Some may say it is worthwhile to spend one’s time in intellectual company and enjoying the finer things in life: art galleries, classic novels, good food and wine… For pop princess and Online Music Editor Georgia Marsh, this is not the case. A true One Direction connoisseur, she believes her time is best spent thoroughly analysing the debut solo effort from everybody’s favourite mop-headed ex-boyband heartthrob Harry Styles.
I would love to say that the headline “Hear Harry Styles’ first solo single!” would not elicit the same reaction in me as it would in my younger self, but alas, here I am, shamelessly playing the song over-and-over again in my bedroom and swooning internally. I have regressed into my sad and pathetic teenage fangirl years, and he is the only man who could’ve made me do so. I am delighted to announce that I am 15 years old again.
‘Sign of the Times’ marks the fourth debut solo effort of an ex-Directioner. While Zayn’s was a brilliantly catchy and simply perfect R&B hit, Niall’s debut was blink-and-you’ll-miss-it forgettable, and Louis’ a generic and plastic attempt at a club classic. In other words, there was a lot of expectation riding on Harry’s shoulders, and some have waited eagerly for him to trip up and fall.
His ravenously-awaited debut single is certainly ambitious, proving unexpected from the moment his first vocals trickle out over the initial piano chords before they undergo an eventual metamorphosis and mature into a sprawling five-minute rock ballad. Yet it is this ambition which makes the track so interesting and, in a way, marks its success as an establishment of a new-age Styles.
In the context of who Harry Styles is – unequivocally the most popular ex-member of the 21st century’s biggest pop act – ‘Sign of the Times’ is a commendable effort due to its derision from the music which shot him and his bandmates to superstardom. Gone are the early gleams of bubblegum pop found in the now-nostalgic, radio-friendly classics ‘What Makes You Beautiful’ and ‘Kiss You’ (this writer’s personal favourites), yet the tumbling percussion and climatic euphoria doesn’t lie far from their later hits like ‘Story of My Life’.
Thanks for having me. Love you. H
— Harry Styles. (@Harry_Styles) April 7, 2017
However, it’s very distinctly not One Direction. In joining the Sad White Boy Club™, Styles is careful to distinguish himself sonically (as this does not happen so much aesthetically) from artists like James Bay. A few weeks ago, Styles’ management teased that his debut sounded like “David Bowie meets Queen” – a pretty huge and uncomfortable sounding feat to attempt to achieve. In the build-up to ex-bandmate Zayn Malik’s debut single ‘Pillowtalk’, Malik’s glossy new sound was compared to contemporary music royalty Justin Timberlake – something we could all get on-board with, something safe and expected which promised a well-crafted R&B banger. Zayn delivered, and whether he produced the ‘better’ debut single is still to be contested.
There is a conscious use of 70s rock allusions and, before some old fart has a knee-jerk reaction to the “David Bowie meets Queen” headlines before even hearing the track, it really does work.
There is always something so awkward and cringe-worthy in comparing oneself to some of the greatest artists of our time (though, personally, I am not a Queen fan by any means), but the influences are undeniably there and completely unavoidable. The musical progression of the record evokes Queen from the very first chords right until the rhapsodic conclusion. Lyrically, Styles mirrors something that could’ve easily come from the pen of Walters/Gilmour (just stop your crying it’s the sign of the times / welcome to the final show, I hope you’re wearing your best clothes) in a very of-age reaction to the current political climate. Stylistically, there is something very Bowie about the song’s apocalyptic and out-of-this-world nature. There is a conscious use of 70s rock allusions and, before some old fart has a knee-jerk reaction to the “David Bowie meets Queen” headlines before even hearing the track, it really does work.
It’s curious to consider what the reception would be to Styles if we separated him from his musical history and, in a deaf amnesia, considered him as a new artist. Would his old fans – most of whom have grown out of the Styles hysteria (I say most, as here I am) – have such a feverish reaction to ‘Sign of the Times’? Would the song be hailed as something great by the likes of NME or Radio X? Or would I – not usually a fan of the Sad White Boy™ balladeer – enjoy it at all if it was released by a new artist or someone like James Bay? Is this another example of mediocre pop music that obliterates the chart, or is it something quite good that deserves a bit of attention? ‘Sign of the Times’ is clouded with uncertainty because people aren’t quite sure how they should react: there are a lot of questions that fans and critics don’t know how to answer.
As a song both liberated and restrained by its context within Styles’ wider musical history, it’s up for his audience to decide whether its good enough; it’s certainly a braver effort than we could have ever hoped it could be.
Now we await the live debut of the track on next week’s Saturday Night Live and that really creepy looking music video, which has already inspired many a meme, before the release of Styles’ first album later this year. We can only hope ‘Sign of the Times’ will satisfy audiences enough until then. As a song both liberated and restrained by its context within Styles’ wider musical history, it’s up for his audience to decide whether its good enough; it’s certainly a braver effort than we could have ever hoped it could be.
Do you agree with Georgia’s take on Harry Styles’ debut single? Let us know in the comments below or via social media.