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Styles Of The Times

May 16, 2017
Originally published on June 1, 2017 8:33 am

The architects of teen idoldom have always known that more than music, though perhaps less than good orthodontic work, the clothes make the boy. The shirt of a heartthrob needs to be soft and ever so slightly rumpled, offering visual evidence that if it were removed and tossed onto a floor (say, in a dressing room as its owner heads into a post-show shower), it could be grabbed and held like a treasured lovey blanket, emitting a scent just on the verge of sour, yet intoxicating: a blend of tree fort and licorice and ropy muscles, of girls' letters written in felt pen. The perfume of a young man's pleasure at merely being alive.

What made the boy was a polo shirt in the 1950s, a turtleneck in the 1960s, something polyester during the disco era. Gloria Stavers put Jim Morrison in her own fur jacket when she posed him for the cover of the magazine she edited, 16; the designer Bill Whitten put Michael Jackson in sequined jumpsuits that made him seem like light itself. As the teen male physical ideal was reshaped by gym rat practices and creatine, the fashions became simpler, to better show off honed physiques. By the mid-2000s the perfect teen idol outfit was more an ideal than a fashion statement: a white t-shirt, somehow never sullied — the ultimate sign of easeful male privilege. The one Harry Styles most frequently wore as the shaggy-haired main libidinal force in the boy band One Direction was a little loose but definitely clingy, sleeves rolled up so his fresh tattoos peeked through, possibly pulled out of a heap but somehow never wrinkled.

Styles has worn a variation of this shirt since trying out for the X Factor in 2010, when he covered it up with a scarf and a cardigan. (Maybe Simon Cowell, his mentor and white t-shirt devotee himself, convinced Styles of its magical powers.) His short-lived romance with the equally precocious and popwise Taylor Swift was defined by it when she immortalized the shirt in her song "Style". On his self-titled solo debut, out last week, he answers her with his own t-shirt-centric "Two Ghosts."

Styles also wore a t-shirt on the cover of Rolling Stone, for a feature that officially signaled his coming of age. That one, however, had an orange collar and was a little dingy, not shiningly bleached. It was an indie rock t-shirt, the kind Kurt Cobain wore when he was demolishing the value of manufactured teen pop back in the 1990s. It placed Styles in time, within the same lineage that the magazine featuring him had helped canonize: the illustrated history of rock.

In 1972, David Cassidy also grew up on the cover of Rolling Stone. The cherubic star of the rock and roll sitcom The Partridge Family was a huge star that year, riding a couple of Billboard Top 40 singles, selling out sports arenas, and fighting off groupies in the lobbies of the hotels that served as his home. At 22, he was ready to make a leap into something more meaningful — he wanted to act in movies and TV shows "with meaning," and in his off hours, he strummed his guitar and studied the music of Crosby, Stills and Nash. To signal this maturation, Cassidy gave a frank interview to journalist Robin Green, revealing his aspirations, his struggles with anxiety, and his mixed feelings about the rock world, which he felt excluded him because of his ardent young female fan base.

Cassidy spoke up for the girls who bought buttons and posters plastered with his face: "They're not that stupid. You can only hype them to a certain degree. There has to be something there.... They can't just manufacture someone and expect him to be big and successful." He talked about being raised in a Hollywood family, taking acid in the L.A. canyons as a teenager, then making his own way in New York, where he got serious about his craft. Green portrayed him as a loner who survived on canned peaches in his house in Encino, meeting groupies on the road who had sex with him but thought his Vegas-style act was uncool. Though his defense of his fans still resonates, his scorn for the industry that made them love him is palpable. Teen idoldom, in 1972, was a prison; rock and roll was on the other side of the wall.

Green's excellent probe into Cassidy's world is mostly forgotten today, but the photographs that accompanied the feature are immortal. To say what he did in their interviews and have his words taken seriously, Cassidy had to challenge his own image as a musical toy whose moving parts were pulled from a backlot costume rack. He did this in the most drastic and logical way. The portraits Annie Leibovitz shot show Cassidy recumbent, arms overstretched or grasping his own chest. He is nude. In one, bushy pubic hair skims the bottom of the frame. At first glance, with his long shag and lean torso, Cassidy could be Iggy Pop or Patti Smith. In the 1970s, getting naked was a common way to show one's daring — heavy metal bands did it on album covers, loving couples did it in the illustrations for sex manuals, streakers did it across athletic fields. But Cassidy's nudity accomplished something else: It pulled him out of the milieu that had defined him and made him seem innocent as a fawn, with his whole life ahead of him instead of stuck within a showbiz tradition that he had no interest in trying to redeem.

In 2017, Harry Styles is doing things differently. One Direction, the Cowell-constructed boy band that brought him superstardom, always salted its music with rock reference points, borrowing hooks and riffs from beloved bands like Big Star. Emerging as the band's front man, Styles led the charge in this reclamation of a history teen idols have always been denied. His Rolling Stone fashion spread takes the claim further. Shot by magazine founder and baby-boomer icon Jann Wenner's son Theo, Styles dresses in the finery of rock's legacies: not just that t-shirt borrowed from grunge, but a Carnaby Street style black suit designed by the late post-punk fashion maverick Alexander McQueen and a punkish ripped-jeans-and-bandana look that makes him look like a youthful Mick Jones of the Clash. He also appears in a high-necked lace top that places him within the queer continuum of current trendsetters like Perfume Genius.

As Cassidy did, Styles also stands up for his female fans. But he goes much farther than his more petulant forebear, who clearly felt exiled from rock by his teen associations. "Young girls like The Beatles," he told his interviewer, the filmmaker and journalist Cameron Crowe. "You gonna tell me they're not serious? How can you say young girls don't get it? They're our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going."

Crowe's lengthy feature on Styles is a key element in the rollout of the self-titled solo album that's getting him crowned the genre-saving king of popified rock. That's the circle of life in the land of teen idoldom, a space that's changed a lot since Cassidy's day. Rolling Stone has played a role in teen pop's slow legitimation. Myriad idols have sought the coveted cover spot as part of proving their bona fides. Michael Jackson, ever precocious, claimed it in 1971; the headline read, "Why Does This 11-year-old Stay Up Past His Bedtime?" George Michael, still trying to transcend Wham! In 1988, brooded gorgeously over line, "No More Kid Stuff." Christina Aguilera posed naked, but with a legitimizing guitar, in 2002 (women's nudity, unfortunately, often reads more like the sexist status quo on these covers than an act of self-determination.) And the list goes on: The Spice Girls, Usher, Warped Tour type bands like Panic! At the Disco, all lengthily considered not simply as commercial juggernauts but as artists within pop's changing cultural milieu.

Cassidy never had a chance in the 1970s. Rock was still the dominant force in American pop, and even as they packed sports arenas, its denizens prided themselves on not pandering to the corporate music industry. For all of the sartorial glam androgyny that Styles has now adopted, rock and roll in its classic phase was a masculine form that relegated women to support roles. Pop never stopped belonging to girls, but as rock stars became more self-consciously artistic, they (and their packagers in media and the industry) started to downplay the influence of teen culture. The Sgt. Pepper Beatles became the paradigm, the Hard Day's Night moptops forgotten. To prove he wasn't "brain dead," George Michael told his Rolling Stone interviewer Steve Pond, he actually grew stubble. It was a "simplistic, very obvious way" to prove he was no longer a kid, nor for the kids.

Harry Styles's rapid ascent to the status of widely accepted genuine musical contender — his crowning by eager reviewers as everything from the new Frank Sinatra to "a true rock star," reflecting almost universal positive reviews — is something new, though not revolutionary. It locates rock as a social and stylistic force within pop, not superior or opposed to it. Styles, born the year rock's last acknowledged savior Kurt Cobain killed himself, was raised to think of rock sounds and styles as ingredients enhancing pop's appeal instead of either purifying or banishing it; he grew up loving Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac, he tells interviewers, and sees no contradiction in that. Like Swift, whose polymath abilities he clearly envies, Styles has no problem projecting rock's unusual mix of earnestness and cool without surrendering his pop-bred affability and graciousness. And having grown up within a teen-culture system that brands its human agents as intelligent and self-aware, Styles doesn't have to reject what he built with his idol band and his teen fans. Instead, he can embrace it as something enduring — in fact, as the ground of rock history itself.

Teen spirit started rock and roll, after all, with high school-produced doo wop sweeping the nation even before Elvis came along. The Beatles themselves certainly knew what they were on about, wittily making art of the mania surrounding them. Dion DiMucci, whose fine lost transitional album Kickin' Child just received its first release this week, is just one of several 1960s teen idols who held onto pop's charms while exploring new musical approaches. Yet for all its power as a seedbed, teen pop remained an environment artists sought to grow beyond until the late 1990s, when the place most wanted to go — the rock counterculture — finally started sputtering out.

An important caveat: This was true predominantly for white artists. In R&B and, later, hip-hop, the dividing line between teen and adult music has never been as strong. Girl groups spoke of youthful dramas, but the institutions that produced them — the Brill Building and Motown chief among them — always aimed for several demographics at once. Michael Jackson struggled personally with his own maturity, yet when he died in 2009, his childhood hits with the Jackson 5 echoed from mourning fans' stereo systems alongside his epochal adult work on Thriller and Bad. And despite the personal problems that have made him seem at times like the most immature of pop's "bad boys," Justin Bieber, who was mentored by Usher — one of the most successful African-American teen pop stars of the past thirty years — has made a smooth musical transition into adult pop by consistently showing mastery as an R&B vocalist and songwriter. The more seamless relationship between youthful and "grown" music within African American music is one reason that the adventurous 2016 solo debut by former One Direction member Zayn Malik wasn't greeted with the rapturousness his ex-bandmate is enjoying. No one was surprised that a heartthrob like Zayn, who is half-Pakistani and has always been styled as the One Direction member with the closest affinity to hip-hop, could make cutting-edge R&B music.

In the rock-adjacent world, it was the Spice Girls — the 1990s version of One Direction, and in many ways a self-conscious Beatles tribute act, though the vocal quartet's many detractors would have never accepted that — that engaged with postmodern pastiche to cast teen music in a light that made it not an enemy of sophistication, but its conduit. Influenced by Asian pop at its most wackily self-reflexive and in tandem with Britpop bands like Oasis and Blur, the first bands to approach rock's archive the way hip-hop producer claimed the sounds they sampled, the once-derided Spice Girls now seem highly prescient. Styles's music doesn't sound anything like the Spice Girls, but his personal style recalls the group's theatrical parade through pop's sartorial heritage; in costume, he doesn't signal outrageousness the way rock stars like early Bowie or Mick Jagger did, but comfort with fashion's way of telling stories through artful accessories.

Musically, Harry Styles fits in with Britpop, rock's most pastiche-driven subgenre. Thought the album has earned endless comparisons to classic rockers like Rod Stewart and glam pioneers like Bowie, it doesn't sound anything like those artists' key albums, which were not produced digitally and ride on a live energy very different from this one's clean, subtle mix of elements. Songs like "Sign of the Times" much more closely mirror Britpop anthems like Blur's "Tender" or the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" than anything Bowie released in his prime. And there's no bottom on this album, none of the whomping beat that lent glam its irresistible rudeness. Rolling Stone critic Rob Sheffield's invocation of soft rock is more apt, especially when it comes to ballads like "Meet Me in the Hallway"; he's following the path of Ed Sheeran on tracks like that one, updating the troubadour confessions of James Taylor with subtle hip-hop production elements.

When Styles does throw back to something resembling classic rock, as he does on the mid-album designated party cuts "Only Angel" and "Kiwi," he lands in the one spot where rock happily opened up to teenpop influences before Britpop: 1980s hair metal. Those two songs almost do have a bottom, and are aptly reminiscent of Def Leppard, the British band that, in partnership with the old school genre-busting producer Mutt Lange, made what Rolling Stone itself has called the greatest hair metal album of all time: 1987's Hysteria, a shockingly successful attempt to stuff Michael Jackson's ambition and versatility into a tight pair of Spandex pants. The only negative aspect of Styles's embrace of the fun and flash of Def Leppard is that along with their sound, he's grabbed a handful of their vintage sexist attitudes about women. Styles's growls about "dirty girls" who threaten him with unwanted pregnancies are one element of his colorful costuming he'd do best to leave behind.

Yet though they strut their way into rock's clichés, even those songs emanate a seamless approach to genre. This quashing of categories is not only the common move of the Top 40 in the streaming era, but also the essence of teen pop, which, in its attempts to serve young listeners not yet locked into their own musical loyalties, has always been fluid, gravitating toward whatever sounds tickle the ear and excite the feet.

Though directed at an audience supposedly preoccupied with dividing into tribes, teen pop — like hip-hop, which has often merged with it, from Kriss Kross to Rae Sremmurd — is an open form, more engaged with whatever seems novel than with any particular lineage. Styles presents himself as a savant of such novelty. So did the best Britpop artists, whether they would ever admit their connections to teen pop or not: Damon Albarn continues this pursuit of inexhaustible eclecticism in Gorillaz today. Britpop's appropriation a hip-hop sensibility, in particular changed rock, and represents the mood that in 2017 propels hits by artists across categories, from bands like Young the Giant and OneRepublic to R&B remodelers like Bruno Mars to country mold-breakers like Keith Urban. It's no accident that Jeff Bhasker, the producer who bottled the magic that makes Harry Styles a universal crowd-pleaser, has worked with all of those artists.

This is why Harry Styles really might be rock's savior: He's not a rock artist. Instead, he's a pop polymath, like Adele, whose warm, emotionally resonant vocal tone he can nearly match; or like Rihanna, whose bulletproof nonchalance he emulates in his seamless encounters with the media. He's also an emblematic millennial, projecting entitlement but not grandiosity, simply claiming space wherever his laptop and hair products fit on the counter. Forming the persona that best suits his roving psyche, he's collecting himself in bits and pieces. "I always said, at the very beginning, all I wanted was to be the granddad with the best stories ... and the best shelf of artifacts and bits and trinkets," he told Crowe during his Rolling Stone victory lap. Bits and trinkets, electrified: That's the naked truth of rock and roll.

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