Eleven years later, the cheekiest of the line-up, Harry Styles, is preparing to make his way back to Dublin. And when he steps on stage at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow (Wednesday) it will not be as a Simon Cowell protege or Snow Patrol karaoke act — but as a pop sensation.
It’s been a breathtaking journey — from reality TV poppet to the world’s most credible male pop star. He has transcended his boy-band origins and achieved true musical credibility. And, along the way, become one of the most streamed artists in history. It’s an incredible story.
This isn’t how it usually plays out for boyband singers. With just one or two exceptions, they rarely get within coughing distance of respectability. Ronan Keating could never escape the shadow of Boyzone. Robbie Williams was able to outgrow Take That only by becoming the clown-prince of mass entertainment. He was a joker first, artist second. Aside from Justin Timberlake, Styles is in unexplored territory.
But even if new, there is also something familiar about his music. Rather than aping Snow Patrol on his latest album, Harry’s House, he celebrates the sleepy 1970s pop of artists such as Harry Nilsson and James Taylor. And especially Joni Mitchell, after whom the new record is named (Harry’s House/Centrepiece is a track from her 1975 album, The Hissing Of Summer Lawns).
“Love the title,” tweeted Mitchell after Styles had announced the new LP. This isn’t the first time he has attached himself to rock royalty: he’s duetted on several occasions with Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks, another icon who was at the height of her powers long before 28-year-old Styles was born.
He’s also performed alongside singer and rapper Lizzo and country stars Shania Twain and Kacey Musgraves. And even before the break up of One Direction, he’d written a song for Dublin’s Kodaline. Were he to collaborate with U2 or Paul McCartney the sense is that he would be doing them a favour rather than the other way around.
Styles’ star power is thus unsurpassed. Not even Ed Sheeran can combine his level of artistic credibility and commercial success. And he has done so without compromising his artistic vision. Harry’s House, for instance, is unrecognisable from the chart dreck he was pumping out with One Direction.
Styles, co-writing with his regular collaborator Kid Harpoon (real name Tom), moves languidly between light funk (Music for a Sushi Restaurant) and an understated pastiche of 1990s artist Jamiroquai (Grapejuice). And on As It Was he sings about prescription drug addiction (“Why are you sitting on the floor... what kind of pills are you on?”). He’s going to places many mainstream pop stars would not venture. Can you imagine Taylor Swift singing bout prescription drug addiction? Or Ed Sheeran?
Is this radical honesty the secret to his success? Styles has admitted that, during the One Direction years, he stressed constantly about mucking up his big opportunity. With the band having taken an open-ended break, he had to overcome his anxiety all over again recording his self-titled first solo album, released in 2017. But with time he grew to realise that not every song has to be a potential smash. That it was okay to sometimes confuse, or even disappoint his audience. Vulnerability could be an asset, rather than a liability. Ever since he’s rarely looked back.
“Part of being on the last tour, when people came to watch the show, I realised ‘Oh, these people just want to see me be myself, and I’m telling them to be themselves’,” he told the Observer in 2021.
And that ability to exude a comfort in his own skin may be the secret ingredient. There are pop stars of every personality type — from earnest striver Ed Sheeran to best-in-class Taylor Swift. But Styles’ talent may lie in the way he has steamrolled the charts — he has 74 million monthly listeners on Spotify — while coming across as thoroughly relaxed. It’s a quality that is particularly obvious if you’ve ever seen him in concert. He’s just great fun to watch and his music doesn’t fall over itself trying to win you over.
Styles was born in Redditch, near Birmingham, in 1994. His parents divorced when he was seven and he moved with his mother to Holmes Chapel, just outside Manchester. By age 16, he was fronting his own band, White Eskimo and working part-time in a bakery. In April 2010 he auditioned for X Factor where he scraped through the first round (Louis Walsh felt he was too young and said that he was doing Styles a favour by saying ’no’; however, he was outvoted by Simon Cowell and Nicole Scherzinger.)
After that came One Direction. And within a year of his X Factor try-out , he was on stage in Dublin alongside Niall Horan and bandmates, crooning Snow Patrol amid a blizzard of screams.
There have been some bumps along the way. One of the first things Styles figured out after One Direction is that he liked to dress androgynously. All his public relationships have been with women — Taylor Swift is rumoured to have written I Knew You Were Trouble about their romance — and so he has been accused of “queer baiting”. That is, implying that he is gay or bisexual without actually coming out and saying it — in order to score kudos.
But there’s another way of looking at this. Which is that there’s nothing wrong with a straight man exploring and expressing his femininity — or even wearing nail polish or makeup. If he isn’t threatened by it, why should anyone else be ? And doesn’t that say more about the person who feels they need to point and stare than it does about Styles? Styles himself has tried to stay above the argument, saying that his orientation is his own business but really doesn’t matter anyway.
“I’ve been really open with it with my friends, but that’s my personal experience; it’s mine,” he told Better Homes and Gardens. “The whole point of where we should be heading, which is toward accepting everybody and being more open, is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s about not having to label everything, not having to clarify what boxes you’re checking.”
Whatever about his sexuality, as a pop star Styles has excelled at being himself. And it has brought him success the likes of which his One Direction bandmates can only dream (Niall Horan is doing fine but it’s impossible to imagine him selling out the Aviva).
And so, a singer who, just over a decade ago was delivering Snow Patrol karaoke, has written his own script and become one of those rare pop stars to combine true credibility with white hot popularity — whilst also retaining an essential air of mystery. And it’s why tomorrow night’s Aviva show will be just another chapter in the rise and rise of a performer who has defied gravity to soar above his contemporaries.