For those who weren’t diehard fans of the global sensation boy band One Direction, or closely following the pop album releases of 2017, the seemingly overnight success of Harry Styles might be a bit confusing. Even if you caught a hint of Harry’s big first single, “Sign Of The Times,” hovering around the airwaves when it dropped, the fervor around his most recent pair of singles and subsequent SNL performance might still feel unexpected. But, truthfully, in just a few years time, Harry has gone from one of five beloved members of a whole crew, to bona fide solo pop star.
Harry is arguably the most beloved male pop star in the world right now — I said arguably but I don’t want to argue, Puth, Bieber, and Mendes heads — and certainly become the most interesting breakout from the former fab five. Musical groups have historically given away to solo stars, and oftentimes, the solo act becomes more popular than the group itself, no matter how beloved. But if the trajectory of Harry’s sudden rise is still unclear in your mind, then this primer on him and timeline of his rise is for you.
March 2015: Zayn announces his solo career
Zayn Malik announced he’d be leaving One Direction “to be a normal 22-year-old,” and, more truthfully, to work on his own solo career in March of 2015. This came as a bit of a shock to the fanbase, not just because they were stunned and disappointed at the potential band break up, but because Harry had been tipped as the frontrunner for a solo career. Still, Zayn cracking under the pressure and leaving first meant that Harry’s own subsequent solo move wouldn’t be tinged with the guilt of “breaking up the band.”
2015: Made In The A.M. and “indefinite hiatus” announcement
Along with the three remaining members, Harry continued on with the band for another year, promoting their new album and sticking close to his bandmates until they finally went on their announced “indefinite hiatus” in 2016.
June 2016: Harry starts his own label and signs with Columbia Records
After the hiatus, Harry founded his own label, Erskine Records, and signed with Columbia Records as a solo artist in June of 2016. Since Columbia had already been releasing One Direction’s music, this was a no-brainer decision, but in a more of a shake-up, Harry also signed with new management during this time.
Summer/Fall 2016: Writing and recording Harry Styles
Splitting his time in Los Angeles, London, and Jamaica (!?) Harry reportedly took two months in 2016 on a retreat writing his album in earnest, and spent the rest of the year recording it.
March 2017: “Sign Of The Times” is announced as Harry Styles’ first solo single
In March of 2017, Harry shook up expectations with a slow, glam-rock ballad that barely broke a sweat, pivoting hard from One Direction’s synthy, hooky, gleaming pop melodies and proving he had his own sound and his own agenda. While some fans found the single to be a bit disappointing because of its slow tempo, plenty of others fell in love with the Bowie-esque feel of the track, seeing it as an homage to the recently fallen British star. Certainly, it established the bar Harry was aiming for, even if he didn’t quite clear it on first try.
May 2017: Harry Styles is released
Though it was a No. 1 album not just in America but in the UK as well, Harry’s self-titled album didn’t have the impact of a One Direction album. Like the initial single suggested, it was more slow, psych-influenced balladry with a lot of coy, oblique songwriting and very little straightforward pop hooks. Generally considered a success by critics, and faring well commercially, the album was welcomed by fans, even if it didn’t turn Harry into a star on the spot.
July 2017: Harry’s first movie role
That’s right, Harry Styles, pop star transformed into Harry Styles, movie star, for the Christopher Nolan WWII film Dunkirk. According to Nolan, he didn’t realize who Harry was when he was cast, indicating he might be more talented as an actor than of us thought.
September 2017—July 2018: The tour that began a movement
As is often the case in the streaming era, it’s the tour behind an album that defines its narrative arc more than anything recorded. Harry Styles was popular when it came out, but not as accessible as many pop albums, and an unexpected left turn for Styles, in particular. But his fans, bereft at the thought of not seeing One Direction tour for many years — if ever again — channeled their grief into something productive and turned out in droves for his first tour. Some of them even immortalized the magical experience in writing. Harry infamously brought out Kacey Musgraves on this tour, as well as covering Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain” on several occasions, and threw in One Direction fan favorites from time to time, too. After the tour, Harry declared he was taking a break from music, but stayed in the public eye.
June 2018: Harry Styles, Gucci model
In what would turn out to be the first of many collaborations, Harry began his career as a go-to model for the Italian fashion house, a role that culminated in a farm animal-heavy campaign shot by Harmony Korine.
December 2018: Harry Styles and James Corden give the world good TV
Once again, Harry proved his versatility and all-around agreeable nature by hosting a week of Late Night With James Corden. It was pure fan fodder, and sparked a lot of funny, sweet moments, further proving Harry was a lot more than just a musician.
May 2019: Co-hosting the Met Gala
While he may have technically been on a hiatus from music since the summer of 2018, Harry doubled down on his cultural icon status by co-hosting the Met Gala with Lady Gaga, and even rocking a sheer, black ruffled ensemble that everyone quickly agreed fit the theme of “camp” to a T.
October 2019: “Lights Up”
Slyly, confidently sliding in at the end of the year, Harry returned just a few weeks ago with his first new music in two years. His first new single “Lights Up,” reckons with self-discovery and owning who you are, while staying in the initial, melancholy vibe that’s marked much of Harry’s output since he split with his former boy band.
November 2019: Fine Line
Harry officially announces a new album, Fine Line, will be out on December 13, squeaking in before the end of the year. One day later, he announced a one-night-only live performance of the album at Los Angeles’ historic venue, The Forum. Don’t worry though, a whole slew of dates for a world tour followed that announcement rather quickly, too.
November 2019: “Watermelon Sugar” and SNL
Ending this timeline with the most recent Harry moment is bittersweet, because it will likely be topped in a matter of weeks. Still, there is something special about both his appearance on SNL — one of the most coveted late-night platforms — and the release of his second new single, “Watermelon Sugar.” Finally departing from the melancholy, slow-rock status of “Sign Of The Times,” and the rest of Harry Styles, “Watermelon Sugar” is pop enough to finally win my heart, and proves that Harry is a man of many moods. Here’s hoping his glam-rock phase has faded for now, and we’re getting an honest-to-god pop album out of his as a Christmas present.
Meanwhile, his comedy performances on SNL were enough to have fans and newcomers alike clamoring for his return. His appearance last weekend was a shift in cultural consciousness for him, as everyone — not just pop fans or 1D fans — was talking about, and praising, the work of Harry Styles. After his next album and tour, it might be time to break Harry Styles, movie star, back out. No matter what medium he’s occupying, Harry is only going to get bigger. Now, when he gets there, you’ll know a little bit of the story behind how he did it.