There have been endless amounts written on the fantasy of pop music. When a pop star is on stage, seeing such a fully-realized and gloriously unrealistic version of a person can inspire an audience into wanting to be that confident, that artistic, that free — or to simply fall in love with someone who embodies those attributes. But whether learning about the qualities we want to embody or the traits we value in others, there is an element of the fantasy becoming a reality. Seeing a concert from Taylor Swift or Ariana Grande isn’t just about disappearing in a dream for a couple of hours, it’s about how you take those moments and apply them to the rest of your life.
Early into his set on Friday night at the Forum in Los Angeles, Harry Styles addressed his packed house of adoring fans. He spoke about his role as the entertainer, and the fans’ responsibility to have fun. But his key point was almost buried within the monologue when he asked the crowd to “feel free to be whoever you want to be in this room tonight.”
Coming from another source, it might feel like a hollow request, something that sounded good to a crowd of nearly 20,000 people, but was hard to put into practice. But there might not be another pop star on earth right now as good at emboldening their fans to be themselves as Styles. It can be seen in the merch, which ranged from posters in which Styles appeared without clothes to t-shirts sporting his song-title message to “treat people with kindness.” It could be seen is his onstage ensemble, with his pink blouse and white high-waisted, wide-legged pants that defied gender norms. It could even be seen in his backing band, which featured an even split between men and women, the kind of progressive statement that Styles makes on the regular, doing the work here without feeling the need to pat himself on the back for it.
Part of the special relationship Styles has with his fans might just come from longevity. Though Fine Line is just his second album, many in attendance have grown up with Styles since his One Direction days, their tastes evolving and maturing as Styles’ own aesthetic does the same. Trust takes time to build, and Styles has earned exactly that over the years. On Friday night, his respect for his own fans could be seen across the presentation. There was the ticket price, a firm $25 (which surely influenced the decision to make the floor standing room, rather than use the space for premium-priced, vibe-less seating). There was the pre-show DJ set, veering far away for his pop contemporaries in favor of starting an exuberant dance party to tunes by the likes of Talking Heads, David Bowie, and even a deep-cut from ’90s Modest Mouse that felt like it was directed straight at me. And there was the decision to focus on the new songs, which Styles admitted might be one of the only times the album was played from top-to-bottom in a live setting. It was only hours old, but there wasn’t a single song that didn’t feature the audience singing along with enthusiasm.
As good as Fine Line is, it’s fair to say that Styles’ music comes alive more in person than on record. That’s less a knock on the recorded material than a reflection of who Styles is as a performer. He’s charming enough to be a late-night host, handsome enough to be a model, and talented enough to warrant a guest appearance from Stevie Nicks. It’s the kind of total package that demands to be seen at the same time as being heard, to get swept up in the screams of the fans around you, to see him through the eyes of others.
All that said, experiencing many of the songs from Fine Line during their first performance was a thrill. “Sunflower, Vol. 6” was a personal favorite, featuring the most straight-ahead songwriting on the new album (unsurprising as the only song produced by pop wizard Greg Kurstin). Elsewhere a song like “Cherry” could easily fit on the latest Mumford And Sons album, while Styles took much of “Treat People With Kindness” off in favor of letting vocalist Lucius take the reigns for the chorus. But because of the album’s freshness, the singles easily shined brightest, with Styles hard to hear over the boisterous audience belting out the words to “Watermelon Sugar,” “Adore You,” and “Lights Up.”
Styles’ music rarely shows the need to pull back from his love of classic rock, or his discomfort in paint-by-numbers pop. Even as the music shows disparate influences, it’s all tied together by being decidedly Harry. Dueting with Nicks on “Landslide,” a festive cover of Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime,” resurrecting his old band’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” and a cinematic take on “Sign Of The Times” all felt in harmony during the encore, reflecting just who Styles wants to be at this exact moment, along with the dozen shades of himself that exist on the new album.
And if Harry can be whoever he wants to be, then why can’t his fans live the same way, taking the freedom that they feel when amongst each other into the real world? As the decade closes, this feels like a pragmatic use for pop music, shifting it away from fantasy and into real-world applications. Harry Styles is doing more than sloganeering at this point, his “treat people with kindness” ethos more than just fodder for t-shirts. He’s emboldening his young fans to look to the past, to the future, and literally anywhere else that makes them curious. If Harry Styles is indeed the future of pop, it’s hard to imagine the genre in better hands.