Boy bands and girl groups have been splitting up almost as long as boy bands and girl groups have been around. As the dust settles, when the fans’ weeping and gnashing of teeth subside, the popularity and commercial success of a now splintered band ensures a ready-made audience (or market – to be more mercenary about it) for any individual member that wishes to continue making music.
We know that great artists can and have come from pop bands. Michael Jackson, George Michael and Beyoncé all started their careers in bands. No one would dispute their contribution to modern music. Even if someone doesn’t enjoy acclaim straight away, critical attitudes can change given time. When Justin Timberlake first started releasing music as a solo artist universal acclaim didn’t just fall into his lap. Once presented with knowledge that his creative partnership with Timbaland was so collaborative, hats were doffed in Timberlake’s direction.
That said, creative input is not a necessary factor when judging the work of a girl or boy band. A succession of assured and varied pop singles can do wonders for critical acclaim – just ask Girls Aloud or Sugababes (versions 2 and 3, mostly). Good will is extended to former members of these groups, should any more of them emerge with solo projects. One Direction, while having had a similar birth to Girls Aloud, have never been afforded the same recognition. But being huge, especially in America, means that music press and pop commentators are eager to find out what they would do next.
Zayn Malik jumped ship before the split happened and was first out of the traps with Pillowtalk – a thoroughly modern r’n’b song, with all the detail and high production standards of a Drake or The Weeknd single. After that, Niall Horan brought out the acoustic This Town in the slipstream of Ed Sheeran. Louis Tomlinson was next, providing vocals for a Steve Aoki club tune. So far, so unremarkable.
Two weeks ago Harry Styles released his debut single – Sign of the Times. Details emerged in March that his forthcoming album would include nods to David Bowie and Queen. While that has yet to be heard, all we have to judge him on is two songs – the single and the bluesy, country-tinged Ever Since New York, which he performed on Saturday Night Live at the weekend.
With six credited writers and two producers it’s difficult to give Styles the kudos (if any is on offer) for Sign of the Times. While some of us know that great things can come from pop stars working with great writers, holders of more militant anti-pop sentiment are only too happy to point out that this is music created by committee and that anyone who likes it is falling for marketing. These charges are all true. This is a product manufactured to do a job and it does that job. Whereas most music is contrived, Sign of the Times feels a touch calculated. Two of the six credited writers also turn their hand to producing and were drafted in to engineer the song to exact specifications. These men – Jeff Bhasker and Tyler Johnson – have worked with a dazzling array of clients; Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Kanye West, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Drake, Leona Lewis, Alicia Keys, Robin Thicke, Mary J Blige, Lana Del Rey, Pink, Taylor Swift, Dido, One Republic and John Legend. Jeff Bhasker has five Grammys sitting on his mantelpiece.
Given those artists as markers for the kind of song that Styles might release, it’s refreshing to note that it doesn’t very much sound like one might expect. If you’ve not heard it, it’s well over 5 minutes long, begins for all the world like Stereophonics attempting an Embrace piano ballad but happily, it builds from there to a stout-hearted rock ballad that has had people citing Bon Jovi, Bryan Adams, Oasis and Meatloaf. Most interestingly it has a few magnificent touches that prevent it from plodding the whole way through. It’s not something a One Direction fan would expect. But defying expectations is one of this song’s strengths. It tries hard to be epic and almost achieves that.
On the downside, lyrically it is poor. It spans the range from trite to peculiar. We’re supposed to be comforted by lines like “Everything’ll be all right“, “We don’t talk enough“, “We gotta get away from here” and other useless advice. The falsetto sections seem strangely fixated by bullets. It’s here that the writers really should have made more effort. Pair this with all the touchstones of ‘70s rock – massed choirs, strings, double-tracked vocals, pre-chorus drum fills – and all indications are that Sign of the Times is nothing more than a well studied pastiche. It does build rather well and depending on how generous you are, it does a reasonable job displaying some dynamism in the top line vocal.
But Sign of the Times hasn’t been released in a vacuum. The timing of this release creates a context within which it can be assessed. The charts of 2017 have been deluged with Ed Sheeran songs and tropical house tracks. If you don’t know what that is – it’s a sort of chill out genre with syncopated and exotic percussion, Balearic guitar, and (eugh) pan-pipe. Even some of Sheeran’s recent songs have been infected by that sound. The Top 40 has not been this homogenous since the 1950s – so much so that when Steps re-emerged with their disco-tastic Scared of the Dark in March it was greeted with joy in many quarters. Sign of the Times has been attracting praise purely because it doesn’t sound like everything else around at the moment.
There’s also been a backlash against Styles. Early reports of his immanent debut contained references to David Bowie. An emotive proposition given that Bowie’s status has almost now been elevated to god-like since his passing, last year. There may be vague stylistic similarities but no one is seriously thinking that this guy could follow in Bowie’s footsteps. For comparison, someone like Lady Gaga was much closer to being the new David Bowie for about two years at the turn of the decade. And that suggestion didn’t happen after just one song. In essence, and to be generous almost to the point of apologetic, Harry Styles hasn’t paid his dues yet.
On top of that, it can feel pretty galling to any emerging or struggling artist to see the likes of Styles being handed a successful solo career on a plate. He didn’t have to write his own song, he’s had oceans of coverage, a spot on Saturday Night Live and the controversial comparison to Mr Bowie to attract listeners who would not normally be interested in music from a one-time boy band member. Then again, for well over 50 years careers, coverage and stardom have landed at the feet of a multitude of individuals and bands that may not have necessarily worked for it. You can either take this as part of the reality of the music industry or continue to bemoan that fact and in the process become an old grouch. Choosing the first option allows you to be unencumbered by the idea of authenticity and perhaps even – shock horror – enjoy some of pop music’s riches.
In one sense, Harry could be framed as the next step in the approximation process that went The Beatles – Oasis – Embrace; a spot that has been occupied by Robbie Williams at various times over the last two decades but never quite had this much classicism piled on top. Sign of the Times is a sort-of 7th generation photocopy of Hey Jude; a tick box exercise for every aspect of an epic rock ballad.
He’s got lucky, though. Our standards have dropped and the bar has been set low. Right now, ears are ready for it more than they have been in a long time. He’s taking advantage of that and it’s hard not hope for a new, interesting, male pop star when we’ve had precious few in recent years. Harry Styles might just have what it takes.