Sign Of The Times: Harry Styles’ Performance, Politics, and “Pop Tribe”

Hannah Zwick
Jan 5, 2019 · 14 min read
Photo by Hélène Marie Pambrun

June 22nd, 2018 — I’m just one in a sold-out crowd as Harry Styles plays his second night at Madison Square Garden. When he’s about to perform the last song before encores, his first single “Sign Of The Times,” he stops to give a speech. “Outside in the world, there is a lot of bad stuff that happens, and I could not be more honored to get to play in front of you wonderful, wonderful people for an hour and a half every single night of just pure joy in this room, and I thank you for that because you absolutely changed my life and I couldn’t do it without you. I do it only for you. I love each and every single one of you. This is for anyone who needs it. This is Sign of the Times.” The song in question is a beautiful, Bowie-esque, almost 6 minute piano ballad about, well, seemingly nothing in particular. The lyrics are almost aggressively vague: “just stop your crying it’s a sign of the times / we gotta get away from here / just stop your crying / it’ll be alright.” Still, the song has taken on a political weight, as any song called “Sign of the Times” kind of has to in a post-2016 world. “This isn’t the first time we’ve been in a hard time, and it’s not going to be the last time,” Styles offered about the meaning behind the song in his Rolling Stone cover story. Harry is a post-2016 pop star, and in this new age it seems musicians have one of two options: complete silence or total activism. Styles manages to remain in the crawl space between the two. It works for him: he’s beloved by a massive number of fans and at 24 is already somewhat of a glorious enigma in his industry. In his review of Styles’ first MSG show, critic Rob Sheffield writes “Night after night, Harry Styles is taking on the central pop-culture question of our moment: What does it mean to share joy, on a mass level, at a time when every day brings a constant barrage of rage? What does it mean to gather a pop tribe and then treat this tribe with respect and affection?” In his eyes, and mine, Styles succeeds in navigating both of these pop star minefields. After two nights of Harry concerts, these were the kinds of questions that occupied my mind, specifically in regard to Sheffield’s so-called “pop tribe,” as well as Harry’s individual appeal as a performer and public figure. This all finally culminates in this article — a collection of interviews I conducted with a group of passionate Harry fans, my own analysis of his performance and presence, and the critical attention it receives.

The second leg of Styles’ world tour began in Basel in March of 2018 and closed out in Los Angeles that same July. The 2018 tour moved his show to larger stages: arenas across Europe, Australia, Asia, South America, and North America. The reservedness that led Styles to start on smaller stages for his first solo tour was no longer evident at the arena shows — he was more comfortable and confident as a solo performer, more knowledgeable of how fans received and wanted to interact with his solo work, and more experienced as a musician than he’d ever been. I saw three shows on that tour: two nights at Madison Square Garden and one at The Forum in L.A. — the final show. While some may ask (and have asked) why I chose to see the same concert three times, it’s a small amount compared to some of the women I interviewed. For some it was six, seven, seventeen, nineteen shows — crossing state, and sometimes country, lines. What about Harry as a performer makes people keep wanting to come back? What is it about his shows that are so special? It’s naturally different for everyone, but a few words seemed to keep popping up across answers, like “love” “kindness” “safety” “community.” To demonstrate why: there’s a part of each Harry Styles show where, as an extended outro to the song “Meet Me in the Hallway” plays, Styles makes a pilgrimage from the main stage at the front of the arena to the b-stage at the other end. To do so, he has to follow a barricaded walkway that is flocked by fans on either side. As he does, he is showered by fans (sometimes literally, as he’s anointed by rose petals or glitter) with gifts — bouquets, hand-written notes, flags and more. He takes as many as he can hold and walks slowly enough that he can try to thank individual fans, take their bouquets, sign the occasional autograph. It’s a testament to his kindness and the reason why fans adore him so much. It’s a hard time to be a young woman (of which, while not the sole proprietors, the majority of Harry’s fan base and audience is comprised of) and while concerts and music have always been a realm of escapism, Harry fans have taken it to another level. Each night since the first night of his very first solo tour, fans have without fail brought pride flags to the show, and Styles has without fail taken them onstage each night. The fans have curated the safe, inclusive space, but Harry has been its catalyst and its champion. “I felt so safe and open,” said Haley, a fan I interviewed who went to seventeen shows, “surrounded by love and positivity at all times, knowing everyone was there for the same reason. We all supported each other even if it wasn’t verbal and you don’t come across environments like that often. It was so encouraging.”

Photo by Sam Schraub

The quote reflects Harry’s slogan: “Treat People With Kindness.” It’s embroidered across shirts and hoodies that, when you buy from the merch stand on tour, come in a plastic “Treat People With Kindness” bag. It’s the words printed across a giant poster outside of The Forum that asked fans to write post-it notes saying how they follow the motto. It’s also the name of his charity initiative that, over the course of the two legs of tour, raised $1.2 million in donations to 62 charities worldwide. While the slogan itself is inherently apolitical, the charities Styles chose to donate to, like Time’s Up, March For Our Lives and Help Refugees, are all associated with left-leaning causes. While Styles has said he doesn’t see these issues of equality as political, just “fundamental,” his fans certainly do. They’ve encouraged his politics and pushed them further. After some started a twitter campaign asking Harry to support the Black Lives Matter movement by taking flags onstage, he soon did. “Thank you for bringing your flags, your pride flags, your black lives matter flags!” he said onstage at the second MSG show. While carrying a flag onstage isn’t as impactful outside of the room as the weight some fans give to it (“What does it do?” L, one fan I talked to, offered in response to those who arguably exaggerated the moment’s impact, “I want to know what change this actually makes.”), it’s still a gesture of solidarity and an acknowledgement that he supports what the movement stands for. Inside the walls of the arena, it means the space is safe.

As much as Harry projects love and kindness into the space, the community is really fostered by the fans themselves. They’re the ones bringing flags each night, the ones sticking their post-it notes on the “Treat People With Kindness” wall, the ones dancing without abandon like they “won’t see the person next to them tomorrow,” as Harry said every night. “He was the one with the microphone, but we made the ground quake,” says Chloe, a writer for Uproxx and Harry fan I interviewed. She’s referring to the arena floor during “Kiwi,” which I can concur is like nothing I’ve experienced before. L, who works at MSG, also agrees: “in all of the shows that I’ve worked, and even ones I’ve attended on my own, I’ve never felt the floor shake like it did on those nights.” In a very literal sense, that’s a pretty powerful force of young women. Chloe also mentions a mosh pit at the second LA show. The pit, or as she calls it, “a circle of girl-aggression and energy and emotions,” was her favorite moment of tour: “he could see us moving and doing that from the stage and I’m sure it was absolutely crazy for him to see his fans acting like they were at a rock show — because he is a rock star!” While I’ve never personally had any interest in moshing (hello, claustrophobia) it’s a pretty nice metaphor for the catharsis that a Harry show can feel like for many. To look back at Sheffield’s question I referenced at the start of this Harry-themed journey, “What does it mean to share joy, on a mass level, at a time when every day brings a constant barrage of rage?”, for the most passionate Harry fans, it doesn’t mean blocking out the political noise of the outside world for a few hours each night to just enjoy a concert, but to create a vision for the future they want to see in which the communal joy and acceptance inside the arena isn’t just limited to that space. In her article, Chloe writes, “In the temporary community of the pit, surrounded by my friends who are doctors and lawyers and journalists and mothers and healthy queer adults — and, yeah, high school students — all of us screaming along to Harry’s lyrics and sweating and pouring our hearts out to him, I’ve never felt more free. Toward the beginning of every show, Harry tells the crowd to ‘feel free to be whoever it is you want to be in this room tonight.’ With the house lights off, it doesn’t matter what we look like or who we were before we got to the venue.”

These fans are also the ones traveling in packs to shows across the country, or in some cases, countries. Amber, a fan from England who traveled to L.A. for the final two shows, told me she knew almost every fan in the pit that second night: her friend she traveled from the U.K. with, other girls who had traveled, and those from the U.S. that she met through being Harry fans on twitter. She even met the friend she traveled with through Harry when they both camped out for his first Manchester show on the 2017 leg of the tour; they then ended up going to the Manchester, London and L.A. shows together in 2018. “I definitely wouldn’t have the confidence to [travel] without the friends I made on twitter,” she told me, “and it’s pretty sick to know you have friends all over the world and you’re connected by an interest of one thing.” It’s a common thread through a lot of my interviews; Chloe describes friends she made going to shows as a “built in family,” women she’s known online for a long time but are just meeting in person at these shows. Meeting potential dates online is the norm in 2018, but for some reason forging friendships through social media seems less commonplace. Could it be because society largely dismisses the practices of young women to be inconsequential? It makes sense that One Direction fans who became Harry Styles fans would find themselves recipients of casual misogyny, like when grown men in my family or who taught my classes jokingly teased me for liking a boy band, or when girls my own age in middle and high school thought they were “above” 1D or whatever it was their internalized misogyny unfortunately told them. It makes sense that fans would look online for people to talk with about this band, or later, artist, they were so passionate about but maybe felt like couldn’t be as appreciated by their IRL peers. So communities get formed, and while there is so much to say about the terrifying side of online communities, Harry Styles: Live On Tour represented a coming together of the best side of them. The kindness, the shared passion, the inclusivity. When I asked Haley why she followed tour, she told me, “the traveling and meeting all my friends I’ve made because of him is an amazing feat and reason….. but primarily [it’s because of] him in general as a human being, the message he’s promoting, the music, and how his shows are always just so safe and happy [that] made me want to follow him around. I genuinely couldn’t be more ‘me’ there if that makes sense.” It’s clear to see why young women like me were so enamored by the space Harry and these fans created. Harry does walk the walk when it comes to supporting women: he has two mega-talented women in his band, his keyboardist Clare Uchima and his drummer Sarah Jones, and he brought opening acts on tour like country singer Kacey Musgraves, the all-female rock band Warpaint, the woman-led Australian rock band The Preatures, and the indie-trio MUNA, made up of three queer women. Plus, in his Rolling Stone profile in 2017, he made a statement that’s become heavily associated with him: “Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music — short for popular, right? — have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say. Music is something that’s always changing. There’s no goal posts. Young girls like the Beatles. You gonna tell me they’re not serious? How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans — they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.

Photo by Hélène Marie Pambrun

There seems to be an agreement among the fans I interviewed that the second LA show, the final night of the tour, best summed up these notions of community and . “I think it really was a celebration of everything Harry stands for,” Amber told me, “love, kindness, acceptance… and a really good way to wave off his first album and tour… everything came full circle from starting in LA in September 2017 to ending there this year.” I mentioned the “Treat People With Kindness” wall before but it’s worth bringing up again — it’s quite phenomenal to see thousands of notes bearing positive messages, ranging from “I try to love myself” to “ “keep families together,” the latter referencing Trump’s policy of family separation at the border wall that was dominating the news at the time of the show in July. The Forum’s Harry-ification wasn’t just limited to the one wall: the outside of the arena was full of walls painted with some of Harry’s best lyrics: “Just stop your crying it’s a sign of the times,” from his lead single, “I gotta get better, gotta get better,” the quietly powerful mantra from my favorite Harry song, “Meet Me in The Hallway,” and “Sweet creature, sweet creature, wherever I go, you bring me home,” from “Sweet Creature.” I’m sure a lot of fans feel that way about him. Beyond the decorations, you also saw fans emulating Harry in their clothes: with pink, with glitter, with 70s-style blouses (as I did). “I feel like his fashion sense, especially on tour, has really influenced a lot of young girls, especially people who went to his shows,” a fan, Lydia, says. Almost every night of both legs of the tour he wore a different custom Gucci suit (a brand he’s one of the faces of) and when he didn’t, it was custom by another big name designer. His suits have so much personality they’re almost their own entity, but ultimately they’re part of the larger performance and experience Harry wants to create. They’re callbacks to the 70s rock stars of yore, the men like Bowie and Jagger (who Harry is constantly compared to) who made their clothes fit the theatrical narrative of their songs, and who didn’t shy away from feminine aesthetics. Harry recently said, “I think there’s so much masculinity in being vulnerable and allowing yourself to be feminine, and I’m very comfortable with that,” and the message comes across in his clothes.

Back to the LA show, though. My mom, who is also a huge Harry fan, and I traveled across the country to see The Forum show, and though both of us get very easily homesick, Harry’s show made us feel right at home. My seats that night were the closest out of all three shows I attended: I was sixth row at the B-stage, the second stage Harry makes that pilgrimage to each night. Normally Harry performs two songs there: “Sweet Creature” and “If I Could Fly,” a cover of an old One Direction song that made fans around me weep. That night he played an extra song for the last night of tour, his cover of “Girl Crush,” and returned to the b-stage while he sang the show’s closer, “Kiwi,” for the second time that night. He would go on to play it three times in total, evidently not wanting to this tour to end as much as we didn’t, or at least giving us a grand parting gift before he disappeared until the next album.

Reviews of the tour have been largely positive, but I was unsettled by one review of The Forum show by a male writer that, while very positive, often came across as unintentionally condescending: calling Harry fans little girls who aren’t so little anymore, marveling at how “the little girls understand” how good he is, and implying that every one of them in attendance was there to fantasize about Harry being in love with them. It reminded me in a way of a Harry review I really love — the singer Mitski’s review of his first album. It’s titled “One Projection: Harry Styles and the Art of Idealism,” which, besides just having an excellent pun for a title, is also a dive into the ideas of projection and fantasy when it comes to Harry. The themes are the same, but while the first article presents an outsider’s view of what it’s like to be a fan, Mistki’s approach to analysis begins with her voice as a fangirl- “As I’ve always done with beautiful people, I’ve long only noticed Harry Styles from afar.” That’s not to say I think men can’t write about Harry — this piece began with a wonderful quote from Rob Sheffield — but I’ve noticed that often when men cover him there tends to be an element of shock that he’s actually as good as these young women are saying, or an inherent lack of understanding of the shows’ communities. That’s why I’ve chosen to interview, quote, and use the photography of primarily young women, whether they’re professionals like Harry’s tour photographer Hélène Marie Pambrun, or fans using the space to practice their craft.

Mistki’s review ends with a statement that stuck with me for a while after reading: “As I write this, I think, If Harry Styles reads this, he’ll probably hate it. But then, I think it’s fine. It’s not really about him, anyway.” A lot about being a fan isn’t about the artist themselves, but about what we do with their music, what we create for ourselves. When it comes to Harry, though, he acknowledges this aspect, he wants to create a space with fans, and he wants them to lead it. I cried earlier this month when it was announced that Rookie, Tavi Gevinson’s intelligent, kind and caring online publication for teen girls, was folding. They had a continuing segment on their website called “Ask A Grown Man,” in which celebrities like Stephen Colbert and Paul Rudd would offer non-judgemental advice to teen girls. I wish Harry had been a part of it before it ended, because I think it would have epitomized the love and respect for his community, and the love and respect they have for him. When I asked fans why they loved him, their responses all contained those things, “love,” “kindness,” “acceptance,” that should be the most valued thing in our extraordinarily painful and divisive world today. At Harry Styles’ shows, they are.

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