Harry Styles broke two musical curses. On one hand, the former One Direction singer has had international solo success. He’s survived the third album’s commercial challenge. Harry’s House topped charts in the UK and US. Even in the US, where British artists struggle, he sold 182,000 vinyl copies in a week.
Harry Styles auditioned for the seventh season of The X Factor in July 2010. He was 16 and led a pop-punk band with classmates called White Eskimo. On Saturdays, he worked at a bakery. He sang Stevie Wonder’s Isn’t She Lovely and after that, he got to the next level.
Niall Horan, Liam Payne, Louis Tomlinson, and Zayn Malik also went to the next round. They all wanted to compete in the 16-to-27-year-old male soloist category. However, no one anticipated their elimination. Simon Cowell soon suggested the five boys continue as a group and at that moment, 1D was formed.
The show’s YouTube videos demonstrate how the fan phenomenon began, dazzling teenagers week after week. After the group came in third, Cowell signed them to Syco Music and orchestrated a world dominance strategy. Their first single, What Makes You Beautiful, topped the charts on September 24, 2011. It debuted at number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following February. Not since Wannabe, Bittersweet Symphony, and Are You Jimmy Ray has a British artist debuted so high on the US singles chart.
The group had four UK number-one hits. Except for 2011, all of their albums reached #1. Five of their albums topped the Billboard 200. 1D sold 70 million albums. Interminable tours and media pressure wore them down, as they often do in bands with different personalities, egos, and sensibilities. Zayn Malik left during a tour of Asia in March 2015. One Direction announced an indefinite hiatus in January 2016 after their final album.
Rockdelux journalist Alvaro Garcia Montoliu describes the 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.”
Harry Styles acted wisely. With 41-year-old Justin Timberlake facing an image crisis, Styles has become the world’s greatest former boy-band idol.
“I would love to say that I intuited from day one that he would succeed, but Zayn was 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.
On April 7, 2017, Styles’ image changed. Sign of the Times, his first single, was released that day. “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.” Fine Line and Harry’s House are both number one in the UK and US.
“I have the feeling that he does what he wants. He directs his path and has total freedom, which is fascinating,” adds 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 realized that he was more than just a product. We’re dealing with a songwriter and a singer who continues to evolve.”