that it’s an influence that is explored more on the full album, because listening to “Sign of the Times” gives me the same feeling of standing in Hyde Park on a summer night, pressed uncomfortably close against a metal barrier with a man I don’t know’s leather jacket stuck to my bare back with sweat and not caring at all because Jarvis Cocker is writhing on top of a stack of speakers less than six feet in front of me – of loving music, of being there, in the moment, with the music, of being invited into it by someone who loves music just as much as I do.
That’s what all great musicians are first, after all: music lovers. I don’t know if Harry Styles is going to be great yet, but I do know that he loves music, and that he has released a good first solo song which makes that love abundantly clear. “Sign of the Times” also does the job of a first single, and does it well: it sets the tone for Styles’ solo career, and it makes me want more.