From Elvis Presley to David Bowie and Elton John; musicians have a unique ability to embody and inform the zeitgeist.
If you started your journey in 2010 (as I did) and followed the trajectory of One Direction, from the collective’s formation to a third-place finish on British X-Factor, you will know how far the group has come. The success of One Direction was proof that a British boy band— who made chart-topping pop and was marketable to hoards of teenage girls— was exactly what the world needed at the time. An easier claim to make now with the benefit of hindsight, especially given the severity of the current climate. But with five studio albums and multiple Brit, MTV Video Music, Billboard Music and Teen Choice Awards under their belts, plus sold-out stadium shows all over the world, there was no denying their influence.
As One Direction dissolved, the need for a different kind of celebrity emerged. While Zayn Malik heavily emulated The Weeknd with an alternative style of R&B, the likes of Liam Payne, Niall Horan, and Louis Tomlinson descended into the generic ranks of pop music.
This is where Harry Styles found himself.
With the release of his eponymous solo album in 2017, Styles began a musical exploration that spilled over into fashion and beauty— a transformation that made him an accidental but inexplicable cultural icon for a new generation.
This slow but sure development presented itself on red carpets and at award shows. The transition from tailored neutral suiting to flares, pearl earring(s), and heels is nothing we haven’t seen before. It is, in fact, reminiscent of (albeit less extreme) Elton John’s passage from traditional male rockstar to a completely bedazzled Dodgers uniform— an iconic outfit which Styles himself veritably recreated for Halloween in 2018. This costume choice, making the parallels between the past and present icons even clearer.
Another arena in which he has further cemented himself as a darling of the fashion world is his music videos. From his moody breakout track, Sign of the Times to the 2020 verified banger, Watermelon Sugar (which he aptly dedicated to physical touch, released in the middle of the global COVID-19 lockdown), the artist is going from strength to strength. Continually breaking barriers in fashion and gender fluidity with every video release, Styles solidified his unique personal image with the release of the Golden video clip. Donning a sky blue double-breasted blazer, plaid pants and crochet gloves in one scene, multiple necklaces, a yellow bucket hat and belted high waisted flared pants in another, the artist’s outfit combinations have inevitably informed future ad campaigns for high fashion brands like Gucci; seen as the peak of Gen-Z cool and a brand with which he has already worked closely with.
In doing this, Styles artfully serves to break down gender stereotypes in fashion, flipping the narrative of what men can and should wear, including nail polish — painting a vastly different picture to that of his former bandmates, who intentionally or not, have carried on perpetuating a stereotype of toxic masculinity, doing everything they can to avoid breaking from the norm. Styles does this all without any concern or question of his sexuality, he merely is…another notion older generations, for the most part, struggle to grasp.
Fashion aside, Styles has clearly found his true self in a Gen-Z audience. His sun-drenched, vintage-esque videos shot on hand-held and film have informed — purposeful or not— a beloved Gen-Z aesthetic that has seen a huge resurgence on social media, proven by the launch of disposable camera app Dispo, by David Dobrik, amongst a sea of film albums posted to Instagram by celebrities and friends alike.
Similarly, Styles is on the pulse with politics. While celebrities have traditionally abstained from voicing their opinions, musicians have always existed in a different space — quite often using their voices and influence to shed light on issues. From Childish Gambino’s This Is America to Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ collaboration, Same Love, it is not uncommon for political messaging to be written into songs.
Coming out the otherside of the Trump Era (hopefully), Gen-Z have experienced some of the most significant social and cultural events of a generation, events which have directly impacted almost every aspect of their lives. From schooling, to how they engage with friends, to their purchasing decisions. Remaining unaffiliated is not an acceptable option for anyone looking to appeal to a Gen-Z audience, an audience who demand relatability, authenticity and guidance from their role models, especially in one of the most polarized and uncertain political periods in modern history.
During the Black Lives Matter protests, occurring across the US during the early days of the pandemic, Styles posted on his Instagram:
“I do things every day without fear, because I am privileged, and I am privileged every day because I am white. Being not racist is not enough, we must be anti racist. Social change is enacted when a society mobilizes. I stand in solidarity with all of those protesting. I’m donating to help post bail for arrested organizers.
Look inwards, educate yourself and others.
LISTEN, READ, SHARE, DONATE and VOTE.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
BLACK LIVES MATTER.”
While Styles is not the first or only voice that has lent itself to the Black Lives Matter movement, he has done so in a way that felt authentic and genuine; no mean feat in a time rife with accusations of performative activism. A concept that remains one of Gen-Z’s biggest gripes, understandable considering the nature and patterns of problematic influencers that have unfolded in recent years.
More recently he has been imploring his 35.6 million Twitter followers, of which a large percentage undoubtedly hails from the US, to “vote with kindness”, while sharing campaign imagery of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Despite being a British national, this speaks to the gravity of the upcoming American election and the ways in which it will trickle down on a global scale.
Amongst anxieties peaking on a global scale, Harry Styles is continually breaking down the expectations that preceded him. By consistently encouraging and pledging kindness in his own life (his merch reads “Treat people with kindness”), plus sharing resources to ignite lasting change, he has cemented his status with Gen-Z as someone worthy of their love, support and respect. That, and his silky smooth Cheshire accent.
Consider this a love letter. And if you’re not yet convinced, watch the Golden video below.