Harry Styles Mercury win would cement place of pop’s critical darling

Former boyband heart-throb playing at Madison Square Garden on the night as part of a critically acclaimed residency

When the winner of this year’s Mercury prize is announced in London next month, Harry Styles will be nowhere to be found. Rather than rub shoulders with fellow nominees, including the Oscar-nominated actor Jessie Buckley and acclaimed geordie singer-songwriter Sam Fender, the former One Direction member will be in New York, performing at Madison Square Garden as part of a critically acclaimed 15-show residency.

Most artists dream of the boost in popularity that comes with a Mercury win – not to mention the accompanying £25,000 cheque. But Styles, whose nominated album has sold about 100,000 more copies than its closest rival, Fender, is playing a different game.

Released in May, Harry’s House is already the biggest album of the year. It debuted at No 1 in the UK – one of only three 2022 Mercury nominees to reach the summit – and stayed there for six weeks, beating Adele’s 30 and Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour to become the longest-running chart leader of the decade so far. In the US, Harry’s House notched 521,500 album-equivalent units in its first week, the largest sales week of any album this year, and produced four Top 10 singles, including the No 1, As It Was.

As well as being a commercial hit, Harry’s House has received glowing reviews from a broad spectrum of the music press. It’s hard to think of a recent Mercury nominee to have enjoyed this mix of critical acclaim, sales and popularity both sides of the Atlantic.

Harry Styles performs on the Coachella stage in April 2022.
Harry Styles performs on the Coachella stage in April 2022. Photograph: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella

Styles’ transformation from boyband heart-throb to critically acclaimed rocker did not happen overnight. In the seven years since One Direction disbanded, the 28-year-old has worked hard to cement himself as a kind of spiritual heir to the classic rock throne, eschewing modern pop trappings in favour of Jagger-indebted showmanship and a sound that, in turn, references Led Zeppelin, Laurel Canyon folk and Britpop. Styles is an unashamed throwback artist, down to the way his image is exalted and picked over in the media: for his first Rolling Stone cover story, he was profiled by the famed rock critic Cameron Crowe, writer and director of Almost Famous, while a breathless review of his first album in NPR described him as “rock’s saviour”.

“We have a cultural shorthand for pop artists being taken seriously, and it’s playing a guitar, not singing to a backing track,” says Brodie Lancaster, a cultural critic who has written extensively on One Direction, and who gave a keynote speech on boybands at the 2016 EMP Pop Conference. Styles’ self-titled, 2017 solo debut started what Lancaster calls “a very considered and deliberate campaign to have him seem like an indie artist who was on the up with his own music.”

Since his days as an X Factor contestant back in 2010, Styles’ success has been bolstered by an army of obsessive fans, most of them young women, who track his movements, promote his songs and keep his name atop Twitter’s trending topics chart. His relationship with his fans is one built on mutual respect. In interviews, he defends them from misogynistic tropes about fangirls, and Boyfriends, a song from Harry’s House, speaks directly to them: “Boyfriends / They take you for granted / They don’t know they’re just misunderstanding you.”

Harry Styles, second from right, with his fellow One Direction bandmates in Battersea, London, 2010.
Harry Styles, second from right, with his fellow One Direction bandmates in Battersea, London, 2010. Photograph: Beretta/Sims/Rex Features

“The engagement he has with his fans is largely at concerts – fans will communicate with him via posters that say [things like] I want to come out to my parents,” says Lancaster. “He’s been known to give them the moment to announce that to the arena.”

In recent years, Styles has also become known for his eye-popping, gender-bending outfits, which have included bright feather boas, patterned suits and, on the cover of Vogue, a Gucci dress. Rachel Seville Tashjian, fashion news director at Harper’s Bazaar US, says Styles, along with his stylist Harry Lambert, has helped usher in an era of “very colourful, almost provocative” fashion.

“[Styles] is willing to wear designers that aren’t necessarily household names,” she says, citing the American brand Bode as a label whose profile Styles helped boost. “He’s very enthusiastic about wearing not only designers that we haven’t heard of, but silhouettes or shapes from them that are kind of unorthodox for someone who is a young, white male.”

Styles’ flamboyant fashion sense, as well as his ongoing refusal to label his sexual orientation publicly, has led some on the internet to accuse him of “queerbaiting” – the act of co-opting supposedly queer aesthetics in order to win fans and clout. Tashjian suggests that these accusations are missing the point. “I can’t overstate – especially having worked at GQ – how significant it just is to see men wearing skirts, and to see that as something joyful and pleasurable and even casual,” she says. “He’s someone who seems to understand the potential impact of the silhouettes that he’s wearing.”

Harry Styles on the set of My Policeman in Brighton, 2021.
Harry Styles on the set of My Policeman in Brighton, 2021. Photograph: Karwai Tang/WireImage

More recently, criticisms of Styles’ relationship with the LGBTQ+ community has gone beyond fashion. Earlier this week, comments he made about his role in the forthcoming adaptation of Bethan Roberts’ My Policeman, a period piece about two men falling in love when homosexuality was still a criminal offence, sparked outrage and ridicule. Styles said the film was “not like ‘This is a gay story about these guys being gay’,” and said it would feature more “tenderness” in its sex scenes than the average gay drama. “It’s disappointing … to read Styles downplaying the film’s queerness in a way that smacks of a past era’s panic,” wrote Guy Lodge in the Guardian this week.

Still, it’s a mild controversy compared with those experienced by many pop stars of Styles’ ilk. The past year of Styles’ career has, by all measures, been a raging success; the next 12 months are likely to be, too. Days before the Mercury is announced, Don’t Worry Darling, a psychological thriller in which Styles stars opposite Florence Pugh, directed by his girlfriend, Olivia Wilde, will premiere at the Venice film festival, and My Policeman arrives a month later. Meanwhile, Styles will take up further residencies at stadiums across America, including a 15-night run at the Forum in Los Angeles. A Mercury win for Harry’s House wouldn’t be life-changing for Styles by any means – but it would be the cherry on top of a charmed year.


Shaad D'Souza

The GuardianTramp

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