by Linnie Greene
I needed some serotonin, so I bought a $35 nosebleed seat in Madison Square Garden. That spring, my main association with Harry Styles had been antagonizing basic men at bars—declaring his genius, and then watching them go catatonic referencing Elliott Smith or Bowie’s Berlin years. I liked him enough that I could recognize the opening bars of “Sign of the Times” when it came on in a comic book shop, but could not tell you his hometown or a favorite One Direction single. I imagined June, months away, channeling my mother as she carted me to skeevy amphitheaters in Raleigh all those years ago.
I’m a Capricorn, Gemini ascendant; I’m a Nick Carter, Lance Bass rising. The smart girls I knew and loved bonded over our ardor for boy bands with their archetypal members: the sensitive one, the edgy one, the one with the weird bleached dreads (still a mystery, never to be solved). Whatever your tastes, whether you were team BSB or *NSYNC, age itself projects a certain worldliness; the boys in our middle schools were still slinging pogs. It’s the same way I tricked myself into believing older men, generally, were important. My fantasies with this rotating cast of crushes ran a gamut of different date nights, usually chaste: convertible rides, fireside cuddles, gifted jewelry and the faux-embarrassment of having large floral arrangements delivered in a public way.
I can name the qualities that brand a stan of some past-prime male pop group, but what makes a Harry Styles girl? She has a decidedly higher standard. She is evolved and less pedestrian, if the attendees at Madison Square Garden—many of whom had a style blogger’s easy swagger–were any indication. She doesn’t settle, as I once did, for basketball jerseys and JNCOs, nor ill-advised forays into hair bleaching, and she demands a more articulate idol than AJ in a leopard cowboy hat, musing on TRL, “A lot of the words was a whole lot deeper.” She’s much cooler than her 2002 equivalent, swapping “girl power” for womanism. At both of his recent Madison Square Garden shows, fans smuggled in giant Black Lives Matter banners to drape over the barricades on the front row, as they have done at shows throughout his brief solo career.
Perhaps she admires Harry’s fitted bell-bottom suits, particularly the brocade one with the red ribbons, and the fact that his backing band typically comprises at least two prodigiously talented women—Hot Chip’s Sarah Jones and Clare Uchima among them.
It isn’t that he’s sexless—far from it. The middle-aged mother-to-a-teen sitting next to me swooned, “Can you imagine touching him? I’d die.” It’s that he’s left of center, the kind of progressive Aquarian man I would wish for my younger self to fawn over. He seems to lack the trappings of toxic masculinity. It was difficult to know I was settling for a sub-par version of manhood when the better, more interesting evolution lay so far outside my imagination, or anyone else’s.
And though plenty of women imagine themselves as romantic fixtures in Styles’s constellation, I will bet that most would rankle at being depicted like sobbing acolytes. They aren’t. In a 2016 Rolling Stone article, he called teenage girls, “…our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”
When the planet seems close to implosion, that must be a powerful and grave investment in your worth—you’re not a demographic dreamed up by a label, but Atlas, holding up the sky.
The Harry Styles merch table speaks to the marketability of progressive pop. His fans demand more than shirtless photos, although those too have their popularity. Wedged between $60 sweatshirts embroidered with lyrics from “Sign of the Times” and “Kiwi” (the sleeve of the latter reads “I’m Having Your Baby”), a devotee can purchase a $35 graphic tee emblazoned with “Treat People With Kindness,” a GLSEN-supporting rainbow version of which is available on Styles’s website. As slogans go, it’s hardly divisive, but on the same day that Melania Trump sported a coat reading “I Don’t Really Care, Do U?” on her trip to visit children caged near the Mexican border, it was a comfort of sorts.
Similarly, I can’t deny the salutary effects of darkness falling in a roomful of 18,000 super fans, the mounting screams, the anticipation. Maybe this is what it’s like to join a megachurch. Everyone sings every word, with the sort of devotion that few artists will ever experience. Before anyone takes the stage, there are screams as One Direction’s “Olivia” plays over the loudspeakers and the fans sing word for word. Kacey Musgraves opens with a short set culled from her new country record, Golden Hour, plus the love-is-love anthem “Follow Your Arrow.”
When Harry appears, he peppers the ten songs from his only record with covers (Ariana Grande’s “Just A Little Bit of Your Heart” and a handful of One Direction hits), dividing the floor-level crowd mid-performance to do a few intimate songs at the other end of the arena. Like someone who’s spent their warm up to and actual adulthood on a stage, he’s ebullient and effortless, bantering in a charming British accent to wish fans happy birthday and expressing thanks to everyone present for showing up. Where else would we be? A sad Midtown happy hour, maybe, which I had declined eagerly the week before with a plausible excuse.
We’re all here because Harry Styles (and One Direction) were at worst a distraction; at best, an inspiration. Whether we imagined snogging the handsome fashion plate from James Cordon’s carpool karaoke or sang the lyrics to “Meet Me in the Hallway” alone in our beds at night, it didn’t and doesn’t matter. When we’re floating in space, completely adrift, we reach for a tether. I am not the first to call a pop song or the dreamy feeling it imparts a lifeline.
There is a camp that would dismiss Harry Styles outright because of all that he is—handsome, groomed for stardom, rich. These are probably the same people who would write off teen girls’ expertise as immaturity or group-think. But did your 50-year-old ass predict the rise of Beyoncé? Does Bill Callahan bring you, momentarily, into the fold of a community so hopeful and promising that you believe—even momentarily—in the possibility that things can be fixed? For me, it takes a giant stage and a venue where a flimsy cup of beer costs $12, and most of the people there aren’t drinking it. It takes younger women’s wild abandon to coax me out of my hard, protective shell, which calcifies a little more with every new bad thing.
And there are plenty of those bad things. What was just a germ during the days of bygone pop stars has mutated into a full-fledged epidemic. This country averages more than one school shooting a week. Black youths are shot by the cops with impunity. Trans- and gender-nonbinary teens face the dual threats of community violence and high statistical instances self-harm. It’s impossible to enumerate every catastrophe, and these middle- and high-school students dragging rainbow flags into the Harry Styles show are the ones who will remain to pick up the pieces. It’s on their shoulders, and yet, what levity. They telegraph joy, even as they fight.
Styles himself might be evolved, but he’s not yet radical; the hope is that he’s inching there. He signed the March for Our Lives petition and tweeted about it. He photographed a fan with a BLM sign and wrote a noncommittal caption (“love”), then, during this particular stint of shows, added a BLM sticker to his guitar. This was a direct result of his fans’ efforts, a well-documented, concerted push to call their idol into the movement, demand by demand. Perfect? No, but still a far cry from the depoliticized fare that were my only options as a North Carolina tween with dial-up AOL. Who knows what kind of icon he’d be without his fans’ insistence on certain questions? Maybe the type who doesn’t “really comment on politics” at all.
When the lights came up on Friday, my second viewing of the show thanks to a last-minute Stub Hub score, I found my way onto the crowded escalators and into the street. This time, I’d brought my roommate along, and we were mutually euphoric. On the train ride into Brooklyn, we rehashed the entire set—Musgraves’s and Styles’s duet of Shania Twain’s “Still the One,” Styles’s knockout cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”—and repeated the same refrain. The crowd was just so much cooler than we were at the same age. The world has changed so much, for better and worse. It was just as easy to log onto Etsy and score a rainbow baby tee as it had been for us to lurk the Delia’s store at the mall; discourses on race, gender, and identity took place openly, online and off. The future might portend something other than Armageddon.
In the days to come, I reached for language like something I could squeeze. It remained evasive, but there I was, removing literal dust from my laptop’s keyboard with a wet cloth. In the bright mornings after a sea of phones hovered like stars over the stage, adulthood feels no less terrifying than puberty.
The ones holding society aloft aren’t wizened. They aren’t marble-muscled men. They’re young women, teenaged girls, envisioning a possible present: equitable, joyful, where everyone is held to account and we choose the axes on which we base our identities. Maybe it’s all a fantasy. Maybe it’s a balm, an escape akin to a darkened stadium. Maybe it’s just a sign of the times.
Linnie Greene is a writer in Jersey City, NJ whose work has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, The LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. She savors astrology, pop music, and “Two Slow Dancers.” Read more at linniegreene.com or @linnievii.