London, Thursday April 11, 2018
Harry Styles is a popular gentleman.
He was in a popular group (One Direction). He seems to be popular among other celebrities. He’s popular on social media. And he’s certainly popular here at the O2 Arena tonight. Scores of people have come to see him. Let’s be honest, mostly females in their teens or early twenties. It’s easy to see why he’s popular. Easy on the eye. Charming. Smiling. A little bit cheeky. Groomed from a young age to know how to say all the right things in public. Never strays into controversial territory. Even the Harry Styles merchandise reminds us to ‘be kind’. ‘Kind’ is now not just something to be, it’s also something to brand yourself as.
Rainbow coloured paper strips
When we sit down in our seats before the concert, some girls pass us a bag of coloured strips of paper. No, they are not hits of LSD – wrong era. The strips of paper are to be attached to our mobile phones, and for a specific song, we are encouraged to switch on the light on our phones and shine the light through our coloured strips of paper. As everyone in each section has different colours, there’s supposed to be a rainbow effect when everyone turns on their camera lights. And it works amazingly well (my compliments to whoever arranged this, which was seemingly not part of the official concert). When the song in question (Sweet Creature) is played later on in the show – Styles on the smaller B-stage rather than on the main stage – the arena lights up in all the rainbow colours, which is not only beautiful but also symbolic of Styles’ very vocal and flag-waving support of the LGBT-communities. A very moving moment. But back to the beginning…
In the last 30 minutes or so before Styles and his band go on stage, an animation of two beringed hands (clearly Styles’) holding a Rubik’s cube, is played on the large screens, and when the hands finally solve all sides of the puzzle, putting all the colourful rows in order, the show can begin.
Harry Styles and band on the main stage
Of course, the noise is deafening when Styles enter the stage, no surprise there. The first two songs are some of his ‘rockier’ songs. He struts and prances and dances around, working every inch on the stage so everyone can get the best possible view of him. Then it’s time for strapping on the ultimate ‘I’m a serious pop star’-prop, a guitar, and demonstrate his strumming skills on Ever Since New York. The setlist of the evening consists of the songs from his debut solo album, a few One Direction songs, a cover song and a song Styles co-wrote for Ariana Grande (Just a Little Bit of Your Heart).
Does anyone ever get surprised anymore?
We also get a couple of new songs, as expected for anyone who’s been following the previous tour dates on Twitter, Instagram, YouTube etc, which it seems everyone has. So of course, both new songs, Medicine and Anna, are treated as old favourites by the audience and are sung along to from start to finish, word for word. Interesting to observe how each generation have their ‘things’, and one of the ‘things’ the current young generation has is, thanks to the internet, not being surprised by anything ever, and having access to know everything they want to know, including the setlist (or at least approximate setlist) of a concert they haven’t even attended yet. At this point in history, is there even anything left to be surprised by?
It’s a colourful view from the B-Stage
Styles launches into an alternative version of the One Direction breakthrough hit, What Makes You Beautiful, and the arena goes bonkers. This brings to mind when Robbie Williams left Take That and included a reimagined version of the Take That hit Back For Good in his live set, as if to prove he could do it better, as long as he sang the song on his terms. I don’t know what Styles thinks when he sings What Makes You Beautiful, but his version does come across as a, ‘I’m a grown up now and I do things my way’-kind of shout out to his fans and critics alike. After playing One Direction’s first hit, it’s time to play Styles’ own first solo hit, Sign of the Times, a song, that, when it came out, was presented by the Styles marketing machine as a combination of David Bowie and Queen. I’m struggling to hear either influence in any of Styles’ songs. If anything, Sign of the Times sounds more like a blend of Angels by Robbie Williams and Hard To Say I’m Sorry by Chicago. Either way, the song works. It’s a beautifully constructed song with a great hook, catchy chorus and good lyrics (‘We never change we’ve been here before…’) that doesn’t set a foot wrong, and Styles’ vocals sound so damn near perfect, it’s hard to believe that auto-tune hasn’t been in use.
For the encore, we get my personal favourite Styles song, From the Dining Table and the, by now, almost obligatory cover of The Chain by Fleetwood Mac. A great cover by the way – easily as good as the original. Styles has really embraced the 1970’s in the styling of his songs, and though he wasn’t even born in the 70’s, it’s a decade that suits him well, from the songs he sings, to the clothes he wears.
The last song of the evening is Kiwi, not a song that does much for me, so I bolt for the door to make it to the train before the rush.
In many ways, this was a perfect concert. There may not be a lot of depth to a Harry Styles concert. He’s not an outstanding performer. His songs are pleasant but no masterpieces and most of them sound like a mashup of some of the catchiest pop hits from the 70’s. Yet everything is done really well; a band that plays the songs perfectly, Styles sounding and looking good in a colourful (pink) and no doubt very expensive outfit. As a frontman, he’s chatty and funny between the songs, saying all the right things, but never anything that could possibly offend anyone. And that’s it in a nutshell; a contemporary pop star who tries to channel the 60’s or 70’s, is problematic. You can style yourself in the right clothes, you can fashion your songs to the right sound, you can learn all the moves and replicate them. But there’s one thing that can’t be repeated. The 1970’s was a time before pop music was irreversibly sanitised, and where it was still possible to be truly controversial and unusual. That’s not really possible anymore, even though all the young crops of pop stars try their best to be ‘different’, ‘mad’, crazy’, ‘unusual’ – they’re all the same normal, slightly boring celebrities, who have gone through the same media training, and post the same carefully constructed pieces of branding on their social media pages – another ‘Sign of the Times’. But though it’s doubtful he’ll ever be a patch on any of his 70’s heroes’ ripped flared jeans, a Harry Styles concert is all good, clean, safe and silly fun – and as Paul McCartney asks in one of his most famous songs (from the 70’s); what’s wrong with that?
Harry Styles setlist
1. Only Angel
3. Ever Since New York
4. Two Ghosts
6. Stockholm Syndrome (One Direction song)
7. Just a Little Bit of Your Heart (Ariana Grande cover)
9. Meet Me in the Hallway
10. Sweet Creature
11. If I Could Fly (One Direction song)
13. What Makes You Beautiful (One Direction song)
14. Sign of the Times
15. From the Dining Table
16. The Chain (Fleetwood Mac cover)