Harry Styles has overcome two of the music industry’s most notable curses. On the one hand, the former One Direction singer is one of the few boy band members to achieve international critical success as a solo artist. On the other hand, he has survived the commercial challenge of the third album. His recent release Harry’s House went straight to the top of the charts in the United Kingdom and the United States. Even in the competitive US market, where British artists usually struggle to break through, he sold 182,000 vinyl copies in only a week.
“It wasn’t until June 11, when he began the European leg of Love on Tour in Glasgow, that I realized the enormous pull he has. I had never seen anything like it in the city. Thousands of people from all over the world showed up. Despite the rain, many of them traded their hotel rooms for tents in front of the stadium,” says music journalist Craig Williams. “It was like the Beatles in the 1960s. Even though people tend to think otherwise, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were a boy band because they fulfilled a fundamental requirement: a fan base of teenagers, especially girls, who fainted with each wink.”
The advent of an icon
Little remains of the young Harry Styles who showed up to the auditions for the seventh season of the British version of The X Factor in July 2010. He was 16 at the time, and he helmed a pop-punk band called White Eskimo, which he had formed with classmates. On Saturdays, he worked at a bakery. In front of a panel including the pope of the entertainment industry, Simon Cowell, he sang Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely. He went on to the next round.
In previous episodes, Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson and Zayn Malik had had the same luck. Initially, all of them aspired to compete in the category of male soloists from 16 to 27. But no one expected that they would end up being eliminated. Shortly thereafter, Simon Cowell proposed to the five boys the possibility to continue in the competition as a group. One Direction was born.
The videos that the show shared on YouTube reveal in real-time how the fan phenomenon was born, dazzling a legion of teenagers week after week. After the group won third place in the competition, Cowell signed them to his own label, Syco Music, and orchestrated a strategy of world domination. Their first single, What Makes You Beautiful, hit number one in their home country on September 24, 2011. And, in early February of the following year, it debuted in the United States at number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. Not since the Spice Girls’ Wannabe, The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony and Jimmy Ray’s Are You Jimmy Ray had a British artist achieved such a high ranking on the week of their debut on the United States singles chart.
In the United Kingdom, the group achieved four number-one hit songs. All of their albums, except 2011′s Up All Night, reached number one. In the United States, their five studio albums reached the top of the Billboard 200. In total, One Direction sold 70 million albums. But as tends to happen in bands that bring together different personalities, egos and sensibilities, the interminable tours and media pressure began to wear them down. The first to desert was Zayn Malik, who left the group in March 2015 during a tour of Asia. In January 2016, after one final album as a quartet, One Direction announced an indefinite hiatus that continues to this day.
From glory to indifference
Rockdelux journalist Álvaro García Montoliu describes the eternal struggle of male pop groups: “A lot of people think they can find success alone, and they forget that, if they made it big, it was because of the rapport with their bandmates. Each one was there for a different reason. The sum of all those talents is what works in the context of the band, not outside of it.”
In December 1986, just 12 months after his New Edition bandmates had dismissed him, Bobby Brown released King of Stage, an album that went unnoticed. Once he renewed his image with the 1988 Don’t Be Cruel, he found some traction. It was the best-selling LP in the United States in 1989, thanks to singles as My Prerogative—covered in 2004 by Britney Spears—and Every Little Step, which brought him the Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance in 1990. On Our Own appeared on the soundtrack of the second Ghostbusters movie, marking another achievement. But the tables turned in 1992 with the album Bobby. While the last LP had sold 12 million copies, Bobby sold only three million. The artist’s turbulent marriage to Whitney Houston accelerated his decline from glory.
New Kids on The Block, one of the forerunners of the boy bands that would dominate the 1990s, also failed to find success after dissolving in 1994. Critics mercilessly attacked the 1999 solo adventures of Joey McIntyre and Jordan Knight. That year, the Backstreet Boys’ Millennium spent 10 weeks at the top of the United States charts. The quintet has sold more than 140 million copies. But when Nick Carter, Brian Littrell, AJ McLean and Howie D went on to pursue solo careers, none of their albums left behind a single memorable song. In retrospect, Kevin Richardson may have been the smartest Backstreet Boy of all: to date, he has yet to attempt a solo career.
The Brit Robbie Williams deserves special mention. The former member of Take That is an idol in Europe, Asia and Oceania. But almost no one has paid attention to his career in the United States, despite Capitol Records’ 1998 launch of The Ego Has Landed, an album of his first solo hits. In 2002, EMI launched a wild promotional campaign for Williams’ Escapology album, which landed him a record contract of £120 million, the largest in the history of the United Kingdom. In its first week, 264,104 fans purchased a copy in the UK; in the United States, only 10,000. Maybe that’s why he lives in Los Angeles: in California, fewer people stop him on the street to ask for a selfie.
There are exceptions, of course. Michael Jackson became the king of pop after emancipating himself from a boy band (although, in this case, his bandmates were his siblings). And in 1987, the success of George Michael’s album Faith demonstrated that he was much more than the voice of Wham!. Perhaps the only true precursor to Harry Styles is Justin Timberlake. After dissolving NSYNC, he has sold 32 million solo albums; he has had five number-one hits in the United States and four in the United Kingdom.
“The biggest challenge they face is going from a predominantly female fan base to winning over not so much the adult audience, but their parents. That is, beyond conquering mothers and daughters, they have to do the same with fathers and sons,” says Williams. Harry Styles has played his cards well. And now, with 41-year-old Justin Timberlake facing an image crisis–Rolling Stone recently called him the “king of cringe”–Styles has become the world’s new greatest former boy-band idol.
The Styles case
“I would love to say that I intuited from day one that he would succeed, but Zayn was clearly ahead at the beginning. First, he got together with Gigi Hadid, becoming the “it” couple for months at a time when nobody was talking about generation Z. And his debut Mind of Mine in 2016, due to its R&B, fit much better in the musical context at the time. But Malik went from more to less, and Styles has done the opposite,” says García Montoliu.
Styles’ public image transformed on April 7, 2017. That day, Sign of the Times, the first song from his first album, was released. “My father cried when he sang it on the BBC’s The Graham Norton Show. Seriously, he cried. He caught him completely by surprise. The song touched his soul. Perhaps that is the key to his success. Styles proved that our parents were right when they put on bands like Fleetwood Mac, Roxy Music or Pink Floyd, while we only wanted to listen to Oasis or Eminem,” Williams says.
García Montoliu adds, “That single and the rest of the album only brought him praise, and it even helped him become friends with Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac. But Styles has been smart enough not to get stuck in that soft rock and to go towards a more radio sound, without losing his retro essence. It worked for The Weeknd, and it worked for him too.” The results have been clear with Fine Line, an instant number one in 2019 in the UK and US, and more recently, Harry’s House, also number one in both markets.
“I have the feeling that he does what he wants. He directs his path and has total freedom, which is fascinating,” says Kay Díaz, a creative at the AP2U advertising agency and a marketing professor at La Salle Campus Barcelona. “Being part of a boy band, a more or less prefabricated product, catapulted him to international recognition. In marketing terms, that made it easier for him to show his subsequent transformation. In five years, we have realized that he was more than just a product. We’re dealing with a songwriter and a singer who continues to evolve.”
“It’s clear that he is on the brink of queerbaiting [the use of LGBTI signifiers to gain visibility and influence],” García Montoliu points out, referring to the androgynous aesthetic that Styles has adopted on stage and on covers such as last December’s issue of Vogue. But Williams has a different take on the matter: “Through his activism and empathy, he has helped millions of kids feel comfortable in this crazy world, express their sexuality and dress the way they want. He has a clear parallel with David Bowie. He is breaking fashion rules and gender norms alike. He is not afraid to express himself and rejects the traditional confines of masculinity. Through it all, he has connected in an amazingly deep way with a huge fan base.”
On the future of other boy-band breakout stars, García Montoliu predicts, “BTS are so big that they have announced a hiatus to pursue solo careers. It is likely that at least one of them will make it. My bet is Suga,” he says. “But considering that succeeding as a solo artist after a boy band is something that happens once every 10 years, Harry Styles will have an advantage for a while.”