Nick Jonas. Justin Timberlake. Justin Bieber. Usher. What do these men have in common? They're all talented musicians who have successfully evolved from child star or boy-bander to bona fide sex symbols. They started their careers as children and teens and have made their way, often scantily clad, onto the covers of magazines, all over our Instagram feeds, and into sexed up music videos. Their transitions from boys to men have been pretty smooth sailing.
Women who do the same, on the other hand, frequently face a barrage of scrutiny and anger. When Nick Jonas and Miley Cyrus both made career pivots into more provocative subject matter, Miley was slut-shamed while Nick was praised for his edgy music and sex appeal. From Britney Spears to Selena Gomez, there's no shortage of examples. Safe to say, its much more socially acceptable for men to iterate past childhood stardom than women.
The latest generation of male artists to embark on this standard image overhaul are the men of One Direction. Zayn Malik has fully embraced a sultry image (his first single was called "Pillowtalk"), and Liam Payne has been in a highly publicized relationship with Cheryl Cole (they just had a child), and is slated to release his first single called "Strip That Down" later this month. But Harry Styles? He hasn't followed the traditional route.
When I first heard his first solo single release, titled "Sign of the Times," I was admittedly a bit confused. I expected something in-line with the provocative image revamp I'd seen his male predecessors seamlessly execute, time and time again. I mean, Harry definitely has the looks to pull off such a transition. But upon further research, I found Harry's Instagram devoid of any shirtless pictures (or any photos of him at all, really), instead sprinkled with edgy, black-and-white photography. His May Rolling Stone cover story features portraits with a throwback, vintage rocker vibe, and "Sign of the Times" itself is just about as far away from provocative as you can get.
On Friday, May 12, his debut album Harry Styles hit the sound waves. None of the 10 tracks feature other artists, and Styles has songwriting credit on each one (a pretty impressive feat for a solo debut). While some of the tracks feature nuanced references to past relationships, they aren't shameless or negative. Harry certainly touches on sex and attraction, but he does so from an emotionally meaningful angle, as opposed to a strictly physical one.
As I made my way through the album's track list, I realized that I've become so used to men artists leading with sex and physicality, that Harry's music seems almost revelatory in its honesty and simplicity. The album is thoughtful, genuine, and romantic — think The Beatles, Jackson Browne, or even John Mayer — and, most importantly, it's singular.
I want to relate to the music I listen to, but that's hard to do when I'm being fed the same one-dimensional themes on repeat. Anyone can sing about sex and make it sound convincing. At this point, there's so much music like that bombarding the airwaves, it all just seems trite. And there will likely be hundreds of new artists doing the same thing, probably better and in a more trendy way, 10 years from now. What sets Styles' album apart is the depth of feeling and emotion with which Harry writes and sings — it's not a sound that comes with an expiration date.
By the time I'd finished all 10 songs, Harry had cemented himself as Gen Z's Paul McCartney in my mind. The tracks got better each time I listened to them, uncovering additional layers to the melody and lyrics. But, most importantly, the songs made me feel something, and bonded me, in a way, to the person singing them. And that is what's going to keep these songs, and Harry Styles, relevant 20 years from now.