Harry Styles Doesn’t Want To Be A Pop Star, He Wants To Be An Icon

Harry Styles has avoided the path taken by most wannabe superstars - instead, he's searching for something more.

Harry Styles australian tour 2020 photo

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Harry Styles wants to be an icon.

Since leaving behind One Direction at the beginning of 2016, Styles has trod an interesting path to solo success — one which looks completely different to that chosen by his peers and former bandmates.

Where other pop acts are hopping on dance track features and collaborating with every hip-hop artist under the sun, Styles has largely withdrawn from the mainstream, releasing records that have more in common with Fleetwood Mac than Justin Bieber.

In a few days he’ll release his highly anticipated second album Fine Line, and judging by its promotional rollout and the initial singles, it’s going to be another step away from the One Direction music machine. But that’s entirely the point: Styles is establishing himself in contrast to the pop world, following an unorthodox approach to stardom.

His sights are seemingly set on the long-game, rejecting almost every pop star convention, including writing hits. By doing so, he’s gunning to be a superstar.

Harry Isn’t Exactly Dominating The Charts

There was always an expectation that Styles would be the breakout star of One Direction — the Justin Timberlake of the group. Before he’d even released his first solo track he’d secured a film role in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and planted himself in the fashion world by inking deals with Gucci.

The anticipation for his 2017 debut single was predictably huge. The near-six-minute-long ‘Sign Of The Times’ shot to the top of the charts in Australia and the UK, bowing at number four in the US. It reached the top of the iTunes chart in just 19 minutes, beating Adele’s previous record. His subsequent self-titled debut album hit number one in Australia, the US and the UK, but ultimately failed to launch another hit single.

His forthcoming second album ‘Fine Line’ seems to be following a similar trajectory. Lead-single ‘Lights Up’, aided by its sweaty, half-naked video, cracked the Top 10 globally but has struggled to stick in the upper-echelons. Follow-up ‘Watermelon Sugar’ debuted at an even lower point on the charts. It’s too early to tell with his latest single ‘Adore You’, but eight million views on the video suggest that there’s still a genuine intrigue surrounding this project.

His success is not something to sneer at, but he’s hardly pulling away from the rest of the One Direction pack. On Spotify, Style’s most popular song ‘Sign Of The Times’ (550 million streams) is outperformed by ZAYN’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Live Forever’ (930 million), ‘Pillowtalk’ (773 million) and ‘Dusk Til Dawn’ (745 million), and Liam Payne’s ‘Strip That Down’ (700 million).

Maybe the problem with comparing Styles’ chart success with others in the mainstream pop world is that he isn’t really playing the pop game at all.

Pop fan accounts on social media are often used as a way to spotlight an artist’s chart success or promote a song to move it up the charts. Uniquely, Styles seems to be more concerned with how the music resonates with fans.

Harry Styles Updates, a Twitter fan account with more than 110,000 followers, agrees. “He really cares more about the meaning of his music and how it connects him to fans,” a spokesperson for the account told Music Junkee. “We like to view chart success as an extra-added bonus, and like to believe he does too.”

Maybe that’s true. Maybe the problem with comparing Styles’ chart success with others in the mainstream pop world is that, unlike them, he isn’t actually playing the pop game at all.

He’s Intentionally Pivoting Away From Pop

It was clear from the beginning that Styles wasn’t chasing quick success. Niall Horan worked with proven hitmaker Greg Kurstin, ZAYN teamed with the likes of Sia and Taylor Swift, Payne nabbed an Ed Sheeran co-write and a Quavo verse, and Louis Tomlinson collaborated with Bebe Rexha. Styles, on the other hand, holed up with accomplished producer Jeff Bhasker who had worked with Kanye, Beyoncé, and Bruno Mars — but also hadn’t had a huge hit since the latter’s 2012 cut ‘Locked Out Of Heaven’.

His 10-track debut was a flamboyant rock LP built partly in Jamaica. It sounded nothing like what was on the charts at the time and the run time of ‘Sign Of The Times’ was a fairly deliberate move to prove he didn’t care about playing to radio. Styles recently admitted to Zane Lowe that it “wasn’t a radio record”.

By intentionally moving away from a radio-driven approach to releasing music, he’s cultivated a fanbase interested in the entire Styles package. Fan account Harry Styles Fashion Archive (HSFA), who share his every outfit with their 30,000 followers, tell Music Junkee that Styles’ fans care about the album “as a complete idea”.

That idea extends to the stage where he’s demonstrated the type of artist he wants to be. HSFA note that he wore, “over 80 unique, often custom-designed looks,” during his last world tour. “Styling his tour that way also provided over 80 opportunities for Harry to express himself through fashion,” they said.

It’s all about timelessness, HSFA argue: “I think having a point of view and earnestly putting that out into the world will age better, even if the charts don’t reflect it at the time.”

The chosen tour support acts were also a telling sign of where he wanted to position himself. MUNA, Kacey Musgraves and Warpaint played support internationally while The Preatures handled the duties in Australia. He was joined by Stevie Nicks on one date to cover Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Landslide’. These are all critically lauded artists, not widely known in the mainstream — apart from Nicks, of course, who represents Styles’ fascination with the rockstars of days gone by.

He’s Looking To The Past For Inspiration

Styles gravitates to Nicks because she represents an era of music that he channels. When it comes to promoting music, Styles is reluctant to adopt modern practices. While today’s biggest artists from Ariana Grande to Billie Eilish are generous sharers on social media, Styles remains largely silent.

He’s unlikely to drop onto Twitter to have a quick Q&A with his fans and it’s even more unlikely that he’d upload Instagram stories riding in a car or eating lunch. When he was gearing up to announce his new project ‘Fine Line’, he simply tweeted “Do”. For most artists, you’d assume it was a typo but because Styles is so absent on the platform, it sent fans into a frenzy. Since announcing the album, he’s simply delivered promotional messaging.

“We’d say that it makes his social media presence a lot more special than that of a ‘normal’ pop star,” Harry Styles Updates say about his sporadic social media use.

Styles treats his public image like vintage rockstars. Nicks’ personality, for example, was obviously never discovered through social media. It shone through on-stage and in artist profiles. One Direction were promotional workhorses, giving a lot of themselves to press and fans, but Styles’ approach has been more reserved.

We’ve gotten to know what Styles stands for by his on-stage antics, including slinging an LGBTIQ flag around his neck, and carefully chosen interviews. His first ever solo interview was with Rolling Stone, noted by some as a nod to his appreciation for rock classics. Since then, publications like The Face and i-D and have all profiled Styles, accompanied by extravagant photo shoots that highlight his fashion.

“He values his time in the spotlight in a different way from other pop stars,” Harry Styles Updates say, adding, “…he can be so cryptic sometimes. He clearly values privacy and his own personal time.”

Styles presents himself as an enigma. Despite numerous in-depth profiles, his answers to questions are typically vague, leading to constant probing about his sexuality, exes and the meaning of songs. He infamously answered a question by The Sun about remaining friends with exes Taylor Swift and Kendall Jenner by saying, “Everyone should be friends, right?”

He Dictates His Public Persona

Answering these sorts of questions honestly creates internet fodder. It’s easy publicity, but Styles has chosen to reject it. Instead, he’s focused on a long game that will eventually present him as a pop culture icon, rather than a mainstream pop star. Bowie, for example, endured not just through his music but by his fashion, performances and recorded visuals. Each outfit he wore or character he introduced generated publicity.

Styles may not be quite as outlandish as Bowie, appearing to have zero alter-egos, but it’s his careful creative moves that draw hype rather than his personal life. His enigmatic charisma and gender neutral fashion, driven by his wardrobe of Gucci suits, have turned him into a sex symbol and an arbiter of fashion . He co-hosted this year’s Met Gala, donning a sheer, nipple-exposing top with high waisted pants.

On television, he often dictates his own narrative by taking on hosting duties rather than appearing as a guest. He’s hosted James Corden’s Late Late Show, his opening monologue drawing close to five million views on YouTube. He also took to SNL as both a host and performer, excelling in some genuinely bonkers sketches. If he wasn’t already considered as an all-rounder, seeing it all in one program was proof.

Styles isn’t after quick success. He admires those that have withstood trends. His popularity may force him into the pop world but everything he does detours him away from it. In a mainstream climate where overexposure is expected, Styles’ reluctance and subsequent mystique is refreshing and, strangely, not a sign of the times at all.

Sam Murphy is a music writer and Co-Editor of The Interns. Follow him on Twitter