I must confess that until last night’s show, I had never (knowingly) listened to any of Harry Styles’ music. I always knew the name – Styles has been one of the most famous people on the planet for the last eight years or so, both in his own right and as part of British boy band One Direction – but couldn’t name a song or identify his voice if you asked me to. All that being said, I’m really glad I went to see him at the Capital One Arena last night. Styles is a natural entertainer and performer and put on a remarkably fun show, even if I couldn’t remember a single one of his songs immediately after it was done. He’s a great musician with incredibly anodyne music.
To be clear, I don’t mean any disrespect against Styles when I say he writes boring songs. He has a surprisingly versatile voice and an ear for a melody, and by all means, I seem to be in the minority. But the truth is that despite his meteoric rise to fame and the crazy life he’s led over the last decade, it feels as if Styles doesn’t have many interesting things to say. In his defense, I’m a 31-year-old man who doesn’t listen to the radio; it always felt like I was supposed to miss the boat on Styles, who appeals entirely to a younger demographic. But the Englishman has been expanding his repertoire, both as a musician and actor, and his star is shining increasingly brightly as he moves past his boy band past. Seeing eighteen thousand people collectively lose their minds over his every word was certainly persuasive, and I have to admit there’s something deeply powerful about his ability to connect to his audience. It was the loudest, most enthusiastic crowd I’ve seen in all of my years attending shows: bolder than Drake, more emotional than Adele, and as hostile towards Taylor Swift as Kanye fans.
What struck me most immediately was just how tuned-in the crowd seemed to be. It felt as if I was the only person in a sea of eighteen thousand walking in there unsighted; the crowd would rise and fall in unison at non-obvious times, prompted by sonic queues apparently well-known to fans. My sister Maria was my companion and guide for the show; as a 23-year-old woman, she is the closest thing in my life to a Harry Styles authority, having followed his career since the early days with 1D. But it soon turned out that even she was a relatively fair-weather fan – everyone else in our section had seen Styles perform several times in the last week. People had driven to D.C. from Central Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and South Carolina, all for a chance to see this man play his music again. It was a level of devotion and appreciation that I rarely encounter, and that I found somewhat unnerving. Our new ‘friends’ had strong emotional reactions to the music, with tears flowing quite freely, and on several occasions I felt them searching my face in the dark to see if I, the total newbie, had also felt close to God. (I had not).
Which takes us back to the man of the hour: Styles is incredibly charming and comfortable on stage, and his voice is surprisingly good. The lazy choice is to compare him to Mick Jagger, who Styles most closely resembles physically and stylistically, but the truth is that he is bringing in elements from a wide range of influences. Styles’ writes sincere, heart on your sleeve type verses that evoke Tom Petty, Elvis Costello, and Fleetwood Mac. However, the songs bled into each other due to their lack of memorable choruses; there wasn’t a single song that caught my attention and imagination. Not that it stopped everyone else from singing along to every word – on several occasion, Styles cut his vocals out and let the raucous noise of the audience wash over him. It’s clear that his approach to art and music works for him, and for a lot of people. It just doesn’t work for me.