Harry Styles is a really nice guy. I know this because he told me himself, over and over, in his songs.
Take “Boyfriends,” the penultimate track from his forthcoming album, Harry’s House. Singing in a tender croon over a gentle, finger-picked guitar lick that evokes the ’70s AM gold of John Denver, Styles enumerates the many ways in which most boyfriends are bad. “They think you’re so easy,” he says. “They take you for granted / They don’t know they’re just misunderstanding you.” A few lines later, he sniffs, “You love a fool who knows just how to get under your skin.”
As he makes clear in the other songs on Harry’s House, Styles himself is not guilty of any of these offenses. He is the opposite of those other guys. And he’s here to be your surrogate best friend, romantic partner, and/or sensitive ally, the hunky hero who will whisper sweet nothings while the dumpy zero in your life watches sports on the couch. In the ersatz indie-pop number “Grapejuice,” he’s the hopeless romantic who admits that “I was on my way to buy some flowers for you.” In the low-key bedroom ballad “Little Freak,” he’s the sultry dreamboat who raves about “the body all that yoga gave you.” But mostly, he’s just … nice! Really, really nice! “Take a walk on Sunday through the afternoon,” he sighs moonily in “Love Of My Life.” “We can always find something for us to do.”
Harry Styles’ public-facing persona is so relentlessly pleasant and ingratiating that it’s almost impossible to criticize the guy. Picking on Harry is like giving the finger to Tom Hanks or Barney the dinosaur. It feels wrong. And yet … something has bugged me about him ever since he broke free of teen-pop phenoms One Direction with his 2017 self-titled debut and subsequently forged a wildly successful solo career. And I think I finally figured out what it is: The niceness. The aggressive, hectoring, not totally plausible niceness. While I’m sure Harry Styles is a swell guy in real life, it’s inconceivable that any person on Earth could be as nice as he is in his songs. Even the most compassionate among us has a weak moment every now and then. But with Styles, it always comes back to rote generosity.
“Harry Styles is a good person” is Harry Styles’ overriding artistic credo. He lays it on so thick that the performative altruism becomes oppressive, like in “Treat People With Kindness,” a particularly egregious nice-guy routine from Styles’ blockbuster second album, 2019’s Fine Line. “Maybe we can / Find a place to feel good,” he sings. “And we can treat people with kindness / Find a place to feel good.” Do I dispute the message of the song? Of course not. Nobody can. And that’s the point. It’s bulletproof brand burnishing. Finding a place to feel good … is good! It’s the equivalent of a corporation tweeting out a social-justice slogan. What it’s not is compelling art.
As I played Harry’s House, I kept wondering: Has Harry Styles ever been a bad boyfriend? Has he ever said the wrong thing or had an impulse that is impure, untoward, or selfish? Has he ever felt like not taking a walk through a park on a Sunday afternoon? Really, dude? A song like “Boyfriends” would seem disingenuous or even creepy if it appeared on a John Mayer record, because we know John Mayer is a flawed human being, to say the least. But to his credit, whatever else you want to say about John Mayer, he’s copped to those shortcomings in his songs. Whereas Harry Styles — the occasional, conspicuous lyrical reference to sniffing cocaine or popping “pills” aside — comes off like a life-sized Ken doll on Harry’s House. And that makes for a terribly boring listening experience.
In a recent list of the world’s most stylish musicians, Styles was praised as “a new-school style icon in the gender-fluid footsteps of ’70s and ’80s heroes — especially David Bowie and Prince,” presumably because he wears dresses on stage, just as countless other straight male pop stars have done for a half-century. I personally wouldn’t compare him to Bowie or Prince, for a variety of reasons. He reminds me more of the monologue that opens Mary Harron’s 2000 film American Psycho, in which Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman coldly intones, “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman. Some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. Only an entity. Something illusory.”
Something illusory. That, to me, sums up the fantasy version of himself that Harry Styles serves up on Harry’s House. To be clear: I am not comparing Harry Styles to a fictional serial killer in any other way! (Though injecting American Psycho into Harry’s House would definitely make it less dull.) What I am saying is that his persona, which informs how his songs are heard and discussed, is very much about presenting a facade that is divorced from reality. Yes, he is handsome and charismatic. But he is not some transgressive paradigm-shifter. He is the paradigm. If he looked like Ed Sheeran, he would have the credibility of Ed Sheeran. Because his actual music occupies the same middle-of-the-road pop lane as Ed Sheeran’s.
This is where the nods to genuine innovators like Prince and Bowie — both of whom were fearless about owning and exploring the thorniest parts of their lives and psyches in their songs — start to seem especially preposterous. Styles, at heart, is a pastiche artist who specializes in making soundalikes of the most broadly accepted music from the 1970s onward. This is another kind of facade, an additional distancing device that keeps you at arm’s length from a flesh-and-blood person who might have an original (or even dangerous) thought or two. What you get instead is a curator of cool signifiers. His songs always remind you of better songs.
On Harry’s House, the strongest numbers take a meta turn by evoking other contemporary pastiches, layering more copies on top of copies. The smash hit “As It Was” — which is rocketing rapidly toward a half-billion streams on Spotify a mere six weeks after it was released — is Harry doing his version of The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights,” which was The Weeknd doing his version of A-Ha’s “Take On Me.” (Who could have predicted the long shadow of A-Ha’s influence on 21st-century pop?) On the amiably breezy summer jam “Daydreaming,” which sounds like another potential hit, Harry puts his spin on Bruno Mars’ spin on ’70s soul.
Working again with long-time musical collaborators Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, Harry’s House sonically resembles the agreeably bland star who made it. Lyrically, it disproves the notion that referencing a Joni Mitchell song in your album title is the same as writing with the candor and insight of Joni Mitchell. “If the stars were edible / And our hearts were never full / Could we live with just a taste?” he philosophizes in the album-opening “Music For A Sushi Restaurant.” Given how air-headed that sentiment is, perhaps it’s best that he mostly operates in idealized plastic boyfriend mode. “You stub your toe / or break your camera / I’ll do everything I can to help you through,” he pledges in the wan yacht-rock tune “Late Night Talking,” a song that also sounds like music made for a sushi restaurant.
The genius of Styles’ one-time girlfriend Taylor Swift (or Joni Mitchell, for the matter) is that even when they write about their pettiest and most vindictive sides — see the entirety of Reputation — it makes people like them even more. Because listeners recognize those unattractive (but universal!) personality traits in themselves. Nobody, as they say, is perfect. And imperfections are infinitely more fascinating and relatable than airbrushed delusion. But Harry Styles still won’t show us those jagged, authentic edges.
Here’s the truth: Harry Styles is rich. He is famous. He is powerful. He is currently dating Ted Lasso’s estranged wife. Based on that information alone, we can conclude that he is probably a lot darker and more complicated (and therefore more interesting!) than he lets on in his songs. And being a little more honest about that would go a long way to making his music more exciting. At the very least, he would finally be something more than illusory.